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I went from Bar Mitzvah to BDS at Temple Emanu-el

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I don’t remember the last time I attended services at Temple Emanu-el. Was it 14, 15 years ago? I recall the enormous space and the church-like choir hidden behind the ark; I remember hearing about Emanu-el’s history as one of the largest synagogues in the world and the first Reform congregation in New York City (its reputation for secularism earned it the nickname “Our Lady of Fifth Avenue”). If you had gone up to the 14-year-old version of me and told me that the next time I entered that building would be as a 29-year-old anti-Zionist journalist and pariah, I would have laughed in your face.

I returned to my former stomping grounds to hear an anti-BDS event innocuously titled “The BDS Movement.” It was held a week ago in a large auditorium in a building adjacent to the synagogue – the same building where I had once attended Hebrew school every Wednesday afternoon. The speakers were Israel lobbyist David Harris of the American Jewish Committee, Hillel Chief Campus Officer Hal Ossman, and a 22-year-old Israel-loving gentile named Lauren Rogers who had recently graduated from UCLA. Head Rabbi Joshua Davidson – a new addition since my time there – served as the moderator.

Temple Emanu-El in New York
Temple Emanu-El in New York

Ossman opened with a relatively mild defense of Hillel, which has recently been the focus of criticism from the Open Hillel campaign over restrictive standards that exclude supporters of BDS, the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign. Touting the organization’s Israel advocacy on campus, he also encouraged parents to “teach [their children] about Israel before they go to college. They are not at college to be activists and supporters of Israel – they’re at college to get an education and grow as adults.” The subtext of this statement is that the college experience is not about using educational resources to develop an informed political stance, but rather to promote prejudices inherited from earlier generations. Wrapping up his opening remarks, Ossman warned:

If you remember one thing from tonight, if you share one thing with your friends and neighbors, your children and grandchildren, it’s to help students pick a school with a strong Jewish community. That is the best way to ensure that your students have a safe and fruitful experience on campus.

There’s that word: safe. The paranoid undercurrent running through Ossman’s remarks should be familiar to anyone who’s heard Netanyahu’s speeches: Jews can only be safe when surrounded by their own kind.

While the severity of Ossman’s stance was undercut somewhat by his low-key persona, Harris showed no such restraint. With the look of a man who was born to angrily wipe a whipped cream pie off his face, he cut an almost comically indignant figure, the outrage in his voice growing with every carefully crafted bit of rhetoric. Besides being stringently anti-intellectual in his approach (neither international law nor Zionist ideology received any consideration), he gave the overall impression of being the kind of guy who probably takes down the names of wait staff so he can report them to their managers for subpar service.

After some cursory remarks, Harris told a personal story that took place in his town of Chappaqua – the well-to-do New York suburb that is also home to the Clintons. In 2001, shortly after 9/11, the high school that his children attended invited a Muslim family to conduct an assembly on Islam for the students. Harris recounted the event as if it were a defining moment in his life:

There was one Muslim family that came to the attention of the school and they invited them to come up on stage in front of roughly a thousand students from roughly 9th through 12th grade…My wife and I were very concerned about this. What would the family say from the stage and what would the children hear? And with the school’s permission, my wife attended the event. In the course of the event, the family, on more than one occasion, told the children, “Repeat after me: Allahu Akbar. Allahu Akbar.” And again. And when the program was over, my wife, completely incensed, went up to the organizer on the school staff and said, “How could you do this? Don’t you know that we’re in the middle of an intifada in Israel, and that those are the two words that are, more often than not, expressed before the suicide bombers unleash their deadly terror and try to kill my two sisters and their families?

“Allahu akbar” means “God is great.” Imagine, for a moment, an American Muslim lobbyist telling a story at a mosque about his children being forced to learn about the Star of David at school: “Don’t you know this is the symbol on tanks that destroy Palestinian villages?” Think about the breathlessness with which hypocrites like Harris would condemn this man, how quickly they would brand him an anti-Semitic supporter of terrorism and launch a campaign to destroy his career. And yet he saw no contradiction in his brand of pro-censorship Islamophobia; to him, publicly humiliating his neighbors for having the courage to share their religion (the Takbir is a central part of Muslim prayer) was somehow a noble act – one more righteous battle in a larger clash of civilizations.

