As President Bush’s popularity plunged this week in the post-Hurricane Katrina polls, several academics were planning to boycott his keynote speech Wednesday at a gala dinner in Washington. The event, to be held at the National Building Museum, was held in celebration of the 350th anniversary of Jews in America.
The professors — including New York University historian Hasia Diner, Queens College sociologist Samuel Heilman and historian Leo Hershkowitz — said that they decided against attending the “Celebrate 350” dinner because honoring Bush “politicized” the occasion. They had been invited in their capacity as members of Celebrate 350’s academic advisory council.
Diner and Hershkowitz said last week that they were gathering signatures, from several other invitees who felt as they did, for a letter protesting Bush’s involvement.
“As historians, we’re committed to the truth, and here is someone whose administration has been based on lies and purveying falsehoods,” Diner said. “I see no reason to honor him. I couldn’t stand and give him that kind of respect.”
Bush was scheduled to receive the Celebrate 350 Commemorative Gold Medal at the dinner “in recognition of the remarkable role that America has played in the history of the Jewish people and the role that Jews have played in the history of America.” Organizers said the president would deliver a “major statement” on religious freedom. He also was expected to stop in at Washington’s historic 6th and I Street Synagogue for a photo opportunity.
Some 1,000 individuals were expected to attend the event, which culminated a year of lectures, exhibits and celebrations of American Jewish history. Former New York mayor Edward Koch was to receive the Emma Lazarus Statue of Liberty Award.
Planners said the idea of inviting the sitting president was given to contention throughout, but it won out because of precedent: The last two such celebrations featured a presidential speaker. The dinner planning was under way before Bush won re-election this past November.
President Theodore Roosevelt addressed the 250th anniversary celebration in 1905, and President Dwight David Eisenhower spoke at the 300th anniversary celebration in 1954, at which Irving Berlin played “God Bless America.”
The organizers of Celebrate 350 sharply rejected the dissidents’ view.
“Our sponsoring group is filled with people who do not approve of the president or his policies, but none of our group has doubted the importance of getting the president of the United States to speak to an occasion of this sort,” said Kenneth Bialkin, a Bush supporter who, as chairman of the American Jewish Historical Society, was a moving force behind the dinner.
Jonathan Sarna, a historian at Brandeis University who is Celebrate 350’s “scholar in residence,” said the dissidents’ stance showed “a lack of understanding of the nature of symbolism.”
“It’s like boycotting Yom Kippur because you don’t like the rabbi,” he said. “The rabbi’s only a temporary resident of the pulpit. It’s about 350 years of Jewish history in the United States, not about who’s the chief rabbi at the White House at the moment.”
The chairwoman of the Celebrate 350 academic advisory council, University of Michigan historian Deborah Dash Moore, said Monday that she is “not a Bush fan” but would be attending the event nevertheless, because she was “making a distinction” between honoring the office and the man.
“I suppose it will be an event filled with platitudes,” she said. “We would have done better with an ex-president.”