This is a cautionary tale of what can happen when the impulse among some supporters of Israel to lash out — in a fierce and often personally damaging way — with whom they disagree plays out. It’s about the harmful ripple effect, fueled by the Internet, of a facts-and-intention-be-damned approach: Ready. Fire. Aim. All in the name of protecting Zion.
The results, fed by self-righteousness on the part of the critics, and a miscalculation and feelings of hurt and alienation from the victim, dangerously deepen the gap between Jews on either side of the Israel divide.
This case centers on Rabbi Neil Blumofe, senior rabbi of Agudas Achim in Austin, Texas, the city’s only Conservative congregation, with more than 650 families. Originally a chazzan, with a diploma in vocal cantorial arts from the Jewish Theological Seminary, he was ordained by JTS and the Academy for Jewish Religion in Los Angeles.
The rabbi is well respected in his community. Jay Rubin, outgoing CEO of the local Jewish federation, describes him as “a strong and committed Zionist and an extremely effective congregational rabbi and community leader.” He says the rabbi serves his synagogue “with balance, nuance and distinction,” and that “he’s a healer and community builder deeply connected personally, professionally and politically to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”
Moshe Trepp, an Orthodox rabbi and Hillel director at the University of Texas in Austin, has been a chavruta (study partner in Jewish texts) of Rabbi Blumofe for more than eight years. During their weekly study sessions, Rabbi Trepp said, they “talk about our love and passion for Israel. We always compare notes following our Israel trips, talking about Shabbat in Hebron or Safed, visits to Kever Rachel [Rachel’s Tomb] or the City of David or our favorite falafel joints in Jerusalem.”
In recent days, though, due to a decision Rabbi Blumofe now regrets, he has been publicly and bitterly condemned, primarily via the Internet, as an enemy of Israel and the Jewish people by a number of pro-Israel activists, most of whom he has never met.
The flashpoint of the Austin controversy was over a planned visit to Yasir Arafat’s grave in Ramallah. Getty Images
Rabbi Blumofe has been active with a long and eclectic list of groups, including AIPAC, the Jewish National Fund’s Rabbis for Israel, the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem (as senior fellow), Rabbis Without Borders, the Texas Freedom Network (executive board), the Rabbinical Assembly and the Cantors Assembly.
He is also president of Interfaith Action of Central Texas, and it was in that capacity that he was planning a congregational trip to Israel for the summer of 2017 — he leads one every other year — that would include Christian clergy with whom he has a personal relationship.
“They tend to be either apathetic toward Israel or critical of its policies,” the soft-spoken rabbi told me about Christian clergy in one of a series of phone calls in recent days. “I do a lot of work in the non-Jewish community, where we are losing support for Israel. I was parlaying my reputation in Austin [as someone who is trusted] to provide a pro-Israel narrative for those who question and want to be challenged.”
The rabbi was planning an extensive trip to Israel with Mejdi Tours, which is co-owned by a Jew and a Palestinian who specialize in presenting both sides of the struggle and are each active in conflict resolution. Their Israeli tours are led jointly by an Israeli and a Palestinian, and Rabbi Blumofe was impressed with one of the Palestinian tour guides he had met previously on a personal trip to the region.
“He was very critical of the narrative Palestinians use to describe themselves, and he knew Israel well,” said the rabbi, who emphasized that he was seeking “a thoughtful experience” for his Christian colleagues in offering a better understanding of the complexities of the Mideast so they could come away feeling more positively toward Israel.
“This was a conscious effort to be thoughtful and creative” in planning the trip, Rabbi Blumofe said, to be “one worthy of both comfort and discomfort.”
On day 11 of the 15-day trip the itinerary called for a 20-minute stop in Ramallah at the grave of PLO founder Yasir Arafat.
That was the rabbi’s undoing.
‘Beyond The Pale’
At the end of July, when Rabbi Blumofe returned from a personal visit to Israel, where he studied at the Hartman Institute’s summer program for rabbis, he learned that a congregant, Richard Brook, who described himself as a former “big fan” of the rabbi’s, had written him a letter calling for his resignation. It was based on having seen a draft of the 2017 trip itinerary with its planned visit to Arafat’s tomb.
Brook wrote that “paying homage” to the PLO founder responsible for the deaths of many Jews was “beyond the pale … like paying your respects to Hitler’s tomb, if one existed.
“Somehow your priorities have become completely perverted,” he wrote, explaining: “What’s at issue here is what is in your head and what is in your heart. You have revealed yourself to be a man of poor judgment and little common sense. Sadly, your moral compass is completely broken. It’s time for you to resign.”
Rabbi under fire: Neil Blumofe planned next summer’s Israel trip as “one worthy of both comfort and discomfort.”
Soon after, Brook’s letter went viral, appearing in full on Israel Matzav, a blog written by “Carl from Jerusalem,” who wrote of rabbis who “think Judaism requires” that they “go to worship at the tomb of the father of terrorism.”
Joseph Davidsohn of Austin wrote an open letter to Rabbi Blumofe, asserting that “your actions have opened up an entirely new page in the history of treachery … helping to promote modern blood liables [sic] against Israel and world Jewry,” based on “an agenda” that “proposes to glorify” murderers. The letter accused the rabbi of “glorifying the founder of contemporary terrorism … as if he were one of the great humanitarians in history, mak[ing] you lower than any kapo during World War II.”
In response, Rabbi Blumofe, after discussion with his synagogue leadership, said the itinerary for next summer’s trip to Israel was being revised and would not include a visit to Arafat’s grave.