Harris was followed by Lauren Roberts, a Tracy Flick-esqe young woman who spoke with the slow and deliberate enunciation of a kindergarten teacher reading aloud to her class. She talked about her fight against Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), whose divestment efforts struck her as unduly aggressive:

Shortly after my return from Israel, I was astonished when Students for Justice in Palestine brought forward an Israel divestment resolution to student council. BDS had arrived in full force at UCLA. Several of us on council had suggested a pro-peace, pro-dialogue alternative, but these anti-Israel groups wanted nothing to do with anything positive.

This notion – that a nonviolent movement seeking to replace colonialism and apartheid with democracy and equality is insufficiently “pro-peace,” is not new, but the fact that it raises so few eyebrows among Zionists is alarming.

The speakers, particularly Ossman and Roberts, spent a good part of their time vilifying SJP and taking college campuses to task for, essentially, extending freedom of speech to Arab and Muslim students. There was something very sad about this obsession with college kids – the sadness of people who know they’re fighting a battle they will eventually lose, and who can’t seem to see how ridiculous they’re making themselves look by wasting countless millions in the process.  Even more embarrassing, SJP – the organization described throughout the night as if it were an ISIS front group – is actually a national organization of politically savvy students (including plenty of Jewish members) who are committed to democracy and probably know more about Jewish tradition than the people attacking them do. Even an objective observer could see this battle for what it is: desperate, venal millionaires throwing money at a futile effort to suppress the constitutional rights of passionate young activists.

When it was time for the Q&A portion, I made my way down the aisle and tried to get a better feel for the room. The attendees, whom until then I had only seen from behind as a sea of bald spots and yarmulkes, appeared to have a median age of approximately 70. All the gray hair and bad comb-overs made me feel like I was on line for the early-bird special at a retirement home in Boca Raton.

A man at the front of the stage handed me a microphone. “I just wanted to mention I grew up in Emanu-el,” I began, “I had my bar mitzvah here. I went to Hebrew school right there. I went to the high holy days services.” A low, short-lived murmur of approval rose up behind me. I said that though I had heard a lot about BDS that night, I hadn’t heard much about the demands of BDS: equal rights for Palestinians, the right of return of refugees, and the end of the occupation. “As a BDS supporter,” I continued, “I just want to know what right you think you have to smear me as an anti-Semite and as a self-hating Jew, especially when not all of you are Jewish.” Another murmur arose, slightly louder and noticeably more hostile.

Harris jumped in immediately: “So let’s take three words here: ‘end the occupation.’” As this point, someone from the crowd yelled out, “there is no occupation,” but rather than correct this factually inaccurate statement, Harris decided to go another route: “There’s a long line of people here, so I’m not going to go back and forth, but I’d like to know which occupation we’re ending here.”

Not sure if he was being rhetorical, I responded, “West Bank and Gaza.”

“That’s your interpretation, sir,” Harris snapped.

Walking back to my seat, I passed a middle-aged man in a Nike hat clutching a rolled up magazine. He turned in his seat as I walked by and hissed, “You are an anti-Semite.” That I would be called an anti-Semite for my advocacy of Palestinian rights was a sadly inevitable consequence of supporting BDS; but that I would be implicitly linked to the horrors of Nazism and the blood libel while surrounded by members of the congregation in which I was raised was too distressing to think about. When I reached my spot near the back of the auditorium and sat down, I noticed my heart was racing.

Harris rambled on, at one point misattributing a quote to Vladimir Lenin to imply that I was a “useful idiot” serving the goals of more “hardcore” BDS supporters. As Harris continued to equivocate and deflect (“Which occupation are you talking about?”), a man about 10 years older than myself and with an aura reminiscent of George Costanza slowly approached me. I tensed in preparation for a harangue about how I had betrayed my people, but instead he smiled, reached out his hand, and said, “I want to apologize for the way you were treated back there.” A wave of relief washed over me and for a second I thought I might cry.  “Thank you,” I said. He sat down and introduced himself – he was a dentist, about 10 years older than me, and he thought that my question was a good one.

