Peter Beinart and the powerful, but voiceless, Jews of Atlanta

The New York Times published an interesting story about the Atlanta Jewish Book Festival (“Jewish Book Event in Atlanta Cancels Author’s Talk on Zionism, and Uproar Follows“). It’s a great piece with the weirdest missing element. Here’s the top:

ATLANTA — The Jewish community in the metropolitan Atlanta area, by most definitions, is small, vibrant and close-knit.

There are perhaps 120,000 people who identify themselves as Jewish. For as long as most people can remember, relations among the various subgroups have been sometimes cantankerous but largely cordial and supportive.

But an appearance by an author who argues for a more liberal look at Zionism has been causing waves of conflict. Peter Beinart, who edits the Daily Beast blog Open Zion and writes regularly on Jewish politics, was to be one of 52 authors at the popular book festival held by the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta.

But after some members complained, the center canceled his event. Even though another Jewish group rescheduled his talk, the center’s decision prompted boycott threats, criticism from rabbis and charges of censorship.

We get a feel for the diversity of the two-week festival, which draws more than 10,000 folks: Tony Danza, Michael Feinstein, Deborah Feldman. Feldman is the author of “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots.”

What I find fascinating about the piece is that it’s all about how some members of the community were able to get Beinart kicked out of the festival. But we never hear from them or are told what they found objectionable about his views. We’re told about his book “The Crisis of Zionism.” We’re told about a portion of his argument:

Mr. Beinart argues, in part, that younger, liberal American Jews are turning away from the established American Jewish community in part because it is not fostering open debate about Israel and does not defend democratic values in the Jewish state. His change to a more liberal interpretation of Zionism and his call for a boycott of products from Israeli settlements and Israeli-occupied territories have made him a controversial figure.

We’re told that the talk was sponsored by “the national political advocacy group J Street.” I imagine we could describe that group with a bit more attention to its particular political views, but whatever. J Street found a new location and sold 200 tickets.

The community center’s leaders say they thought they threaded the needle the best they could, balancing the concerns of the patrons. We’re told that there was brushback. But whereas the anti-Beinart folks are kept nameless and without a voice defending themselves, the other side is given the balance of the piece to explain its side:

Rabbis criticized the decision during services last weekend. Open letters to the Jewish community were published in The Jewish Times.

“Two cardinal principles of Judaism have been violated: a support of censorship and the public embarrassment of a fellow Jew,” wrote Rabbi Philip N. Kranz of the Temple Sinai in Sandy Springs, Ga. He and others vowed to boycott the book festival because of what they perceive to be censorship.

I would have liked a bit more about this new-to-me cardinal principle about public embarrassment of a fellow Jew. Fascinating! Anyway, we here from some J Street partisans.

That’s great, but wouldn’t it have been nice to hear from the other major players in the story? The group who successfully persuaded the book festival to avoid hosting Beinart’s views?

  • Denny

    I would be curious to see if those cardinal rules have ever been applied toward conservative Jews.

  • Brock

    One of the 613 mitzvot, “Not to shame a fellow Jew” is number 33 in this list: http://www.jewfaq.org/613.htm

    Also see (for example) the last mitzvot on this page: http://www.chassidus.com/general/daily-rambam/009.htm, or halacha 8 on this page: http://www.chassidus.com/general/daily-rambam/009.htm. This mitzvot is (I think) closely related to the Jewish ban on lashon hara (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lashon_hara), which forbids revealing TRUE negative facts about others in many situations.

    I love this blog but you really need to up your game on the Judaism front.

    • mollie

      Brock, would you say that each and every of the 613 mitzvot are “cardinal” rules of Judaism then? When I visited Israel a few years ago, I was told something about “cardinal” rules being focused on murder, sexual sin and worship.

      • Sari

        mollies, lashon hara. (lit:evil tongue) derives from several biblical mitzvot, including the one to love one’s neighbor (vahavtah l’reiakhah kamokhah). Can one get more cardinal than that?

        There’s also a cultural bias towards insulation, a response to the institutionalized persecution suffered over the centuries, which recognizes that one person’s behavior can have negative effects for the entire community. Most Jewish people above a certain age were taught the phrase “a shanda fur de goyim.” We don’t air internal issues or behave badly so as not to validate non-Jews’ prejudices or give them reasons. to hurt the community. Example : people referred to Madoff as a shanda and worried about repercussions.

        More than a liberal versus conservative thing, I think this is more a function of age and experience . Younger Jews, especially the more assimilated, are fully integrated in a way that the more observant and/or older Jews are /were not. They are less likely to have been humiliated and have had little direct exposure to the Shoah; most survivors have died and can no longer testify to the need for a Jewish homeland.

  • Brock

    Sorry, this is the link I meant to paste after “halacha 8 on this page:” http://www.chabad.org/dailystudy/rambam.asp?tDate=3/30/2012


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