When I spoke with the rabbi last week, he acknowledged it was “a mistake” to have had the draft of the original itinerary distributed. He said it was intended for participants in the trip, described as “people who want to be challenged” in their views, and that the intention had been to hold a serious and “complex conversation” at Arafat’s grave on who he was and what he symbolized for Palestinians and for Israelis and Jews.
The planned visit was not meant “to elevate, but to see how people form their own creation myth,” the rabbi said.
Regardless of his motives and goal, though, the rabbi came under heavy attack.
Davidsohn distributed his letter widely, noting that he had “taken the liberty of cc’ing some friends and journalists, Israeli organizations and agencies, activists and publicists, along with bcc’ing some key financial supporters and personalities,” including Michael Dell, the founder of Dell computers and a major contributor to the Austin Jewish community.
The New York-based JCC Watch website, which has labeled the JCC Manhattan and UJA-Federation as anti-Israel, sent out Davidsohn’s letter, with accompanying outrage, to its mailing list.
One of those who read of Rabbi Blumofe’s actions was Avi White, an Israeli veteran of the IDF who moved to Austin a decade ago and has a public relations firm that supports a variety of Republican politicians in Texas.
White put out a press release calling on Dell, chief funder of the Dell Jewish Community Center in Austin, as well as federation CEO Jay Rubin and the local rabbinic community, to “disavow” Rabbi Blumofe’s actions and “withhold further funding” of Rabbi Blumofe and the JCC “until anti-Israel activities come to a stop.”
The statement asserted that the rabbi “has lent his name, support and reputation” to “George Soros-funded organizations such as T’ruah, Breaking the Silence, the New Israel Fund, Rabbis Without Borders” and “other anti-Israel and anti-Semitic organizations” with a “record of making libelous attacks against the IDF and promoting the policies of organizations that seek to destroy the State of Israel as well as sponsoring terrorism.”
‘We All Have Made Mistakes’
The barrage of criticism, much of it factually inaccurate, prompted local federation exec Rubin and Rabbi Trepp of UT Austin’s Hillel to come to Rabbi Blumofe’s defense. Rubin said he has been in Austin 10 years and had never heard of the rabbi’s fiercest local attackers, who are not active in the community. He asserted that they and others “use the Internet to smear people and didn’t bother to check facts,” like saying the rabbi is a member of T’ruah, a left-leaning rabbinic human rights organization often critical of Israeli policies.
Rabbi Blumofe is not a member.
“Neil is not left-wing, he has strong pro-Israel credentials,” Rubin said. “We have all made mistakes at some point. We have enough enemies — real enemies. I don’t understand going after people within the tent.”
Rabbi Trepp was urged by local critics of Rabbi Blumofe’s actions to speak out against his study partner. Instead he wrote on Facebook that Rabbi Blumofe “has never been a member or associated with” T’ruah, New Israel Fund or Breaking the Silence.
“His name was being destroyed,” he told me. “I think the political debate [over Rabbi Blumofe’s original plan to visit Arafat’s grave] is legitimate — I have massive problems with that trip — but I draw the line at personal attack. I went and talked with him and he was sincere and convincing. It’s clear he loves Israel. So I felt it was unfair to stay out [of the controversy] when they were throwing him under the bus.
“It’s good to be passionate about Israel,” Rabbi Trepp said of Rabbi Blumofe’s vocal critics, “but they should be respectful and stick to the point, the cause, the objective. When it becomes personal, you’ve lost the fight.”
But the critics have claimed victory, noting that Rabbi Blumofe has canceled the Arafat visit and is on the defensive. And they point to a similar incident with a rabbi in Raleigh, N.C., who canceled a trip to Israel this summer that included a planned stop at Arafat’s grave.
The critics I spoke with had no remorse about their verbal attacks after learning that Rabbi Blumofe is not affiliated with the left-wing groups they said he belonged to, or his intention to have a discussion about Arafat at the PLO founder’s grave, or that Mejdi Tours, which they claimed was an anti-Israel operation, is co-owned by a Jew and a Palestinian whose clients have included the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and AIPAC. Instead, the critics stressed that their main concern was the rabbi’s initial decision to include a stop at Arafat’s grave.
“If the accusations forwarded to me were false,” Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, a longtime hard-right activist, wrote in an e-mail, “then I pre-judged.” The “only pertinent matter to me,” he continued, “is whether he [Rabbi Blumofe] knew that the Arafat stop was included in the itinerary.”
Rabbi Blumofe believes he has been defamed, calling the statements about him “insidious slander.” Bemoaning that fact-checking is “a lost art” and noting that “a core Jewish belief is giving someone the benefit of the doubt,” he told me there was no serious attempt by his critics to discuss his goals and rationale for the trip before verbally attacking him.
If only the congregant he has known for 18 years and whose letter started the barrage of invective had come to him for a conversation, all of this trouble might have been avoided, he believes. In an interview, he stressed that the itinerary in question was “a draft form — in process — and meant to serve as discussion and an unfolding thought experiment” for those interested in participating in the trip next June.
But nuance and subtlety don’t play well when the subject is Yasir Arafat, widely viewed by Jews as a modern-day Haman. Visiting his grave is seen as honoring him, whether or not that is the intent, and certain to inflame Jewish hearts. Still, publicly vilifying a rabbi, communal leader and lover of Israel for an ill-chosen act — without first seeking an explanation — is unseemly, unethical and fosters Jewish enmity, not unity.
As Rabbi Blumofe sadly noted, “it takes years to build a healthy community and a moment to rip it apart.”