Afterwards, Rabbi Davidson approached me and shook my hand as well, curious to hear more about my position. It was clear he didn’t know quite what to make of me. Before long, I was surrounded by a small semi-circle of about half a dozen attendees – most of them congregants, all of them significantly older – and they were eager to pick my brain. I answered their questions as best I could, but mostly I talked to the dentist.

I was left with the impression that the decade separating us marked the span of a generation, perhaps several generations. He reminded me of the old men at my family Seder growing up – warm, nebbishy, quick to laugh at his own jokes. It was hard not to like the guy, but I couldn’t quite get a handle on him. Did he want to be my friend? Change my stance on Israel?  Once he started talking, he was impossible to stop; one minute he was commending me for upholding an anti-Zionist tradition older than Emanu-el itself, the next he was making unclear points with obscure Torah references and telling me he was voting for Bernie Sanders (“don’t tell my patients!”). The more he talked, the more it was apparent that he wasn’t an anti-Zionist at all. He was a quasi-liberal with an abiding love for Israel as a Jewish homeland and an apparently genuine respect for the anti-Zionist tradition in American Judaism; in other words, he was confused. After several attempts to say goodbye, I managed to leave.

The night had left me wired. I tried to relax and collect my thoughts while heading north through the empty, brightly lit streets of the Upper East Side. Walking west across Central Park, I stopped at the top of the Great Lawn and looked south at the glittering lights of midtown’s skyscrapers. I remembered the day when, in 9th grade, I had walked with my friend and his mom across that same lawn but in the opposite direction, looking south at those very skyscrapers and seeing an enormous plume of smoke rising above them from further downtown, silent and ominous. I thought of Gaza’s streets soaked with blood and strewn with severed limbs, its towers reduced to rubble with no memorials to mark their absence.

On I walked, out of the park and down Columbus Avenue, contemplating whether my efforts at engagement had been pointless. Was my question anything more than bizarre performance art, the acting out of a lapsed Jew? Who was I trying to sway, exactly? I knew before I entered the auditorium that David Harris and Hal Ossman would never accept BDS, and even the friendly dentist and other liberal-leaning members of the congregation were unlikely to ever support the movement. Had it all been a waste?

As I approached the 72nd street subway station, my mind still racing, a sense of purpose slowly started to return. In 20 years, I imagined, most of the people in that auditorium would be infirm from old age, and progressive millennials like myself would be raising their children to believe in democracy and equality without exception. Perhaps there was hope down the line…but what about in the meantime? How many more settlements and checkpoints and price tag attacks would the Palestinian people have to endure before they reached freedom and equality? How many Cast Leads and Protective Edges would have to be launched? How many Mohammad Abu Khdeirs and Ali Dawabshes would have to be burned alive?

Perhaps that was the only thing to do – wait for the guard to change while supporting BDS as best I could in the meantime. I would refuse to bite my tongue when asked to pledge allegiance to a country I had never belonged to and whose ideology I rejected. I would listen closely to Zionist arguments, all the better to dismantle them. I would state the case for Palestinian liberation to anyone who would listen – Jew or gentile – and would do my best to make them see the horror of Israel’s racism and violence. If they still denied this horror, I would tell them that there are Jews like me who can’t help but stand against it, and that there are more of us than they think.

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Beautifully written, Rob.
Yes, it is very important to point out the racism and violence and be a voice for reason. Anti-zionists have all the tools to do so, while zionists have no intellectual tools to defend their actions.

“The paranoid undercurrent running through Ossman’s remarks should be familiar to anyone who’s heard Netanyahu’s speeches: Jews can only be safe when surrounded by their own kind.” Actually, it should be familiar to anyone who has been on a college campus recently, where the dialogue is all about safe spaces,… Read more »

I offer you my respect, Mr. Bryan.

Temple Emanu-el’s sponsorship of this anti-BDS event put it at risk of losing its tax exempt status.

What occupation? How about the occupation of American Jewry by triumphant-no-back-talk-Zion?