An open tent requires an open mind

Peter Beinart FLICKR PHOTO
Peter Beinart FLICKR PHOTO

As we navigate our way through the perilous early 21st century, the question for our community is how big should we make our Jewish communal tent?

As we confront such problems as anti-Israel boycotts, Palestinian activism (as opposed to terrorism), anti-Israel invective (especially on university campuses), and the role of domestic social advocacy, we must address this issue.

From urging Jewish leadership to adopt a more active role in tikkun olam to addressing progressive views on Israel not aligned with mainstream beliefs, these are the issues we face.

Take, for example, CUNY professor Peter Beinart, a committed Jew and Zionist. Recognized as a brilliant scholar of modern Judaic thought, he was also a member of the debating society at Yale University, a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University and a former editor of the New Republic –the youngest person ever to hold that position. Beinart attends an Orthodox synagogue in New York, keeps kosher and sends his children to Jewish day school.


In 2010, he wrote a searing commentary that challenged the norms of the community. An opponent of BDS (though he does support limited boycotts of goods from the occupied territories), he has questioned mainstream Jewry’s commitment to an open tent that would have room for such discussions, no matter how disturbing or how opposed we are to these ideas.

Beinart’s goal is to take the blinders off North American Jewry’s very staid leadership when it comes to Israel and criticism of Israeli policy. In a recent speech to the left-wing U.S. Zionist group J Street, Beinart said, “Any Jewish leader who conflates disagreement in policy with anti-Semitism should be fired.”

Beinart has good reason to feel put upon. Official Hillel policy across North America is to disallow him from speaking to students at Hillel events. Even here in Canada, a couple years back, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs’ official recommendation to Canadian Hillel organizations was to refuse to engage with him.

Another case in point: last month, JNF Canada cancelled its co-sponsorship of a community Yom Ha’atzmaut concert in Vancouver featuring celebrated Israeli songstress Achinoam Nini, known as Noa. It seems that a mischievous and now retracted Feb. 12 Jerusalem Post article was to blame. It wrongly asserted that Noa is sympathetic to the BDS movement. Truth notwithstanding, JNF held firm. Thankfully, the Israeli Embassy stepped in to co-sponsor the event with the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver.

Regarding social advocacy, in a recent edition of The CJN, dozens of well-respected Jewish academics, thinkers, authors, rabbis and teachers signed a letter decrying the demise of Jewish activism on social justice. I was among the signatories. Many, however, were afraid to sign, fearing the potential wrath of community leaders.

I understand this fear. Late last year, a senior Jewish communal professional took me to task simply for criticizing the way Jewish advocacy is conducted in our community. In a public rant on my Facebook page, a national spokesperson for the Jewish community claimed, “Your constant false and misleading attacks would be humorous, but for the fact that they damage the community… You mischaracterize X’s work, and you do it deliberately, because you are angry and bitter… your complaints have little to do with social justice and everything to do with your own personal venom. Your motives are suspect, your tactics are loathsome.”

I have a thick skin, but such public exhortations against me have the direct effect of silencing others who may now think twice before offering even constructive criticism to Jewish leadership.

In my view, short of hatemongers and those who will deny the right for Jews to a state of their own, all voices must be heard. Public bullying must be replaced with respectful listening. We may not like everything we hear, but in order to have an open tent that embraces the community, we also must have an open mind.

Photo: Center for American Progress Action Fund Flickr