Three prominent liberal New York rabbis have abruptly resigned from the advisory board of a new national Jewish peace group after their names appeared in a controversial full-page New York Times ad that likened Israel to the Passover story’s evil Pharaoh, and also used a Nazi allusion to describe the Sharon government’s military actions in the West Bank and Gaza.
The two senior rabbis of Manhattan’s popular Congregation B’nai Jeshurun — Rolando Matalon and Marcelo Bronstein — told The Jewish Week they resigned from The Tikkun Community, founded by far left San Francisco Rabbi Michael Lerner, because he included their names in the ad despite their clear objections.
The rabbis also said they have disinvited The Tikkun Community from holding its scheduled April 11 regional meeting at their Upper West Side synagogue.
A third Tikkun Community advisory board member, Rabbi Irwin Kula, executive director of CLAL, also has resigned, spokeswoman Judy Epstein said Monday.
The controversy sheds light on dissension within the left-wing peace camp and the difficulty of trying to promote peace and “love of the stranger” while the death toll increases among Jews and Palestinians.
It also raises questions about how far one can go with provocative language that criticizes Israel.
The ad is “too provocative and aggressive, harsh and shoving the message down people’s throats,” Rabbi Bronstein said.
The ad, which cost $38,000, called for a world day of fasting on March 27 “in support of the reservists and in opposition to the use of violence by both sides and in opposition to the Occupation.” Nearly 400 Israeli army reserve officers, citing human rights violations, are publicly refusing to serve in the West Bank and Gaza.
The ad also encouraged supporters to turn their Passover seder (or for non-Jews the observance of Easter’s Holy Week) into a mini teach-in “about the way Israel is increasingly perceived as a Pharaoh to a population that is seeking its own freedom and self-determination.”
The B’nai Jeshurun rabbis were among nearly 500 names that appeared in the March 22 ad.
Tikkun Community leaders told The Jewish Week Tuesday the inclusion of the rabbi’s names was a mistake, a result of miscommunication, design problems with the ad and the deadline requirements of the Times’ ad department.
But the B’nai Jeshurun rabbis said they were “surprised, angry and disappointed” when they learned their names were included after they expressly asked Rabbi Lerner to omit them.
Their names appear at the bottom of the page under the heading “Advisory Board.”
“It’s a breach of trust, and for that reason we are resigning from the advisory board,” said Rabbi Matalon.
“We believe Michael is well intended and he has the prophetic voice, and at the same time he sometimes has trouble hearing,” Rabbi Bronstein said. “We don’t want to say he tricked us; he did something that is not correct.”
The two rabbis stressed they agree with The Tikkun Community in opposing Israel’s West Bank and Gaza settlements and strongly support the reservists.
A spokeswoman for Rabbi Kula said he was on vacation and could not be reached for comment.
The Tikkun Community, which includes Jews and non-Jews, was founded by Rabbi Lerner several months ago to promote “a New Planetary Consciousness recognizing that our well-being depends on the well-being of every single person on this planet.”
It bills itself as a “progressive pro-Israel alternative to AIPAC,” the Washington-based establishment lobby group.
But the BJ rabbis objected to the ad as one-sided against Israel.
The 10-paragraph ad states that it opposes Israel’s “Occupation” 11 times. It refers to terror and violence against Israel by Palestinians once. It opposes “the use of violence by both sides” twice.
The ad states: “The new Israeli refuseniks have learned the lessons of history: ‘Following orders’ to enforce a brutal occupation is immoral and self-destructive.”
The rabbis objected to describing the army reservists as “refuseniks” — a term used to describe Jews oppressed by Soviet authorities after being refused permission to immigrate to Israel.
Rabbi Matalon said he objected to the use of refuseniks because “it equates in some way the soldiers with Jews who opposed the Soviet regime in those years. You can’t mix these things and make them equivalent.”
The rabbis also balked at the term “following orders” because “it’s basically equating Nazis with this,” Rabbi Bronstein said.
The ad also included a cartoon portraying a grotesque supporter of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon denouncing a group of Tikkun Community people as “anti-Semites and self-hating Jews.”
