Exclude Me At Your Own Peril
Tue, 10/26/2010
Special To The Jewish Week

As the daughter of a rabbi, I was always taught that temple was a home for all Jews, a place that embraced debate, argument and difference. Yet after attending a recent debate at Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn., between acclaimed legal scholar Alan Dershowitz and J Street’s president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, I was forced to reconsider that notion. I had never felt so much a stranger within my own community.

I attended the debate as a student leader of Just Peace, the J Street U affiliate at Columbia University. I was hoping for an evening of thoughtful conversation that addressed the current negotiations. Instead, the evening devolved into a squabble. Ben-Ami was greeted by hisses. When he introduced the J Street staff, they too were booed. The moderator, rather than enforce civility, repeatedly attempted to corner Ben-Ami.

Following the contentious debate, an elderly woman confronted me in the synagogue lobby. “I should spit on you!” she yelled at me in front of a group of shocked onlookers. “Excuse me?” I replied. Glaring, she taunted: “Are you a Palestinian? You must be a Palestinian!” The woman’s friend pulled her away. My friends from Columbia University held my shoulders as tears streamed down my face. No one could believe what had just happened.

Those hateful words were, no doubt, the ravings of a fanatic. Yet the woman only confirmed what I had felt throughout the night: that I was a stranger, an outcast, and that my presence in this conversation not only undesirable but threatening.

What was it that proved so horrifying to that woman and those that hissed at Ben-Ami? Was it his statement that all Jews should be troubled by the conditions of Palestinians living under occupation? Was it his insistence that placing of blame on one side or the other is counterproductive? Was it his defense of students, like me, who are concerned about the occupation, but fear that honesty will put them on the periphery of our community?

Growing up in small-town Wisconsin, temple was always the place I could count on for community. I was taught that throughout history the synagogue served as a place where Jews congregated in times of great joy, and gathered when faced with adversity. The sanctuary is supposed to be just that — a place of refuge that must be protected. Yet, Jewish history and tradition suggest that argument and debate are not threats to our community. Vigorous disagreement is, rather, central to the community’s strength.

In the Talmud, the rabbis tell us that the First Temple was destroyed because of the sins of idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed. “But why was the second Sanctuary destroyed, seeing that in its time they were occupying themselves with Torah, [observance of] precepts, and the practice of charity?” the rabbis ask. They answer: “Because therein prevailed hatred without cause ... groundless hatred, sinat chinam, is considered as of even gravity with the three sins of idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed together.” (Talmud, Yoma 9b)

The Jewish people were of course forced into exile after the Second Temple’s destruction. In exile, the rabbis responded to the hatred they left behind by creating a tradition of critical conversation and debate. Codified in the Talmud, these arguments are among the most cherished texts in Judaism today.

At this crucial moment in the history of our community, we face a choice. We can choose to let baseless hatred divide us, or we can choose to take our inevitable disagreements and shape them into a fruitful, influential dialogue. We can choose to pass on a legacy of openness to a younger generation — my generation — or we can tear our community apart by throwing out of the temple all who disagree.

I have given much thought over the last week about whether I can continue to be part of this conversation. If I am not welcome, why bother to fight for entry? It seems easier to leave than to justify my presence — and many of my generation might make that choice. For me, to leave the conversation would be to abandon my community and to abandon Israel, and I cannot do either. After my experience at last week’s debate, it has become clear to me that we must acknowledge the conflict at home if we are to have a productive conversation about the conflict so many thousands of miles away. We must reinvigorate our Jewish identity with the acceptance and love for our neighbor upon which it was founded — and not let the disagreements within our own community to turn to hatred. We can only change the conversation if students like me demand to be included, and ensure that no amount of scorn will silence us. n

Abby Backer is a student leader of Just Peace, the J Street U-affiliated group at Columbia University, where she is a student.

