AIPAC in Hebrew school – it’s just the Jewish way, right?

Lee Rosenberg, national president of AIPAC, spoke at my shul today.

I was in complete and knowing denial, to the extent that I couldn’t even remember the date that he would be coming, not willing to fight the fact or struggle for alternate programming.

Why was I unwilling? Because even though AIPAC spreads lies and half-truths in support of Israel’s suicidal dream that it will be able to hang on to the territories and wear down the Palestinian people to the point that they give up on the notions of nationalism and human dignity (and, I don’t know, go away? Disappear? What’s the long-term game-plan here? I’ve never been clear on that piece of it) — I have given up. They win.

As I recently wrote, while I still advocate for a two-state solution, I believe that the Israeli government and its enablers in AIPAC and the American Congress and White House have created the circumstances in which my advocacy is now hopeless. We’ve reached and passed the point of no return, peace is an unreachable goal, two-states is an unreachable goal, and sometime in the next few decades, the Jewish State will cease to exist. There will be blood, it will be awful, and it will be in no small part because AIPAC won.

Given my denial, then, imagine how gobsmacked I was when I arrived at shul to pick my son up from Hebrew school and found that not only was the presentation today, but the 7th graders had attended. Furious really is a better description.

I spluttered a few clearly unhappy words in the general direction of the Hebrew school director (who told me that they’d sent an email about it), and as we sat waiting for my son’s friend (who had a lesson with the cantor but then came home with us), talked not-quietly with my son about why I disagree with AIPAC and why I’m angry that Hebrew school was given over to listening to the President of AIPAC. And then I wrote a letter*.

Given the way my week went, I can only imagine that I didn’t actually look at the email in question, which, bottom line, is my bad. The simple truth is that if we had realized that AIPAC would be addressing his class, the boy wouldn’t have gone to Hebrew school.

As always, I lead with the bona fides: We’re Israelis — I’m an American-Israeli Zionist, and my husband is Jerusalem-born and –bred and a product of the Israeli school system and an IDF veteran. We speak Hebrew in our house, we travel to visit our Israeli family at least yearly, we keep strictly kosher, study Torah together at home and often attend services (mine are often the only kids at holiday services), and are, generally speaking, active and observant members of the Conservative Movement, raising our children to be fully Jewish and Israeli.

The reason we’re raising our Israeli children in the Diaspora is Israeli policy and politics – in the wake of the second intifada we came to understand that that we weren’t willing to give our family’s life over to the settlement project and continued occupation of the Palestinian people. As a scholar of the region, I am well aware of all of the factors at play, including the history of wars intended to annihilate the Jewish state. Having studied and written about the area for more than 20 years, it’s my considered opinion that AIPAC’s position of unquestioning support of right-wing Israeli policy is a significant piece of what will eventually lead to the end of the Zionist dream. As a family, we support J Street.

And having said all that, the real reason my husband and I are angry that Hebrew school was given over to an AIPAC presentation is not the content of the presentation, but the very fact of it.

AIPAC isn’t Judaism, and neither is unquestioning support of particular Israeli policies (even in the case of policies with which I may agree). We  don’t send my children to Hebrew school for lessons in Middle Eastern politics and the role the American Jewish community plays in those politics – we send them so that they may learn their faith and their community and come to value both.

On the other hand, if the synagogue is going to be introducing the 7th graders to those other things, then why not also bring in the JDF, J Street, and JVP? Why not a range of opinion? I am certainly no supporter of the JDF, and neither do I support JVP, but neither is AIPAC representative of all American Jewish opinion (nor are they objective “experts” on what Israel “needs”), nor should they presented as such.

Though I wish that we’d been on top of things, the entire event has turned into a real teaching moment with the boy, who (I’m pleased to say) had questions to ask about Mr. Rosenberg’s presentation, as much of it seemed questionable to him. His questions included “What should I do if someone is telling me about something, an adult is telling me about something, and I don’t agree with what they’re saying?”

Well, you start by being respectful, and then….

Update: I was so angry yesterday that I posted the actual letter. I had removed all names, but it still felt (to borrow from myself) unnecessarily disrespectful. I’ve since summarized my thoughts, without reproducing what should have been a private communication.

Crossposted at Angry Black Lady Chronicles.



  1. Jim Roberts

     /  November 20, 2011

    I’d be furious as well if my kids were subjected to AIPAC BS in Hebrew School. My wife and I grew up in the northeast and had to come to the Chicago western suburbs to find right wing Jews. We knew that there must have been a few who jumped on the Leo Strauss “neoconservative” bandwagon. Imagine our surprise when we discovered that there’s a large contingent of AIPAC people in our Shul. So far though we’ve been lucky in that any blatant displays of AIPAC rabble rousing hasn’t wound up as a “talk” to our kids.