Rabbi Matalon said it’s one thing to have a Jewish internal debate about the Sharon government’s military policies, but “when we speak in a public forum in The New York Times, we must also make it clear we call on other side” to cease violence.
The two rabbis said they were presented with a final draft about a month ago and “we made it very clear we didn’t want to be part of it,” Rabbi Matalon said.
Deborah Kory, the managing editor of Rabbi Lerner’s Tikkun magazine, told The Jewish Week Monday that the inclusion of their names was a mistake.
“We made a mistake in putting the advisory board list on the ad, but it was a mistake stemming from a miscommunication between Michael Lerner and me which had to due with the generally harried nature of life here and not with the intent to appropriate unwilling supporters,” she said by e-mail.
Rabbi Lerner detailed the faux pas, apologized for using certain terms and defended the ad as balanced and historic. He said the ad was meant to read in two distinct sections: one supporting the reservists and the other explaining The Tikkun Community, listing the advisory board.
“There was never any intention to suggest that they endorse the specifics of the ad,” he said in an e-mail.
Rabbi Lerner said members of the advisory board were sent draft copies of the text “at least on 30 different occasions as the text evolved.”
Further he explained that the last time he checked the ad, he deleted the advisory board names, but they were “by mistake re-introduced by someone designing the ad who thought I had eliminated them only for space reasons.”
“I do very much regret … that the rabbis you mentioned were not aware that their names were going to be used on this other part of the ad concerned with The Tikkun Community [and not with the refusal to serve]. I certainly wish their names had not been listed.”
Rabbi Lerner rejected criticism that the ad is one-sided.
“I defy you to show me a single ad ever produced by either the Jewish or Palestinian communities which has ever acknowledged the problem being caused by both sides — or calling on both sides to repent,” he said.
“This is the most balanced ad that has ever been produced by a pro-Israel group, and that is precisely why the Jewish establishment has come down so hard against those who signed this ad, trying to avoid the content of the ad and instead deal with the process by which it was put together.”
Regarding the use of provocative language, Rabbi Lerner said, “I would also not use the word ‘refusenik,’ and I would have made clearer that the reference to ‘following orders’ was not about Nazis but about Vietnam, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Chechnya, Tibet, Bosnia, Kosovo and dozens of other places where we now recognize that soldiers who followed orders were violating human rights and should not have used that excuse.”
Nevertheless, he said, “I am gratified by the thousands of Jews who have responded with thanks for us having demonstrated that there are many people in this country who are both pro-Israel and see Israel’s current policies as immoral and self-destructive.”
But others saw the ad as self-destructive to The Tikkun Community and its message.
The raw sensitivity was evident around the Jewish world, as Rabbis Matalon, Bronstein and Kula received angry phone calls from outraged constituents criticizing them for appearing to support The Tikkun Community statement.
“I have never received calls like that,” said one Jewish organization leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They were outraged about the language in the ad. They were overflowing with emotion.”
The official called the ad unbalanced, and while understanding and even sympathetic to the message, said the provocative text “makes me unsympathetic and alienates me.”
One outraged Jewish official was the victim of mistaken identity.
When Manhattan’s Jonathan Jacoby, a founder of the liberal Israel Policy Forum, was informed that his name appeared as a signer of the ad, he fired off an outraged e-mail to Rabbi Lerner demanding an explanation.
“I didn’t sign it and I would not have signed it,” he said early Monday. “The language is inappropriate, I don’t agree with its substance and I think that the cartoon is disgusting.”
But by mid-afternoon, The Tikkun Community had a simple explanation: The ad was supported by another Jonathan Jacoby from Massachusetts.
Said Tikkun’s Kory: “It’s surprisingly treacherous to be a voice of peace and reconciliation in the current political climate, and some people seem intent on misconstruing our message.”
- Michael Lerner
- New York Times
- San Francisco
- board member
- Irwin Kula
- Marcelo Bronstein
- Eric J. Greenberg
- Rolando Matalon
- Jonathan Jacoby
- Judy Epstein
- Deborah Kory
- Rabbi Lerner
- Rabbi Kula
- Holy Week
- executive director
- New York
- west bank
- Social Issues
- Staff Writer
- The New York Times
- the Times