 

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I'd like to take a moment and share the side of J-Street, and the Columbia equivalent of the group, that isn't discussed in this piece. Although I find Abby's courage admirable and respect her for taking the time and effort to share her experience with what seems to have been a crazy old lady (most likely suffering from dementia), it really doesn't due justice to the situation Abby doe experience here at Columbia University. I should know, as I too am a student here who is often berated, mocked, attacked, and cornered for his particular beliefs and stances on Israel. Why might you ask? Not because I support J-Street, because I do not. But because I actually go out of my way to stand up for Israel in the marketplace of ideas. What Abby Backer has taken the initiative in doing on my campus, in leading and forming her J-Street group, is in effect taking no issue with Israel at all. Has she been called "anti-Semite" by fellow Jews at my school? It is entirely possible, and if it is true I wholesale condemn it. Abby Backer is no anti-Semite, but what she represents is an organization that caters to the left, attempts to placate the true anti-Israel groups on my campus, and tries its best not to "offend" anyone or be too harsh to peoples "sensibilities". Enough is enough, call a spade a spade. Jews and non-Jews alike at Columbia University are beginning to realize that this mode of overindulged political correctness is not only ridiculous in nature, its completely insane, especially in the face of the bigoted and hate mongering speech of Columbia's own far left and highly anti-Israel professors and students. Abby Backer's group Just Peace is still in its infant stages of growth at Columbia and she would do well to recognize that her group is one that is very much needed, but not in the context she and her fellow J-Streeters may perceive. It is important for Jews and non-Jews alike to have a community they can feel safe and open in to discuss issues they may have problems with, especially with regards to Israel. There is an old joke, How many Prime Ministers does Israel have? Answer: 6.5 million and counting. Why? Because Israel's harshest critics are Israelis and Jews alike. But when such a group and community goes out of its way to alienate the mainstream, (read: majority pro-Israel community) at Columbia University, it does not bode well for future endeavors. Take the upcoming example of Just Peace's next big event on campus. Oh Abby didn't mention it in this article did she? Indeed, Just Peace and J-Street will be attempting to host John Ging on campus. Yes, the same John Ging who currently heads UNRWA or the United Nations Relief Workers Agency in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The same John Ging who encouraged flotillas and other means of breaking the legal blockade of Gaza. The same John Ging who refuses to denounce Hamas and consistently demonizes, condemns, and attacks Israel as an imperial aggressor and occupier. This is the type of individual that Just Peace and J-Street has decided should be given a platform to perpetrate his views at a prestigious university like Columbia. Abby if you or anyone else believes for one second that this conversation, this debate, and the overarching issues surrounding it are all about the petty political differences we may have then you are truly naive. What you and your fellow J-Street friends seem to lack is a true understanding of the world we live in, a detachment from the realities of the situation both in the Middle East and here at home, and finally a sense of ideological purity when it comes to the State of Israel or pro-Israel activism. So please forgive me for seeming skeptical and ironical Abby, but you would do well here to look in the mirror and see for yourself whom may in fact be doing the excluding.
I am the daughter of Holocaust survivors of Auschwitz, taken to concentration camp on D Day, in full view of the US and its Allies. Exclude me and try to silence me at your own peril, because this looks like 1939 all over again. When the Jewish people are divided, we give comfort to the enemies and disaster strikes easily and painfully. I was silenced at my former synagogue, but Jeremy Ben Ami (J-Street) was allowed to speak. He claimed that Israeli textbooks are as bad as Palestinian textbooks; that the IDF is an immoral army; and that Jews should not build “illegal” settlements. Of course, he did not mention illegal Palestinian settlements, or Palestinian hate education, incitement, or homicidal attacks on innocent civilians. Why is there no peace between Israel and its neighbors? Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Palestinian leadership do not want peace. It doesn’t serve their purposes. They need Israel to blame for all of their economic problems. Arabs were offered a state in 1947. They rejected the offer and attacked and almost destroyed Israel. Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005. Has Israel gotten peace? Isn’t it interesting that the conditions of Palestinians under “occupation” is better than that of Arabs living in the rest of the Middle East? Isn’t it interesting that the Palestinians who are Israeli citizens do not want to leave to be part of a new Palestinian state? Isn’t it remarkable that health and life span under occupation has markedly improved? Israel is the only democratic country in the Middle East, as confirmed by Freedom House’s 2010 report. Israelis enjoy free press, and the Israelis who vote in and die for their country are entitled to make their own decisions. Israel is a miracle. It is the only country in the world to which an ancient people has returned after thousands of years of exile, and the only county in the world in which an ancient language has been revived. One million Jews were expelled from Arab countries and Iran. Israel has re-settled refugees from all over the world. Most Israeli Jews are the children or grandchildren of refugees. In 62 years, Israel has given many gifts to the world. What have the Arab and Iranians given the world except oil? Jews in the Diaspora should be praying for the survival of the Jewish state, smaller than New Jersey and surrounded by murderous enemies. Israel has not had one day of peace in 62 years, yet against all odds it is a vibrant democracy in a sea of dictatorships, has the best human rights record in the region, and is the only reliable ally the US has in the region. Where are you Jews of the Diaspora? I’ll tell you where Jews of the Diaspora are-- they are fighting among themselves, as the world is campaigning for Israel’s destruction with boycotts and sanctions. And crazily, there are too many Jews in the Diaspora (think J Street) that side with the free world in accusing Israel by a double standard. How shameful! The justification for J Street was to provide a place for Jews who are liberal and pro-peace to support Israel. It was to be an alternative to AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby. Can you really believe a group funded by Arab oil money and George Soros, a Jew who has never supported Israel, is pro-Israel? AIPAC has retained its influence because it is bi-partisan. J-Street tries to paint AIPAC as a conservative group. This is a simple and obvious lie. I am not afraid of honesty. I am afraid of lies. I am afraid of the traitors among us. But there is yet some hope-- it is long overdue that fellow readers educate themselves about the true situation at hand in the Middle East. Don’t let the likes of Ben Ami and mainstream media lie to you. Educate yourself. Luckily, I found JerusalemOnlineU.com that offers a remarkable and comprehensive online course titled Israel Inside/Out taught by experts like Professor Bernard Lewis and Historian Sir Martin Gilbert. Jews, Christians and Muslims, do yourselves a favor and learn the facts. Go to JerusalemOnlineU.com and view original news reports, interviews, interactive maps and documentaries. After you study the truth behind the headlines, you will understand why you cannot exclude my voice. Israel is the canary in the coalmine. The Muslim militants want to get rid of Israel, the little Satan; then the US, the big Satan. We are in a struggle for our lives. We must stick together and stick to truth.
It's a generational thing. The creation of the State of Israel was originally about creating a safe haven for Jews, whose need for one was unquestionable before the Holocaust and certainly after it. Over time, support for Israel has become more about fulfilling a messianic prophecy--a greater Israel, a "third Temple," etc. And increasingly, Israel has become less about being a safe haven for Jews, and more about ruling over the Arab population both in its official borders, and its unofficial borders. Those who support the status quo will hopefully eventually understand that the status quo can't last forever, and that realistic organizations such as J Street should not be villified.
I wholeheartedly agree that no one should have said such things to this young woman. However, I have to wonder about a few things. The article implies that the elderly woman who made the hateful remark, did so with no provocation other than listening to the Ben Ami and Dershowitz debate. I wish Ms Backer, or anyone who witnessed the incident could tell us if this is true. If not, then what did Ms. Backer say to the elderly woman first? I havn't seen anyone ask that question. The thing that really makes me ask this question is the title of this article, "Exclude me at your own peril." That to me sounds like a very provocative way to start an article. In fact, it even sounds a bit threatening. Ms Littman, who commented earlier. wrote an article in the Stamford Advocate and described Ms. Backer as a sensitive, intelligent girl. I'm not sure a sensitive person would start an article with such a bellicose title.
