Thursday, August 21, 2014

Leonard Fein--Loved, Admired, and Blacklisted

During the few days since the death of Leonard Fein there has been an outpouring of testimonials in the Jewish press written by several of the hundreds of people who were personally and profoundly affected by the teaching, actions, and wisdom of this man.  To those of us who were lucky enough to know him and study with him, "Leibel" was clearly a true mensch, and true Zionist, and a true lover of Israel and the Jewish people.

I first met him when he taught my Wexner Heritage Foundation class in Milwaukee almost 30 years ago and then reconnected with him frequently over the years at Jewish conferences and, most recently, at J Street events.  Others who knew him far better than I have eulogized him eloquently in recent days and cited his many accomplishments and ways in which he affected the lives of thousands of American Jews and made our community and the world a better place.  He was a true mentor and an inspiration.

Perhaps the most profound testimonial to the importance of a man who most Jews had never heard of waspublished as an editorial in the Jewish Daily Forward:

"Since his death, Fein has been justly praised for the things he created: Moment, a magazine of Jewish ideas; MAZON, a Jewish anti-hunger initiative; the National Jewish Coalition for Literacy, a network of organizations that provides volunteer tutors for schools. Not only did he create, he left a sturdy legacy: All these institutions continue to thrive long after he left their employ, a testament to his values and foresight.
He became a Zionist in his teenage years, honed his involvement with Israel at the University of Chicago... but always remained, at heart, a teacher. Perhaps that is why he was able to influence and touch so many disparate lives — he was a teacher, not an instructor. He engaged those around him with good humor, in the sense of being funny — and he had a wicked wit — but also in the sense of being well intentioned. His aim was to use his mind to improve the world, not to win a political war of words."


What has gone unmentioned in any of the many pieces that have been written is any reference to the fact that this great teacher and lover of the Jewish people and Israel would have been blackballed from speaking or teaching at any of our college Hillels as well as many other Jewish venues for the last several years of his life.

That is because, true to form as a man of conscience, Leibel was very outspoken about his sincere belief that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the growth of settlements in the region posed perhaps the greatest threat to Israel's survival as a Jewish democracy going forward.

As a result, he openly urged Jews and others to boycott the purchase of products that were made in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and also urged Jewish organizations not to visit Ariel and other Jewish cities that had been built in the West Bank while on missions to Israel.  He was characteristically clear:

"Goods manufactured in Jewish West Bank settlements should never be labeled “Made in Israel” — a position gaining considerable popularity throughout the world. Those of us who advocate a two-state solution ought to stay away from Ariel, as many Israeli artists and intellectuals have pledged to do. Surely we should not consume the fine wines, dates and beauty products of the settlements. All these acts of protest are pro-Israel, in both intent and effect."

Those words expressed in writing and publicly clearly put this great teacher and lover of Judaism and Israel on the Black List and would have surely caused him to be banned by Hillel International and other Jewish organizations who have drawn red lines regarding who is and is not permitted to speak in their venues.

Hillel International President Eric Fingerhut made it clear that people like Leonard Fein are not welcome to speak about ANY issue in a Hillel building anywhere in the country as Fingerhut stated on the Hillel International website:
"Where Hillel draws the line... is that “‘anti-Zionists’ will not be permitted to speak using the Hillel name or under the Hillel roof, under any circumstances.” Our Israel guidelines that spell out that Hillel “will not host or work with speakers or groups that deny the right of Israel to exist; “delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard to Israel”; support boycotts, divestment or sanctions against Israel; or “foster an atmosphere of incivility.”

These are clearly stressful and challenging times for Jews in Israel and those here in the U.S. who care deeply about the future of the Jewish people.

Among those who care the most are the many wonderful professionals and volunteer leaders at the Hillel chapters around the country.  Since moving to Tucson I have become most familiar with the Hillel at the University of Arizona where I have served on the board and remain increasingly impressed with the work of its director and her staff and her community and student leaders to create engaging, innovative and effective programming that provides Jewish students with a safe and exciting venue and make their Jewish college experience and relationship with Israel better in every way.

I have the same respect and praise for the leaders of the Federations, JCCs, synagogues, day schools, and other organizations which do important and amazing work to help build our Jewish community.  That is why it is so essential that we all work to change those policies which are designed to show support for Israel but which actually are proving divisive and harming instead of building our community.

In an often misquoted phrase, the Old Testament suggests that THE LOVE OF money--not money itself--is the root of all evil.  Similarly, it is THE LOVE OF Israel by certain of our American Jewish leaders and organizations--not Israel itself--which is leading to sometimes counter-productive behavior and policies that are driving good people away instead of bringing us together.

