Jews For Racial and Economic Justice, the New York City social action group, had planned to hold its annual awards dinner, as usual, at the Upper West Side Congregation B’nai Jeshurun.
After all, the dovish group’s major award is named for the progressive synagogue’s beloved late Rabbi Marshall Meyer. And its current rabbi, Rolando Matalon, is on the JFREJ board of directors.
But after some public criticism last week about this year’s recipient of the annual Marshall Meyer Risk-Taker Award, Adam Shapiro, JFREJ has moved its June 4 event to the nearby Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew.
The flap also has B’nai Jeshurun changing its policy about allowing outside groups to use its facility.
Shapiro, who was raised in a Jewish home but has said he no longer follows any religion, garnered international attention in March 2002 for literally standing by Yasir Arafat when the Israeli military bombed the Palestinian leader’s Ramallah headquarters following a spate of horrific suicide attacks against Israel.
Shapiro, who ran a Seeds of Peace youth center in Jerusalem, later joined the International Solidarity Movement, a pro-Palestinian group, as the intifada escalated. Trapped inside Arafat’s compound while providing medical aid, Shapiro sharply criticized Israel’s actions before the world.
For some Jews, Shapiro became the face of the traitor, prompting some Jewish radicals to harass members of his family in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn.
The controversy heated up again last week after a front-page story in The Sun newspaper about the Shapiro ceremony at B’nai Jeshurun. The story accused Shapiro of encouraging "Palestinians to attack Israelis," citing an Internet article co-signed by Shapiro "in which he made the argument that Palestinian resistance wouldn’t be effective without the use of violence."
"The Palestinian resistance must take on a variety of characteristics, both nonviolent and violent," the Internet piece said. "But most importantly it must develop a strategy involving both aspects. No other successful nonviolent movement was able to achieve what it did without a concurrent violent movement."
Jack Rosen, president of the American Jewish Congress, was among those upset by the honor for Shapiro.
"Adam Shapiro and the group he helps lead hold a poisonous view of Israel and Jewish interests," Rosen said in the Sun. "Honoring such a view would be a grave mistake at any time, but all the more so for a Jewish group to do so at this moment of diplomatic fluidity in the Middle East."
David Twersky, a spokesman for AJCongress, asked in a phone interview with The Jewish Week: "Why doesn’t JFREJ honor a leftist Zionist?"
The day after the article appeared, B’nai Jeshurun distanced itself from the JFREJ event.
Even though the group’s annual function "has been held at B’nai Jeshurun for a number of years," BJ executive director Deborah Pinsky wrote in a public statement, "[BJ] has nothing to do with the selection of JFREJ’s honorees, and JFREJ’s choices of honorees in no way reflects [our] policy."
JFREJ then decided to withdraw from BJ and hold the event elsewhere.
"We are changing the venue in order to clarify that BJ is not connected to our honorees and choice of honorees," executive director Marla Brettschneider told The Jewish Week Monday.
But she backed the selection of Shapiro and his family to receive the risk-taker award. She said the goal is to raise public awareness about the crackdown on dissent in the American and Jewish communities.
Brettschneider accused critics of taking Shapiro’s quote about violence and suicide bombing out of context. She said the thrust of the article Shapiro co-wrote "explicitly makes the case for the need of a viable, nonviolent alternative in the Palestinian movement. That’s the whole purpose of the article."
Shapiro could not be reached for comment.
JFREJ in a May 5 letter to the Sun called the newspaper story distorted.
Its co-chair, Esther Kaplan, said that promoting nonviolence "is the core of the ISM’s mission."
"In honoring Adam, we honor the ISM’s profound and principled commitment to the nonviolent path. In honoring his family, we express deep sadness and outrage at the intolerance many in the Jewish community have displayed by showering them with death threats," she wrote.
BJ’s Pinsky told The Jewish Week that the incident has prompted the high-profile synagogue to restrict future use of its building to outside groups "unless BJ is an official cosponsor of the event," she said.
Pinsky said BJ will continue to have a close relationship with JFREJ but could not support honoring Shapiro.
"BJ will not support any organization that will not unequivocally reject the use of violence in the Palestinian struggle," Pinsky said.
She said BJ’s membership was outraged when they learned Shapiro was the honoree. But Pinsky agreed with JFREJ about the need to shed light on the crackdown on dissenting opinions.
"I think people have gone so far right or left," she said, "they can’t see the middle anymore."