We have read and seen much recently about the way our society has been divided into warring tribes unwilling to hear each other. This was brought home to me recently and very painfully by an incident within my own tribe — indeed within my own intimate spiritual community.
When my wife Shulamit and I arrived in Washington 29 years ago, we joined a conservative synagogue in Potomac, Maryland. Over the years, we have taken a very active part in the growth of our community; we contributed as generously as we could and celebrated our sons’ bar mitzvahs there with great joy. Both of us became regular Torah readers. We are considered to be part of the relative small core group of regular service attendees.
We are also passionate supporters of Israel. We both made Aliyah in our twenties, became citizens and lived there for several years. I served in the Israel Defense Forces. We are fluent in Hebrew and visit our many family members and friends at least once a year, often more.
In 2012, I joined the staff of J Street, an organization that shares my passion for Israel and builds support for a two-state peace agreement with the Palestinians which we regard as the only just way to end the conflict while preserving Israel’s identity as a democracy and a homeland for the Jewish people. This has been a bipartisan stance shared by Republican and Democratic administrations. It remains, in name at least, the formal policy still espoused by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
J Street has supported every single Israel aid package, military and civilian, that has been submitted to Congress during the 10 years of its existence. It opposes boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS).
Yet J Street, from the moment of its inception, was subjected to a vicious and unrelenting campaign of demonization and disinformation from the political right of the American-Jewish community fueled by half-truths and outright lies. We were said to be anti-Israel, even pro-Hamas; the current US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, described us as “worse than kapos.” At best, are seen by the establishment as naïve dupes who may think we love Israel but whose actions divide and weaken the community.
What is the source of this hatred? After all, there are many other pro-peace groups on the political left and even far to the left of us, who do not attract such rage? I believe it is because from the start, J Street saw its mission not just to speak but to politically mobilize and organize the progressive, pro-peace forces in our community by building political influence. In that sense, we mimic AIPAC. And the results have been staggering. Every election cycle, we increase the number of congressional candidates and office holders who seek our endorsement. In 2016, we endorsed 124 Senate and House candidates. This year, that number will be over 130.
The campaign against J Street has certainly taken a toll. I continually meet members of the community who, after they hear me speak, tell me they had no idea that J Street holds the pro-Israel, pro-peace positions that it does. In some places, there is still a climate of fear surrounding J Street. In my own synagogue, people come up to me and tell me privately, sometimes whispering in my ear at the Kiddush after services, that they support J Street — as if saying so publicly could expose them to attack, or shame or lose them friends.
My synagogue has always been a staunch outpost of the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Its lay leadership and clergy enthusiastically recruit members to attend the annual AIPAC conference, verbally and in synagogue publications. The synagogue’s pro-AIPAC stance never bothered me. I always assumed there was room for many different ways of supporting Israel.
So I was not expecting controversy when I asked last year to have leaflets for the J Street National Conference to be placed on a table outside the sanctuary. I was not asking to promote the conference in the same way as the synagogue endorses, pushes and publicizes the AIPAC conference. I was merely asking to have information available for anyone who might be interested.
I was told that the Board of the synagogue discussed my request at length and voted unanimously not to allow the leaflets to be placed on the table because J Street had “taken positions that violated the synagogue’s mission statement to support Israel.”
This year, I again asked to have the leaflets left on the table — and this time I specifically requested to attend the Board meeting so that I could respond to questions. Both of these requests were summarily rejected. The synagogue leadership was not interested in hearing my words.
Now, my wife and I are grappling with an awful dilemma. Do we leave the synagogue? Its leaders obviously regard our views as so threatening that even a leaflet would be seen as damaging. Should we stay in a community where we are so obviously unwanted? Do we jettison decades of memories, of friendships and our shared role in building this institution which we have loved — and always felt loved us back?
Last Shabbat, when Shulamit and I read the entire Torah and Haftarah portions, I felt an awful emptiness and sense of isolation. It’s a sad day when a synagogue whose name proclaims justice cannot tolerate the placing of a leaflet on a table. It is unbearably painful. It is also un-American and un-Jewish.