With the death of Leonard Fein our community has lost an effective and important builder, teacher, and voice.  It is appropriate and important for those among us who were touched and moved deeply by his friendship and insights to remember him for all that he gave us.

But perhaps the greatest testimonial--and certainly the one that Leibel would have found most meaningful--would be to both acknowledge and to focus on the well-intentioned but damaging policies of demonization and sinatchinam--baseless hatred of one Jew toward another.

Acknowledging and addressing THAT threat is perhaps the best way to honor the memory of this great and important Jewish leader, teacher, and mentor.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Why Gun Control Should Be a Jewish Issue

The most recent gun-related murderous rampage in our country has been greeted by the predictable outcry from families of the victims regarding the need for a more sane gun control policy.

The pleas about the rights of Americans to live in safety and not become innocent victims not to be murdered in cold blood are the most common.

But for Jews who take the Torah and its teachings seriously there should be a different and unique argument put on the table.

One of the most compelling and pragmatic commandments in the Hebrew Bible is found in Leviticus (Kedoshim) where were are forbidden to "place a stumbling block before the blind"  and we are reminded that we are to "love our fellow man."

For more than a thousand years our rabbis and sages have believed this prohibition is a metaphor compelling decent people to be  sensitive to the weaknesses and pathology of people who are challenged or have issues with self control or adequate intelligence to make responsible decisions.

The majority of mass murders in recent years have been committed by people who had a history of issues which were very challenging.  It would be hard to argue that the easy availability of mass killing machines helped them make the transition from being a troubled person to a mass murderer.

Rashi and other great Jewish sages normally speak in terms of this commandment forbidding us from engaging in irresponsible or predatory business practices where we take unfair advantage of our own insights and knowledge and exploit or tempt those who are "blind" in these matters.  

For example, according to the commandment a decent person is not allowed to buy a free cocktail for an alcoholic friend who is trying to quit drinking or to encourage an ignorant or unsophisticated friend to make a risky investment that he is not capable of fully understanding.

But an equally compelling case can be made that it also forbids us to make assault weapons and high-capacity magazines available without stringent background checks on the buyers to make sure they are not impaired or "blind" when it comes to issues of self control and civilized behavior.

The inclusion of the uniquely Jewish commandment would simply add even greater credibility to the arguments made by those of us who seek a saner policy and further discredit the already bankrupt arguments of those who hide behind a self-serving interpretation of our Constitutional rights to justify arming those who have killed far more Americans than terrorists in recent years.

As we know, most of those who oppose greater gun control are not motivated by Second Amendment rights or issues related to self defense.

When was the last time anyone ever heard of a person warding off an attacker with an AK-47 or a semi-automatic weapon capable of killing 30 people in 30 seconds?  

When people walk into a Wal Mart or gun show and buy a killing machine and unlimited amounts of ammo and clips capable of firing 30 shots in 30 seconds without regard to their psychiatric or behavioral history, they are never doing it to protect themselves.  We all know that.  But the NRA has twisted the narrative and used its immense power in Washington to make those of us who oppose their agenda feel thoroughly beaten.

When my friend Gabby Giffords was gunned down along with 18 other people in Tucson a couple of years ago, there was a man named Joe Zamudio in the crowd who did have a gun.  By the time he realized what was going on, raised his weapon, took off the safety and moved in, the killer was already on the ground being subdued and one of the heroes had taken his gun away.  

Here in Arizona, the pro-gun crowd had the chutzpah to name a bill after Giffords and her Jewish aide Gabe Zimmerman (who died in the attack) that would broaden gun availability and training on the theory that if everyone has a gun in all venues then there will be fewer victims of the bad guys.

The whole narrative of the NRA and the gun lobby is evil and self-serving and we all know it and hate it.  But the Jewish community just hasn't gotten passionate about it. 

The people who support the NRA and those who want to suppress a woman's right to choose on her own health and reproductive issues and ongoing discrimination against gays and illegal laws trying to keep Blacks and Hispanics from voting are passionate and they put their money and their power behind their passions. 

Isn't it time for Jews to go to spend more time, money, and energy on gun issues which are leading to the deaths of dozens of innocent Americans every year.  It sure seems like it is time to change or at least expand our priorities and change our behavior in this area.

Particularly in view of the uniquely Jewish narrative that we can add to the existing chorus of common sense and life-affirming arguments that should be compelling but are apparently falling on the deaf ears of so many of our legislators and Congressmen.  

The following news clip should have been the lead of the Washington Post article about the incident.  Instead it was buried at the bottom.

