Jerusalem & Babylon / Two Cheers for Democracy

The U.S. Jewish establishment criticizes the boycott bill, or not; an American liberal buys Beitar Jerusalem.

There was nothing surprising about most of the names on the list of American Jewish groups that criticized the anti-free speech, anti-boycott law the Knesset passed last week. They were from the liberal left of the U.S. Jewish establishment, as you would expect, but they didn't get there first. Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman, usually a Pavlovian cheerleader for Israeli policy, of whatever government happens to be in power, was this time the first Jewish Diaspora leader to raise his voice. He issued a statement saying that the law "may unduly impinge on the basic democratic rights of Israelis to freedom of speech and freedom of expression." It seemed almost too much to hope for, but the venerable ADL still occasionally remembers the ideals it was founded to protect.

Not everyone though thinks that Foxman has the right to voice his concerns. "We live in the United States, we haven't served in the army, we don't pay taxes [in Israel], so it would be inappropriate for us to publicly, in some fashion, criticize Israel on what they do to protect themselves." This apparently is the view of Simcha Katz, president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, who was interviewed this week in the Jerusalem Post. Katz explained that while he personally fully supports the law the Orthodox Union did not take an official position, as "generally we are supportive of what the Israeli government in power does."

Katz's robust defense of the curtailment of my basic rights and blanket endorsement of whatever the government does, reminded me of the last time (perhaps the only time ) the OU criticized an Israeli government. In October 2007 the OU published an open letter to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert expressing its "deepest concern" over statements by Israeli cabinet ministers according to which, as part of an agreement with the Palestinians, Israel would be "prepared to divide the holy city of Yerushalayim and cede portions of it to the Palestinian Authority." In the case of Jerusalem it seems that Jews don't need to live in Israel, pay taxes or serve in the IDF.

"The Orthodox Union is mandated to undertake all efforts that are necessary to secure and maintain Yerushalayim as the eternal and undivided capital of the State of Israel" and therefore a democratically elected government in Israel cannot decide otherwise. "The Government and people of the State of Israel hold Yerushalayim in trust for the Jewish People no matter where they may live, for we all have a share in the holy city."

Freedom of speech ain't what it used to be, especially after last week, but I still believe that Foxman, Katz and anyone else have every right to say whatever they want about Israeli policies, at any time. Being a citizen of Israel, with all that entails, gives you the right to try and change those policies through the ballot box, but everyone has equal rights in the debate arena. It's profoundly depressing though to discover that one of America's major Jewish organizations believes it has veto power on details of a future peace agreement, while the future of Israeli democracy is of no concern to its members.


Dan Adler has fine democratic credentials, he even ran a no-hope campaign as a Democrat candidate for Congress (he got 0.5% of the vote ). He serves on the boards of various organizations with impeccable aims, such as the Israel Policy Forum, which is dedicated to promoting the two-state solution. He even gave an interview recently mildly criticizing the current government's conduct. He also loves Jerusalem very much, at least as much as the OU grandees. Along with his friend Adam Levin he has just bought the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team for an initial investment of NIS 10 million. When it was first reported that Adler and Levin were buying the team I Googled their names, as one does in such cases. After reading Adler's resume I immediately assumed that there are two successful Jewish businessmen with the same name, and that Beitar's new owner simply doesn't have much of an Internet profile.

The connection between such a prime specimen of the American Jewish liberal left and the most depraved, racist of Israeli sport teams, whose supporters bring their children to the stands and teach them to sing paeans to Yigal Amir and "Death to the Arabs," just didn't compute. I know I'm committing a disservice to the many sane and tolerant Beitar supporters out there, but it's no coincidence that this is the only major soccer club in Israel never to have fielded an Arab player. And many of the fans are proud of this.

Beitar has not been blessed with enlightened owners. For decades it was the local Likud party that used the team to offer bread and circuses to voters. When Israeli sports were privatized a succession of shady Israeli businessmen, who always seemed to be getting in trouble with the tax authorities, took charge.

Six years ago, the Diaspora came to the rescue in the shape of Putinesque oligarch Arcadi Gaydamak. With his leather jackets, sharp suits and air of a benevolent dictator, Gaydamak sank NIS 200 million into the team, hired and fired expensive coaches and brought two national titles and two cups. But his real motive was power. He had no shame in using Beitar as his platform in the 2008 Jerusalem mayoral election. The long-suffering people of Jerusalem finally had enough and he was trounced in the polls and driven out of town on a rail. All the owners pandered to the team's racist element. For some, like Gaydamak, it was natural, others had no choice. They knew that to do otherwise was to invite graffiti on their homes, the vandalization of their cars and their very own death-threatening chants in Teddy Stadium.

After a surreal short episode with the wackiest patron yet, Guma Aguiar, it seemed certain that no sane, or insane, investor would ever take the team on and that Beitar was destined for perpetual bankruptcy. Then, two weeks ago, along came the unlikely duo of Sandler and Levin. Have they realized the true nature of their new asset?

In an interview with Haaretz Sport, Adler said he respected the views of every fan and that he had not come to Jerusalem to educate or change them. In the same breath he spoke of his vision of soccer as bringing people of all faiths together, as if he had just invested in Barcelona, with the UNESCO logo on the players' shirts. Members of the Beitar super-fans group La Familia responded with a warning that if he dared bring an Arab player to the team his days at Beitar would be numbered. There is no moral to this story, yet. Adler and Levin may be gone soon, after losing their innocence along with millions of dollars. And maybe in some way they will succeed where other American Jews have so dismally failed, in reconciling Jerusalem and its backward ways with the ideals of democracy, freedom and tolerance that they were raised with.