I agree with Jeremy Kalmanofsky, the rabbi of Manhattan’s Congregation Ansche Chesed (of which I am a member), in rejecting a proposed program at AC debating: “Is Israel – or can it be – a democracy? Is there – or can there be – equality in Israel? Can a Jewish state be democratic?”
Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of New York’s Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST) then agreed to host this event. But I am quoted in a NY Jewish Week article by Doug Chandler in a less nuanced way than I would have liked.
Unfortunately, Doug did not add anything from an email I sent him after our brief phone conversation. My concerns remain, but I didn’t mean to come off as absolutist in tone (nor as critical of Rabbi Kleinbaum) as the published quote may indicate. The following is most of what I emailed to Doug, with a couple of bracketed emendations, which more fully represents my view:
Ansche Chesed, CBST and any Jewish institution has an absolute right to decide what programs to host. Hence, Rabbi Kalminofsky was right to veto and Rabbi Kleinbaum is right to host this event. And [as Kalminofsky indicated to the reporter (but was not included in the piece)] if a group of AC members had proposed such a program, he would have to accede to their wishes.
I distrust some of the people in the sponsoring group because of their vociferous support for BDS [even as I trust others, such as Letty Cottin Pogrebin and JJ Goldberg]. The theme of the program is problematic, because it focuses upon Israel as if it’s unique for privileging a particular ethnic or religious majority, when virtually all other countries in the Middle East privilege Islam and most also favor ethnic majorities. A more open forum on the proper role of religion & state or the notion of ethnocracy vs. democracy would be appropriate, and in a format that’s more of a discussion than a debate.
So according to you no country can be discussed unless every country is discussed, simultaneously:
“The theme of the program is problematic, because it focuses upon Israel as if it’s unique for privileging a particular ethnic or religious majority, when virtually all other countries in the Middle East privilege Islam and most also favor ethnic majorities. A more open forum on the proper role of religion & state or the notion of ethnocracy vs. democracy would be appropriate, and in a format that’s more of a discussion than a debate.”
We can only talk about Israel privileging Jews, if at the same event we also talk about Egypt and Saudi Arabia privileging Muslims. And similarly Egyptian activists can’t talk about their desire for equal rights for all citizens of Egypt regardless of religion or race, unless they talk about the same in Israel.
And of course you know that many of the organizers of this Israel-focused event stand unequivocally for equal rights for all in all countries, but according to you they are hypocritical unless every event they hold focuses equally on all countries in the region. And if for some reason – like for example that some are Jews and/or have family or other ties to Israel – they focus more on equal rights in Israel, they are hypocritical.
Your arguments are of course absurd excuses for inaction if carried to their logical conclusion, and you would not even support their logical conclusion. No one can discuss or act on any issue, unless they act equally on all similar issues. And no one can decide to devote more of their time to a particular example of a problem than to any other examples of a problem. Why did people march in the south against Jim Crow when there was apartheid in South Africa, or racist colonial rule in Algeria, or…
Seems we need to also be asking why Meretz USA focuses so much on Jews in Israel. A broader focus, equally about everyone, everywhere would be more appropriate for your group.
Ted injects his idiosyncratic interpretation of my views with his usual sarcasm. It is not necessary, but absolutely appropriate to discuss Israel in comparison with how Muslim and Arab-majority countries treat their minorities. And the role of religion and ethnicity in general is appropriate in any discussion of democracy. And I wonder how some of these people would feel about a program that asks if Islam is compatible with democracy, or if a country can define itself as Arab or Muslim and still be democratic.
No, I don’t believe that Egyptians must talk about Israel when they discuss human rights in their country, but they might recall that their military regime expelled its entire Jewish community in the 1950s and ’60s.
The program at CBST explores a legitimate topic, but I have to distrust participants who see Israel as less democratic than its neighbors, when the opposite is true. Our concern on this blog and as an organization is to safeguard and strengthen Israel’s democratic values and institutions.
Whether Israel is more or less democratic than its neighbors is a complex question, which depends on how you weigh different undemocratic characteristics. Certainly millions of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza are denied basic rights by Israel. Palestinians living as 3rd class citizens in Israel are able to vote, but lack many other vital rights. These are dramatic flaws in Israel’s “democracy” (and let’s remember that it is Israel that constantly touts itself as the only democracy in the Middle East) that require remedy. Whether these flaws are more or less dramatic than those in places like Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and Syria is an open question. But it is clear that our country, the US, supports Israel to a far greater extent than it does Israel’s neighbors. I’m not sure how you know that the organizers of the event have taken clear positions on the complex question of which country is less democratic? You can be sure, however, that they are all concerned about democracy and human rights in all those countries.
Yes, the discussion of the role of religion and ethnicity in any democracy is completely appropriate, and I am 100% sure that the organizers of the event deplore discrimination based on religion and ethnicity in the countries neighboring Israel, as well as in Israel, in the US, and worldwide. You seem unable to comprehend that, while there are indeed some people who criticize Israel purely out of bigotry, the vast majority of people who support Palestinian rights, including those organizing this event, support human rights for all, everywhere.
As for Jews leaving Egypt in the 50s and 60s I’m not going to spend time researching it carefully to provide well supported historical information, but as you know your brief explanation above does avoid the reality that Israel was very actively involved in significant operations in Egypt during that period that encouraged Jews to leave and also created hostility on the part of the Egyptian government and people. So while there were hostile and bigoted actions, there was no simple one-sided expulsion.
Again, your central argument here, though you are now trying to qualify it somewhat, would prevent any event from focusing on any specific country with a given problem, unless the event focused equally on every country with the same given problem – “The theme of the program is problematic, because it focuses upon Israel as if it’s unique for privileging a particular ethnic or religious majority.”
It seems that you’ve tied yourself up in illogical knots with arguments that don’t hold water because basically you just don’t like or respect some of the people organizing the event.
I’m posting on my youtube channel /joefriendly the panel discussion about Israel and democracy held at Congregation Bet Sim, parts one and two each about an hour. Behold how worries came to naught. It was a joy to behold Jews openly consider the pull on their consciences over mistreatment of Arabs. Part One played on my daily Manhattan show today and part two will play tomorrow.