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.