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Nov 14

Response by Beit Emanuel to the article attacking our shul in Jewish Report

Response by Beit Emanuel chair Diane Fine to the article this week in Jewish Report, attacking Beit Emanuel. These comments were made to the congregation after the Shabbat service, Friday November 14th.

Shabbat Shalom.

I’d like to respond briefly to the furore over comments by Rabbi Sa’ar on his personal website.

A cornerstone of Progressive Judaism is the centrality of diversity and pluralism. Over the past couple of years you have all heard me speak repeatedly about the importance of acknowledging diversity, encouraging congregants to engage about their different views and a strong belief that this diversity can and does enrich our community.

Diversity is an idea that is easily agreed to in principle, and very hard to live up to in practice. It requires us to maintain cordial relations with people who share our religion, but not necessarily our ideas.

In this very hall, we have celebrated Yom Ha’aztmaut, invited Israeli Ambassador Arthur Lenk, and had speakers on a range of topics from outright support for Zionism to those critical of the political systems in Israel/Palestine. We have had speakers who support the two state solution, the one state solution and we have encouraged those with different views on how to achieve peace in Israel to speak about their different ideas. Some of us attended a very moving JVJP ceremony to say Kaddish for all the children on both sides who died in the recent war in Israel and Palestine. And some of our congregants were instrumental in arranging a day of arts and culture entitled “Breaking Down the Wall”.

Rabbi Sa’ar’s letter which started this acrimony refers to Psalms 34:14 “Seek peace and pursue it”.  He said: “The only way one can create peace is by being peace, with deep commitment to non-violence and to the dignity of all humans. We, Jews, are also committed to the sacred covenant which binds all of the people of Israel, in the holy land and in the many Diasporas, to past and to future generations. May the Almighty grant us wisdom, perseverance and open heart to fulfil this task.”

I do not know how a new congregant who only joined our community six weeks ago can take umbrage at these words. Without knowing anything of our role in encouraging diverse voices, without asking to meet with Rabbi Sa’ar to discuss his views, or even with me as the chairman, without bothering to engage in our Progressive way which is one of discussion and debate, Dan Brotman ran to the public media.,

I shall give Mr Brotman the benefit of the doubt: I shall assume that he had no idea he was playing the dangerous role of agent provocateur. Either way, he has widened the unhealthy  rift between our Progressive movement and the broader Jewish community and between us and the more conservative elements within our own Progressive community.

Perhaps Mr Brotman was afraid of being contaminated by our openness. But his comments show he has missed the point. There is a difference between congratulating a group for a well-organised event and showing support for BDS. Reaching out to others, which is the cornerstone of Sa’ar’s philosophy, something he did for many years in Israel, and which he has done often enough in South Africa with Muslims, Christians, charitable groups – even with the Orthodox Chief Rabbi – is by no means the same thing as sharing the views of those groups.

The crux of Mr Brotman’s argument is that JVJP supports BDS, and therefore by extension, Beit Emanuel supports BDS. For this he provides no evidence. I have looked more carefully than Mr Brotman has, and I can find no statement from JVJP that suggests any such support for BDS. Beit Emanuel cannot and does not speak on JVJP’s behalf. But to speak for ourselves, the subject of support for BDS has never been tabled at any Beit Emanuel meeting, and my guess is that it probably never will be.

Some of you may recall that just a few weeks ago, Mr Brotman was offered a JTalk platform to discuss his personal experiences of injustice and ostracism as a gay Jewish man married to a non-Jewish partner. The talk, which was critical of the Jewish community and of right-wing Zionists, could probably not have been delivered at any other shul in this country. In all likelihood, quite a few people in the audience did not agree with Mr Brotman or approve of his lifestyle choices, but he was provided with a respectful hearing. The flipside of our generosity to Mr Brotman, is that he is expected to show the same generosity of spirit to other people with whom he might not necessarily agree.

Mr Brotman says in his letter: “I believe that it is a rabbi’s responsibility to bring together congregants with diverse views, thus I would welcome Progressive rabbis creating safe spaces for their congregants to discuss Israel/Palestine, intermarriage and other contentious issues”. Well Mr Brotman, if you’d been paying attention, that’s exactly what we do. The person who has undermined this safe space is not our rabbi, but you, because you knowingly manipulated the media to set off a hate campaign against us.

Our Constitution says: Progressive Jews believe that Judaism should be an active force for good in the lives of Jewish individuals, families and communities and that it should contribute to the betterment of human society. Progressive Jews value truth above tradition, sincerity above conformity, and human needs above legal technicalities.

Those are good principles. Let’s stick with them.