Peter Beinart Is Wrong: Israel Haters Should Not Be Synagogue Educators
When a Scarsdale, N.Y., synagogue fired an educator who accused Israel of genocide and U.S. Jews of enabling violent racism at home, Beinart and others rushed to her defense. What on earth were they thinking?
I have a question for Peter Beinart, Daniel Boyarin, Hasia Diner, Shaul Magid and the 70 or so other Jewish academics, writers and activists who signed an open letter to the leadership of Westchester Reform Temple of Scarsdale, New York.
The question is: What were you thinking?
As reported in The New York Times, Jessie Sander was apparently fired from her teaching position at the Temple because of a blog post she had written that was critical of Zionism and Israel. The open letter requests that, if the blog post was in fact the reason for her dismissal, the decision should be reconsidered. The letter asserts that Ms. Sander’s views are shared by a growing segment of the Jewish community and suggests that her ideas are “fully consistent” with Jewish values.
Sander has filed a lawsuit against the Temple, seeking reinstatement in her job as well as compensatory damages.
I have not spoken to the leaders of the Temple, and I have no inside information on what transpired. But now that I have read the post, I believe that the signers of the letter probably got it right. She likely was fired for her blog post, and in my view, she should have been.
The post is not, as the open letter implies, a thoughtful, well-reasoned critique of Israel and its policies. It is not an attack on Israeli settlement building or on other injustices in Israel that idealistic young Jews – or any Jews – would be right to mention. And it certainly is not a passionate defense of the highest Jewish values.
No, it is something else: An ignorant screed, dripping with hatred of Israel, and presenting the Jewish state as a uniquely evil and monstrous entity, guilty of unspeakable crimes.
According to Ms. Sander and her co-author, the Jewish state is not even entitled to the name “Israel” but is referred to as “israel” (with a small i), a reflection of her view that it is an illegitimate product of settler colonialism.
She writes of the genocide perpetrated against the Palestinians, even though no such genocide occurred; massacres and expulsions, yes, on both sides, but no genocide, and using the word both cheapens it and distorts history.
She expresses hatred of the American Jewish community that is almost as vicious as her hatred of Israel; American Jews, she writes, have enabled the genocide of Palestinians, and allowed it to continue, refusing to resist the “American-israeli military-industrial complex.”
But it gets worse. At precisely the time when anti-Semitism is dramatically on the rise, Ms. Sander proclaims that Israel’s role as a safe haven – the central task of Zionism – is a “false Zionist narrative,” intended to distract Jews from the struggle for justice in the world. The still lethal enemies of Jews around the world seem not to worry her.
And from there, Sander herself actually embraces the language of antisemites: Israel, she writes, trains American police, who in turn enact violence against Black and Brown Americans. This means that Israel, and American Jews who support them, must take some responsibility for the repression of Blacks and other marginalized Americans.
What American synagogue in its right mind would want a person with such views teaching its children?
If one wished to be understanding of Sander, the only defense I can think of is that she is young. And when making judgments, the inclination of the young for zealotry must be considered. But only up to a point.
And most of those who signed the open letter have no such excuse. Peter Beinart and most of his co-signers are not young, naïve or uneducated. And while they can believe what they wish about Israel, they are not entitled to misstate what Sander said and mischaracterize what her words mean.
As noted, they contend that a “growing segment of the Jewish community” shares her views. But what is the evidence for such a claim? According to the Pew study of American Jews published last year, young Jewish Americans under the age of 29 have less of an emotional attachment to Israel than do their parents. But there is a big difference between Sander’s spitting contempt for Israel and the diminished connection of some young Jews noted in the survey.
And the Birthright program, which has brought more than half a million young Jews to Israel, also constitutes a challenge to their claim. Not all participants were enthusiastic about Israel; some were ambivalent about the Jewish state, some indifferent and some concerned. But the response of a clear majority was positive, indicating that, for young people too, the gravitational pull of Israel on the Jewish soul remains reasonably strong.
And the contention of the open letter that “many educators within the Reform movement” hold views similar to Sender is absolute poppycock. Among Reform Jewish educators there are critical voices, to be sure, as well as anger over settlements and deep concern about the absence of religious freedom. But the Reform movement embraces Zionist principles, and Sander’s fiery hatred of Israel and of Jewish sovereignty is nowhere to be found in its educational ranks. Anyone who thinks otherwise had better present the evidence.
Sander will not win her lawsuit. American law gives religious institutions wide latitude in choosing educators and clergy who share their theological beliefs.
But the more fundamental question raised by the open letter is: Legal issues aside, are there any conceivable reasons why Reform synagogues, or any synagogues, should consider exposing their children to teachers such as Sander?
The letter notes with approval the stated willingness of Westchester Reform to embrace “wrestling with Israel” as an educational principle, with the suggestion that Sander could help in this process. And yes, educating about Israel means wrestling with difficult issues, permitting open discussion and criticism, raising matters such as West Bank settlements and acknowledging Palestinian suffering.
But again, there are obvious red lines that should be maintained. A religious school is not a soap box or an open forum; it is an instrument for synagogues to expose young and impressionable children to the values of the Jewish tradition as their community understands them. And for virtually every synagogue in America, those values include strengthening the Jewish people and the Jewish state.
There are certain people who should never be teachers in a synagogue setting: Holocaust deniers, supporters of terrorism and purveyors of hate are obvious examples, and so are haters of Israel who oppose the Jewish state’s very existence.
How then to balance the need to promote loving and embracing Israel with the obligation to convey the truth about Israel’s shortcomings? In advising synagogue leaders and educators, I generally suggest that they set out for potential teachers the basic principles that guide their school’s approach to the subject of Israel.
And I tell them that in my view, those principles should be the ones that reflect the values of classical Zionism and the teachings of Reform Judaism in the last half century: A commitment to the Jewishness of Israel, to the democratic character of Israel and to human and civil rights for all of Israel’s inhabitants.
These principles are true to the values of our texts and traditions, and they convey the message to our kids that we want them to be involved in Israel’s fate and implicated in its destiny. At the same time, they leave ample room for our children to be critics, and even harsh critics of Israel; to engage complexity on the difficult questions of Israeli-Palestinian relations and to avoid whitewashing.
An advocate of annexing territories, or of leaving Palestinians in a permanent state of subservience, would not be hired under these standards. And neither would Ms. Sander.
But she shouldn’t be.
Despite what her champions say in their letter, her vicious hostility to the Zionist enterprise disqualifies her. Most American Jews do not see in her opinions the pursuit of justice – for Jews and all peoples – in which she professes to be engaged. What they see is a hatred of Israel so ugly and profound that it offends, undermines and disfigures the shared moral culture of Torah, which ultimately is what our religious schools are meant to teach.