Can American Jewish Leaders Publicly Question Israel’s Policies - and Survive?

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No subject was more important to Dr. Leonard (Leibel) Fein than establishing the need for vigorous public debate on the dilemmas of liberal Zionism.

Since the early years of the 1970s, American Jews have been arguing about whether or not it is permissible for Jewish leaders to publicly question the policies of the Jewish State.

That argument continues today. In its lead story this week, the New York Jewish Week reported on the struggles of New York area rabbis who are preparing their sermons for the High Holidays. Those interviewed indicated that they intend to address Israel issues in the wake of the Gaza war but are doing so “reluctantly” and “gingerly.” Israel, the story said, has become “the third rail” of the Jewish community.

The story appeared on the same night that an observance was held in Manhattan to mark the passing 30 days before of Dr. Leonard (Leibel) Fein,

American Jewry’s preeminent liberal intellectual and activist. I was a speaker at that event, and it occurred to me that Fein would have read that article and recognized the irony: After all these years, we are still arguing about whether or not we can argue about Israel.

While Fein was the voice of Jewish progressivism on a wide range of issues, no subject engaged his attention as much as Israel; and no one was more important than he in establishing the need for vigorous public debate in the Jewish community on the dilemmas of liberal Zionism.

It is easy to forget today just how powerful a role Fein played in such matters. When he founded Moment magazine in 1975 with Elie Wiesel, the Jewish community was in turmoil; it was a time of ethnic and cultural renaissance and of an Israel that was in the process of becoming something very different from what American Jews had known her to be. My generation of Jews—children of the 60s who had thrown themselves into the issues of Jewish life—was in desperate need of new ways to think about what was happening all around us. But in those pre-Internet days, if you were looking to imagine new Jewish possibilities, it was not easy to find inspiration and encouragement, especially when it came to Israel.

For thousands of us, Moment was the answer. Its impact was enormous; each month, we anxiously awaited the arrival of the new issue. At a time when we were not inundated by words but starving for insights, Fein’s magazine literally saved our Jewish lives. It molded our thinking and prodded our conscience; but more than that, it gave us hope that a lumbering, conservative, obstinate Jewish community, frozen into old ways of thinking about Israel and everything else, could be pulled out of its obsolescence and renewed by both ancient commitments and great ideals.

Moment dealt with all of our Jewish concerns. It discussed ritual and practice, and the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. But Israel was central because Fein made it central in his own writings. Every month, Jews throughout America picked up the new issue of Moment and immediately turned to Leibel’s column in the front of the magazine; it was where we started because he wrote in a soaring, poetic style, infused with Jewish passion, and because no one was better than he at fighting the battle of Zionist ideas.

When Moment was created, Israel was then almost 10 years into the occupation. Leibel Fein was a Hebrew-speaking, old-time Zionist who knew, better than anyone, that Israel was vulnerable, frightened, and isolated, surrounded by enemies; and many of those enemies were terrorists. At the same time, he also knew that occupations—all occupations—require patronizing, falseness, and hypocrisy to sustain them; occupiers become either brutal or intellectual frauds. In the mid-1970s, most everybody of consequence in the Jewish world fled from these issues like the plague, but Leibel Fein took then on; and he did so with honesty and elegance, and above all with a deep and abiding love for Israel and her people. Fein’s voice was a critical voice, but his love for Israel was always proclaimed in unconditional and unmistakable tones.

Others offered critical voices, to be sure. Breira, an organization of the left founded in 1973, also raised questions about Israel’s policies; but its voice, strident and harsh, lacked Fein’s good sense and profound sympathy for Israel, and it remained on the fringes of the community.

It would have been easy for Fein, as Moment’s editor, to be a participating witness without the responsibility of action. But he refused. Sensing that much of the Jewish community shared his views, he aspired to draw the Jewish mainstream into the debate, and he succeeded.

During the first War in Lebanon, at a time when respected community and academic leaders still did not go public to express their concerns about Israeli policy, Fein wrote and raised funds for an ad in the New York Times that did just that. His role as author and organizer brought the most vicious and vituperative attacks imaginable down upon his head, but that ad marked a turning point, and drew a front page story in the Times. From that point on, there was no turning back; thanks largely to Leibel Fein, thoughtful criticism of Israeli policy and responsible advocacy for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict became an acceptable part of the American-Jewish conversation.

What advice would Fein offer to the rabbis discussed in the New York Jewish Week who are wondering what to say about Israel this year? I suspect he would say: “Zionism means not compromising Jewish power, but it also means rights for Palestinians and combating human suffering.” And I imagine that he might conclude with: “Speak with love, but always speak your mind.” And most rabbis, I believe, will do just that.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer and lecturer living in Westfield, New Jersey.  

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