"Elliot Rodger owned three 9mm semiautomatic handguns, all legally purchased in his own name, and he had enough ammunition for a massacre — 41 magazines with 10 rounds each, Brown said. Two of the guns were Sig Sauer P226s and one was a Glock 34. 

Christopher Ross Martinez, a 20-year-old university student, died after being shot in the deli. His father, Richard Martinez, held a brief, emotional news conference late Saturday.

“Our family has a message for every parent out there: You don’t think it’ll happen to your child until it does,” the grieving father said. “His death has left our family lost and broken. Why did Chris die? Chris died because of craven, irresponsible politicians and NRA. They talk about gun rights. What about Chris’s right to live? When will this insanity stop?"
For Jews, one could argue that we have lost sight of our Jewish responsibility to each other as well.

Why is There Never Enough Anti-Semitism To Make Some Jews Happy?

The reaction to the recent Anti-Defamation League study on anti-Semitism has been swift and passionate.

Some believe that the study is a badly flawed and transparent attempt by the the ADL to make a case for its own importance and overstate the extent of real anti-Semitism in the world.  Forward columnist Jay Michaelson, a rabbi with a deep and lifelong history of commitment to Israel and the Jewish people, came to that conclusion.  He took the test himself and scored out as an anti-Semite—which he clearly is not.

Others believe that anti-Semitism in the U.S. and around the world is bad and getting worse. 

They seem less concerned with the validity of the survey than they are with emphasizing their belief that there are Jew haters all around us and that Jews should be as fearful as ever.  Jewish Federation professional Robert Horenstein wrote praising the study and offered this daunting conclusion:

"Not only has there been an uptick in anti-Jewish attitudes among Americans over the past 15 years, but even more disturbing, anti-Semitism has been gradually creeping out of the shadows into the mainstream.  The tragic murder of three people at two Jewish facilities in Kansas City in mid-April served as a stark reminder that anti-Semitism is alive and well."

Actually, one could easily conclude that the incident in Kansas City proved just the opposite.  It was a reminder that while Jew haters are alive and well and capable doing great damage, there is virtually no societal anti-Semitism in the U.S. any more.

Jew hatred in the U.S. is racism and bigotry felt and acted upon by individuals and small groups of hateful people.  Anti-Semitism--a condition where the behavior of those bigots is tolerated or even welcomed by the standards of the broader community is something very different. 

As we saw in Kansas City  there are very few places in our country where these people are welcome and where the entire community does not rise up and speak with a single voice to condemn, punish, and ostracize them if they speak out or act in a violent hateful way.

The most important conversation about anti-Semitism is the one that is not taking place—and which no Jewish funder has shown interest in sponsoring.

The real question for American Jews is why so many cling so tightly to the belief that Jews have always been and will always be hated and hunted victims—people who are supposed live in suspicion and fear of non-Jews? 

After all, we live at a time and in a country where non-Jews overwhelmingly and actively are seeking us out as neighbors, club members, business partners, friends and spouses.

Why do so many Jews believe that Israel is a victim of unfair bias in our mainstream media even though we live at a time and in a place where Israel has never been more widely supported or admired by Americans and when an important study by Robert Putnam showed that Jews are the most widely respected religious group in the U.S.?

The real question for American Jews is why so many cling so tightly to their addiction to their belief that Jews have always been and will always be hated and hunted victims—people who are supposed live in suspicion and fear of non-Jews? 

So why do so many of  older Jews still obsess about anti-Semitism at a time when few American Jews under the age of 50 can ever cite a personal experience or situation where they suffered in any way from Jew hatred or even minor religious discrimination?

Most of what all we feel and believe is based on our personal life experiences.  We are all human and can only change our narrative so much.  So it is understandable that older American Jews who grew up in a society where discrimination against Jews was widespread and accepted by broader society would cling to the time-honored mantra that "if you scratch a goy, you'll find an anti-Semite"  long after that slogan was based on fact and experience.

Growing up in St. Louis 50 years ago, I knew people who were getting nose jobs and changing their names so they would appear to be less Jewish. There were clubs, neighborhoods, professions, and private schools where Jews were not welcome. Today, most Jews are very proud to be Jewish.  I don’t know any Jews who are changing their names or appearance anymore--at least not for THAT reason.

Today, most non-Jews seem very anxious to befriend, work with, partner with, and marry us--so much so that many Jewish leaders have declared intermarriage to be a crisis.

Intermarriage is certainly a challenge, but let's be honest. The main reason that there is so much intermarriage is not because Jews are less Jewish--it's because non-Jews are so much more willing to marry us than ever before. It's because our parents fought bigotry and intolerance for decades to create a society where we would be fully accepted and have freedom to choose where we want to live, go to school, play golf, work, and socialize.  And, to fall in love with and marry anyone we want.