Thank you Abby for this wonderful piece. I hope you continue to be a prominent voice at shul, because we NEED the established Jewish community, especially the congregational community, including the elderly lady who threatened you, as well as Avi, Adam and Anonymous, who seem to see such treatment to fellow Jews as laudable, to know that we are NOT going anywhere.
Joshua Hammerman still doesn't get it, as he decries the war to deligitimize Israel while he sits on the J Street Rabbinical Cabinet Chaired by and riddled with haters of Israel and the US See: http://www.typepad.com/site/blogs/6a0120a7e07a58970b0120a7e07a61970b/post/6a0120a7e07a58970b0134883857e5970c/edit
More than EIGHTY Grade A Israel Haters on the J Street Rabbinic Cabinet, including the Chair of the J Street Rabbinic Cabinet are actively engaged in the effort to de-legitimize Israel and undermine US policy by: 1. calling for divestment from Israel - http://www.jewishvoiceforpeace.org/campaigns/jvps-new-rabbinic-council-4 2. Signing letters in support of Goldstone (while J Street secretly promoted the Goldstone report) -http://www.politicsweb.co.za/politicsweb/view/politicsweb/en/page71654?oid=172660&sn=Detail 3. Engaging in Anti US Activism – including a campaign accusing the US and CIA of torture http://www.rhr-na.org/page/take_action and/or 4. Condemning Israel’s security cordon around Gaza, demanding recognition of Hamas, and actively supporting the Hamas Gaza blockade bustershttp://fastforgaza.net/clergy Here is the list, starting with the CHAIR of the J Street Rabbinic Cabinet You are invited to start your own research here: http://calneocon.typepad.com/blog/2010/10/the-mystery-of-j-street-solved-watch-the-video-and-ask-yourself-why-your-rabbi-is-on-the-j-street-ra-1.html
Abby, Kol hakavod for having the courage to share your experience, advance the political dialogue, and assert your core values with dignity and grace. Like you (and like so many young Jews), I feel profoundly alienated by the organized Jewish community's dominant discourse on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I commend you for opening the conversation and for reminding us that political pluralism and diversity strengthens our community. It always has.
Abby, I think you confuse the nature of this woman's hateful comment towards you. You call her a fanatic but I don't think this is the case. She says such things because she is ignorant not hateful. She has taken wholesale the caricature critics have created of J Street. Your moderate views don't matter to these critics, you don't toe their line exactly and so they have choosen to alienate you. There is a generational change occurring in the minds of Young Jews in relation to Israel. A vocal minority fears this change because peace was something they professed and paid lip service to without ever planing to act on it. The younger generation does plan to act. Theyy believe it's J Street leading this change. They think destroying J Street they will preserve the status quo. Their attacks are misguided as J Street is simply riding this wave not creating it. It does not matter how much time and op-ed research they spend in destroying J Street, it's a pointless folly. No amount of misplaced criticism can stop a real generational shift. Alienating the youth is hardly a wise way to preserve a cohesive and lasting Jewish community.
Bravo to Abby for being brave enough to honestly share her thoughts in this public forum and continue to remain engaged on this issue despite the inexcusable behavior she encountered at the debate. I could try to refute every negative comment listed here--and thankfully, there aren't too many as of now. But that would just distract attention from the more important point: that our community, the Jewish community, needs to rise above baseless attacks and embrace our core values of acceptance and love--love of each other, regardless of our differences, and love of our fellow human beings, including the Palestinians. The latter does not mean that we hand over Israel without a fight or acquiesce to their every demand; but it does mean that we stop degrading them with a counterproductive occupation and start treating them with the humanity we never received from our oppressors.
Abby, you're absolutely correct in asserting the importance of dialogue and eschewing those who endeavor to stifle sincere efforts to foment peace in the Middle East. That woman's behavior is dispicable and the only person she demeaned in your exchange was herself. Please know that so many in your community (and outside) are supportive of your work and your position. Thank you for writing this brave piece and for continuing to strengthen the Jewish community.
