Synagogues, red lines, and free speech
The recent decisions by a synagogue in Great Neck and another outside of Toronto to cancel appearances by anti-Islam activist Pamela Geller — both were rescheduled at other venues—have made headlines in the Jewish press and raised interesting questions for the Jewish community.
There are important issues at stake here. They are not new, but they are not going away. So let’s think through, yet again, who it is that we want speaking at our synagogues—and Federations and JCCs.
My first observation: Diversity of views should be welcome. Debate should be promoted and controversy encouraged. A synagogue that shuts down discussion whenever a wealthy donor is offended may appease the donor but will ultimately drive away its own members and lose its standing in the community. Synagogues are expected to challenge accepted thinking and to shake things up, at least a bit.
My second observation: Synagogues must have red lines. A synagogue bima is not an open forum; it is a platform used by a Jewish religious institution to promote Jewish values and strengthen the Jewish people and the Jewish state. There are people who should never be invited to speak there and things that should not be said there.
With that in mind, it is important to note that refusing to host a speaker at a synagogue does not raise freedom of speech issues of any kind. Americans have an absolute right, guaranteed by the constitution, to express themselves openly and freely, from any street corner or soapbox. But they are not entitled to demand that a voluntary religious organization provide them with an audience; synagogues—and churches and mosques—have no obligation to host a speaker who expresses ideas that they find abhorrent and that contradict their most fundamental religious principles.
(A synagogue, in this respect, is very different from a university. Universities have red lines too, but they are far more expansive. Americans expect universities to be a place where the broadest possible spectrum of views is expressed, and—as we saw recently at Brooklyn College—it is almost always counterproductive for Jewish communal groups to oppose university speakers or one-time programs, no matter how offensive.)
Each synagogue, of course, must define its own red lines and decide how they will apply in any given case. This is never easy, and different synagogues will come to different conclusions.
When asked for my counsel, I suggest the following broad guidelines:
Remember that the task of the synagogue is to promote Jewish religious tradition and Jewish well-being. At the same time, as noted above, don’t be afraid of strong views and of those who dissent from what may appear to be the communal consensus.
Never invite those who promote hatred of other religious and ethnic groups in the guise of advancing Jewish interests and values.
Don’t be afraid of a diversity of views on Israel, but make your expectations clear: Invite those with a firm commitment to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state; who, when criticisms are offered, will offer them with love and respect; and who are sensitive to Israel’s security needs and oppose terrorism against Israelis and Jews—indeed, who oppose terrorism in all forms and at all times.
And how do I apply these standards to current realities? To offer a few prominent examples:
Pamela Geller has no place in an American synagogue. She is a bigot and purveyor of hate.
BDS speakers have no place in American synagogues. They do not simply oppose Israeli policies; they oppose Israel’s very existence.
Peter Beinart and speakers from J Street should be welcomed. I have had my differences with Mr. Beinart and with J Street. At the same time, I agree with much of what they have to say, and I have always seen them as part of the Jewish family and the pro-Israel community. What is relevant here is that they meet the above criteria, and their voices are entitled to be heard.
I no longer oppose appearances in synagogues and Jewish settings by speakers for Christians United for Israel, a pro-Israel Christian group founded by Reverend John Hagee. Years ago, CUFI was a source of anti-Muslim sentiment; while their approach to Israel is very different from my own, the anti-Islam message has disappeared, and they too meet the criteria that I have set out.
Others in the Jewish community might offer different criteria or might apply them in a different way, but this much is clear: When deciding to whom we open our doors, we need a consistent, principled approach. Any synagogue or Jewish institution that does not have such a policy should develop one.