Teaching about the Holocaust and the persecution and genocide that Jews have suffered over centuries is critically important.  It is also important to realize that there are still places in the world where anti-Semitism is alive and well and to appreciate how blessed are Jews who live in the U.S. or Israel.

Jews should never forget our past and be informed about the challenges that remain in an often hostile world.  But let's keep it in perspective.

Instead of arguing over frightening studies and wringing our hands over how many people hate us, we should be getting on with the conversation about how to build a pluralistic, values- and wisdom-driven Jewish community that is both sustainable and compelling.

A narrative that than can thrive in a world in which Jews have unlimited choices—a situation that we fought to create for a very long time.

We need to find the right balance between the importance of Tribalism and Aspiration as we define what it means to be Jewish and how to best help and relate to Israel.

The choice is ours and we control the outcome.  

Not the anti-Semites.  Whether there are hundreds or billions of them out there.  They are not the biggest challenge in a world where so many Jews have so much power and unlimited choices.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Please God -- Save the Jewish Community from Itself

For more than 30 years, my relationship with Jewish Federations, Israel Bonds, AIPAC, J Street, CLAL, and Hillel have been the focus of my life as Jewish study,  Jewish values, and the Jewish community have provided me with the moral and intellectual compass that has guided all of my important life decisions.
I have chaired Federation  and Israel Bonds campaigns and led and helped create Jewish day schools in both Milwaukee and Tucson and donated millions of dollars to the Federation and other pro-Israel causes, from AIPAC to J Street.
That is why I am so saddened and frustrated at recent decision by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and Hillel of Greater Philadelphia to co-sponsor a divisive film screening which demonizes a fellow Jewish group--in this case, J Street. Their decision is beyond disappointing. It flies in the face of everything that Federation claims to stand for.
The film, “The J Street Challenge” is nothing more than a lengthy political attack ad, featuring testimony from like-minded right wing pundits, and funded by well-known J Street detractors[a], who are trying to move from the fringe of our community to defining our community. The event was packaged as an educational event entitled, “What it Means to be Pro-Israel.”
Without question, an honest and respectful conversation on pro-Israel advocacy is sorely needed in the Jewish community--if only this event had genuinely pursued that goal.  The “J Street Challenge” does not promote this sort of conversation, any more than “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” promotes academic understanding of Judaism.
On its website, the Philadelphia Federation proudly boasts its commitment to "One People. One Community. One Federation."  But their decision to sponsor this film paints a different picture. According to the filmmakers, there are two camps: the good, realistic Jews who love and support Israel and the naive, fantasy-addicted Jews who are threatening the survival of our people.
This message may resonate with some in our community, because it reaffirms everything that they already believe. Sadly, it will also alienate the large portion of the community--myself included--that has a different idea of what it means to be pro-Israel.
Indeed, given their shared missions of creating a broad and inclusive Jewish community, it is not clear what the Federation and Hillel hoped to accomplish by sponsoring this event. What they did succeed in doing was sending a clear message to their many caring pro-Israel friends and neighbors who support J Street that both they and their opinions are unwelcome.
That is personally painful to me as a supporter of Federation, Hillel, and J Street and, I am certain, to many others as well who are not in the J Street camp, but who also don’t wish to see a large and growing segment of the Jewish community alienated from the community as a whole.[b]
And who benefited here?  A handful of wealthy Jewish donors out to smear a pro-Israel organization whose success and message of openness apparently frightens them?
Our community has a vibrant diversity of opinion and we should embrace that. Whether you are a fan of this film, or one of the thousands of Jews who identify with J Street or among the millions of Jews who are trying to sort these complex issue out, we all love and care about Israel. If we disagree about the proper course for Israel to take, we should debate those differences openly, instead of slinging mud.
That’s why I’ve urged Federation leaders in my hometowns of Tucson and Milwaukee and around the country to speak out against this trend of Federations and Hillels working to stifle open discussion by promoting divisive programming driven by ad hominem attacks on members of our own community.. It’s not because I can’t handle those who express ideas with which I disagree, but because it would mean that the Federation has transformed from a force that builds community into one that destroys it.
I am sure that the Federation staff and leadership in Philadelphia have done wonderful and important work in their community. However, on this occasion, they undermined that work, and should be ashamed of themselves.
As a person who has worked so hard and invested so much in building and benefiting from our Jewish communities, it saddens me profoundly to see so many of the very organizations and people whom I believed shared common Jewish values and a commitment to open respectful conversation suddenly behaving in such destructive ways.