I would like to complement Abby Backer on this beautiful piece. Her integration of her personal story, Jewish traditional text, and real policy debate opens our eyes to the struggle that this growing movement has. Though people don't always agree within the Jewish community, it is important to show civility and respectfulness to everyone. Jeremy Ben-Ami and Ms. Backer are presenting a compelling argument of an important debate in the Jewish American forum. I stand with Ms. Backer and encourage her in her work. We need more clear voices like this, so we can become a stronger supporter of Israel, both in it's struggles and its successes. Though I don't always agree with J Street (or AIPAC for that matter), I am impressed with it and look forward to its growth. Thank you Ms. Backer for opening our eyes and bringing forth the closed debate that our community is facing right now.
I'm sorry you find it so difficult to deal with the fact that the majority of American Jews think that JStreet's (and apparently your) point of view is at best well-meaning naivite and, at worst, abject surrender to the emotional blackmail employed by Israel's enemies. Like it or not, that community you love has values that may not be your values, and in order to have a community, those values have to be defended with vigor and passion. Unfotunately, you seem to reserve that right only to yourself, and want to deny it to the majority of your community who disagree with you. It seems to me that you are the one who lacks respect and understanding for them.
Really, this is all a bit much. File this piece under "self-serving melodrama." Abby, you're not going to go very far in life if a little disapproval and hectoring causes you to cry like a baby. I don't know what turns me off about J Street more -- its politics, or the way that the slightest opposition or unkind word turns J Streeters into whining victims of the big, bad pro-Israel mainstream. It's really getting pathetic. Maybe J Street should start selling its own line of Kleenex.
Abby, Thank you for bringing this issue to the public sphere and politicizing it instead of only internalizing the exclusion. Feeling silenced, disruptive or threatened is an issue that often only the critical voices have to deal with. These responses to engagement with justice in Israel/Palestine must be addressed by the organized and institutional Jewish world. -Alana
Ben-Ami was hissed probably because some audience members both disagreed with him and saw him as dishonest, when being a participant in this kind of conversation requires total honesty. Wwe need to believe people's stated motives when they argue for a policy. Abby was yelled at because some old people freak out at people they disagree with--not worth crying about. No self-martyrization required here, IMO.
The real questions are: who is Connie Esdicul, the mystery Hong Kong donor who gave JStreet $811,000? Why did JStreet lie about the money it took from Soros? Jeremy Ben Ami has some explaining to do.
I was at the Hoffman lecture and I spoke with Abby afterward. Like Abby, I went to attended hoping to hear real discussion about the important issues facing a country which we all love, and whose security we care about deeply, even if our approaches in how to resolve the very difficult issues facing it might differ. Like Abby, I have been hurt to my very core by being called a "self-hater" and "anti-Semitic" by my people in my own community, people I considered my mishpoche. As a columnist for Hearst Newspapers, I wrote about my disappointment with what transpired, what I considered the bias of the moderator, and my anger at what had happened to Abby and to other J-Street representatives, who were told to "Get Out." I said that the mainstream Jewish community didn't need to hire Frank Luntz to do an expensive survey to figure out why Jewish youth was disengaging from Israel. They could just watch the video I took with my Flip camera - at how Alan Dershowitz, acting with compliant moderator Golub, acted like a complete bully and tried to shut down all discussion. Rabbi Hammerman, of the host synagogue, Temple Beth-El, read my column and invited me to attend the discussion at his synagogue last Friday, and I was happy to attend. Abby, I can honestly tell you that I believe the people who confronted you were not congregants of Temple Beth-El. The members I encountered there were welcoming and interested in having a lively and respectful discussion of the issues - the kind of discussion we wished we could have seen between Jeremy Ben-Ami and Alan Dershowitz. That's not to say we agreed on everything. There were certainly people there who were still of the mind that all criticism of Israel should remain "in-house", and I find that enormously troubling. I had quite a heated discussion with a resident of Netanya about Israel's use of white phosphorus in Gaza. But we then continued our talk one-on-one when the group discussion ended, and were able to hug each other by the time we were done. Despite our differences, we were able to find, as you say so eloquently "acceptance and love for our neighbor." Abby, stay strong and don't ever allow yourself to be silenced. And please come back and visit us in Stamford! xo
