Shouting ‘Fire’

J Street often likes to portray itself as the innocent victim of Jewish communal persecution. But this should not camouflage its self-serving role in kicking up the media circus that erupted recently when its president was barred from speaking at a suburban Boston synagogue.

The incident began when the leadership of Temple Beth Avodah in Newton Centre, Mass., acceded to the demands of what the congregation’s rabbi characterized as a “small, influential group” within the Reform congregation, by canceling a planned event at the synagogue with J Street’s president. This assuredly was not American Judaism’s finest hour. But neither was it on par with the Amsterdam Jewish community throwing Baruch Spinoza into cherem. The decision to cancel the event was reached by the leaders of a medium-sized suburban congregation acting only for their synagogue.

J Street’s president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, saw things differently, sending an e-mail broadside conveying an urgent warning: “Know that this is not an isolated example. All across the country, week in and week out, small numbers of right-wing activists and donors regularly intimidate synagogues, Hillels, and other communal institutions out of presenting views on Israel they don’t like.”

His message concluded in boldface: “We’ve had enough, and I hope you have too. It’s time to draw the line and say we simply won’t be silenced any more.”

Ben-Ami’s critical account of how the Jewish community handles dissent is not wholly inaccurate. But it is selectively incomplete. What he didn’t mention is that J Street is by no means a pariah. For starters, it’s a member of Boston’s Jewish Community Relations Council, whose longtime deputy director, Alan Ronkin, strongly criticized the temple’s action. J Street leaders have appeared in many Jewish institutions in and around Boston.

Nor did Ben-Ami’s e-mail include what he told The Boston Globe. The newspaper reported: “Ben-Ami said he was surprised by Beth Avodah’s 11th-hour decision to cancel. His appearances, he said, frequently provoke controversy, but rarely result in cancellations.” Notwithstanding the impression that Ben-Ami left in his e-mail, what happened in Newton was apparently a rare occurrence.

Ben-Ami repeated his alarmist analysis in an interview with WBUR, Boston’s public radio station. His e-mail blasts and media statements on the incident have gone viral on the Internet, treating a large and diverse audience around the world to a vastly overdrawn picture of how a small cadre of powerful autocrats had reduced American Jewry to a state of collective moral numbness. In a subsequent e-mail blast, Ben-Ami cited the WBUR interview along with the totality of press and media coverage of the incident as examples of J Street’s successes as it “leaped into action.”

J Street is by no means the first Jewish organization to exploit an outrageous act as a platform for tooting its own horn. But unlike most of the others, J Street uses the tactic against fellow Jews.

It’s hard to see how Ben-Ami’s portraying American Jewry as being bullied into silence helps Israel. It does, however, help J Street in its relentless drive for status, members and power. Plenty of American Jews oppose Israeli policies and lament what they perceive as their fellow Jews’ passivity in not challenging them. J Street never misses an opportunity to stoke this group’s anger to its own advantage.

These words are written more in sadness than in anger. I applauded when J Street came on the scene. Its views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict largely coincide with my own. Sadly, J Street has lost its way. Convinced that what’s good for J Street is good for Israel and American Jewry, it has undermined its integrity and, ultimately, its credibility. Playing the martyr may be good for J Street, at least in the short term. But it’s not good for the Jews.

Rabbi Ira Youdovin is executive vice president emeritus of the Chicago Board of Rabbis. Now retired, he chairs the Jewish Community Relations Council in Santa Barbara, Calif.

Written by

Ira Youdovin

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