To Ms. Backer, Your points are important and must be heard by everyone in the Jewish community. We are so threatened by conversation because we are so afraid of what we could lose, but by not having honest conversation we are actually digging ourselves into a much deeper hole. Thank you for all of your work, sacrifice, and commitment to Jewish community and peace between Israelis and Palestinians. G-d willing we will be receptive to your work as a community.
I was at the Hoffman lecture and spoke with Abby afterward. I wrote about how disheartened I was by the proceedings in my Stamford Advocate column (link above). While there are, unfortunately, those in the Stamford Jewish community who would write off the real pain of Abby's experience as "irrelevant" (http://www.stamfordadvocate.com/opinion/article/Heated-Israel-debate-served-its-purpose-713636.php), I honestly believe that the congregants of Temple Beth El are not among them. After reading my column, Rabbi Hammerman invited me to attend a discussion after services last Friday evening. We had an open and honest dialogue - at times heated, but always respectful. There are still those who believe that any criticism should be kept "in house" and I still disagree with those people. But at the end of the evening Jan, a woman with whom I'd had quite a prickly dialogue about the use of white phosphorus in Gaza, came over to speak with me. We had a further discussion, and we ended up hugging each other. The bottom line is that we're both Jews and we both love Israel. If only all discussions between people who disagreed vehemently could end that way. Abby, stay strong. I know it's hard when you're called a self-hater and an anti-Semite by your own mishpoche - I've been there. It hurts. It hurts in your deepest core. Besides being a political columnist I write for teens, and I wrote a blog post a while back about why Judaism was the perfect Young Adult faith - because it's all about arguing. Moses argues with G-d. A decent part of the seder is reading about the the Rabbis sitting around at Bnei Brak arguing about the plagues. So keep speaking up - and please come back to Stamford!
This is a beautifully written piece, Abby, with an immensely important message. Our community has suffered greatly throughout history- and this suffering has led many of us to dedicate our lives to alleviating the suffering of others. The fact that any member of our community, no matter how fringe, would say "you are a Palestinian" and imply that therefore you should be "spit on," should trouble all of us. Deeply. I commend Rabbi Hammerman for his comments, and I urge all of us to remember what is so often forgotten in the heat of debate and defensiveness: That a Palestinian spit upon is no different than a Jew spit upon, that a Palestinian expelled from their house is no less tragic than a Jew expelled from their house and that a Palestinian's right to a safe and secure homeland is no less valid than a Jew's right to a safe and secure homeland.
As rabbi of TBE Stamford and host of the Dershowitz - Ben Ami "conversation" (although not the moderator), I want to offer Abby a public apology for the unforgiveable treatment she received. There is no room for demonization in the Jewish community. We hosted Ben Ami precisely to send a strong signal to the Abby Backers of this world that my congregation embraces them and welcomes a wide diversity of views. My comments before and at the conclusion of the program reflected that concern. Although it is no excuse, it is important to note that nearly everyone among this enormous gathering (which exceeded 1,100) was civil and courteous, although many were passionate in their support of the speakers. Still, if even one person felt as Abby did, that is one too many. I have discussed this matter in greater detail at http://joshuahammerman.blogspot.com/2010/10/saving-carly.html I would like to think that the few "bad apples" were not congregants of mine, but again, no excuse. All we can do is learn from this and apply those lessons. We already have. Last Friday evening, following a service in which we recalled the hatred that led to Prime Minister Rabin's assassination 15 years ago, about 50 of my congregants sat to discuss some of the points raised by Ben Ami and Dershowitz. People had been listening actively but were confused. At one point during this discussion, the temperature rose as one of my more passionate Israel advocates disagreed with a J-Street supporter (whom I had invited because she too had felt uncomfortable at the prior event) over some of Israel's activities during the Gaza operation. But things cooled quickly - and at the end of the evening, they hugged. Yes, civility can happen. Even at synagogues! People can listen to the lecture itself at http://joshuahammerman.blogspot.com/2010/10/dershowitz-ben-ami-who-speaks-for.html

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