  2. In my community, AIPAC is considered “non-political” and therefore acceptable and appropriate everywhere, and organizationa like J Street or New Israel Fund are considered “political” and therefore unwelcome everywhere. This is not because of the overall opinions of the community, which are divided but probably a bit more on the J Street side than the AIPAC side; it’s because of a couple of big donors who have made it clear that if J street is considered to be anything but untouchable they will stop donating.

    Yet another way that money influences speech.

  3. Mizz Em: You note that you “lead with [your] bona fides:. . .” and I think, Hmm.

    I mean, I get why you’d want to do that—I’ve done similar things in other situations—but maybe because I’ve become uncomfortable with doing similar things, I wonder if you’ve ever (re)considered such a recitation. I wonder if you (and I) don’t give too much power to define who gets to participate in a conversation to those with whom we [may] have fundamental disagreements over precisely those definitions.

    I’m being unclear, aren’t I? It’s just that I’m tired of defending my “right” to take part in a conversation, tired of having so much of a conversation given over to disagreement over who gets to participate, and would prefer that discussants respond to the issues I raise rather than to me.

    Because, really, the focus should be on the issue, not me.

    • Fleem

       /  November 22, 2011

      In conversations like this, some people are stakeholders, and some people are … less so. It’s perfectly valid for Emily to define where she is on that spectrum, and what’s informing her opinions.

      • Fleem

         /  November 22, 2011

        … and, I should add, it’s extremely valuable to know where she’s coming from. She’s not just flitting in like some underinformed dilettante you’ve never heard of. If I wrote exactly what she wrote, would you give it the same weight? I don’t think so.

      • Thank you for saying so. I think that absurdbeats has been around these parts for awhile and seen how often I do this — and the truth is, I agree with her. Immoral Israeli action is immoral, no matter who is pointing it out. But I know that a lot of people would literally turn the page/leave the site if (for instance) I had an Muslim-sounding last name, or was a Christian (if Jimmy Carter were Jewish, he’d say the same things, but get a much better hearing among Jews).

        I do also agree with you, though, that it’s good to be able to know where the person who is spouting off gets their knowledge and how they’ve formed their opinions. Which is why I now have that page at top: “What the hell kind of Jew am I?” I should probably add the words “to be mouthing off about Israel,” so that the point is really abundantly clear. I think I’ll go do that now, in fact!

        Thanks for stopping by.

        • Fleem

           /  November 22, 2011

          Thanks. I read your blog posts a lot more often than I read the comments, so I apologize if I stepped in the middle of an ongoing conversation. This one hit a little close to home for me.

          Were you ever, by any chance, “Captain Optimism”? If so, you’ve been a voice of reason for a heckuva long time.

          • No worries!

            And heavens no, I think if I’d ever been a Captain it would have had to be Captain Maybe It’s Not As Bad As It Looks. : )

      • Yes, Emily L. and I have been going around on these (and other) matters for a while, and we’re mostly sympatico.

        And I am sympatico to the tactic of establishing one’s bona fides—I have whipped out my first-generation-college-grad/working-class-roots card on more than one occasion—and understand exactly why one would do so. But I also think that one ought to be able to question without so whipping out a card.

        There are some situations in which one’s experiences or credentials are crucial in signaling to participants and bystanders alike one’s knowledge of a phenomenon—I couldn’t speak to what it’s like to live in Israel, or to work with survivors of sexual assault, while Emily surely could—but there are others where it is not. You can have all sorts of opinions about matters about which you have no direct experience—I’m not one of those who insist that men can have no opinions about abortion, for example—but if you want other participants or bystanders to pay attention, you’d best assemble a strong argument, an argument that stands on its own.

        So, no, I wouldn’t require a c.v. from you in order to assess your observations on the purpose of inserting partisan politics into religious instruction. More to the point, I should not be in the position of granting you or anyone else standing: the default position should be that you as a human being already have that standing (which you can, of course, lose if you behave badly) simply because you are a human being.

        And I guess that’s what my w(e)ariness with bona fides comes down to: I’m increasingly unwilling to ask anyone to grant me standing; I claim it, because I am.

        All of that said (and, honestly, Emily, my blog-jacking is almost over!), yes, I get that different participants have different interests, and that in the real world there are thresholds for participation. It seems to me, however, the fact that Emily’s children are enrolled in this school, that they literally cross the threshold of this synagogue, ought to be enough on its own to establish Emily’s standing.

        (Sorry to both you, Fleem, and Emily, for my heated reply: this has been niggling away in the back of my mind for some time, and I brought that pent-up frustration to this response. And, yeah, I always read the posts without always reading the responses, so I get that piece, too.)

        Back to you, Ms. Hauser.

        • Oh, if only all blog jacks were like this! I only all “heat” were like this!

          And again: I agree. I agree entirely and without caveat.

          But here’s the thing: The very fact that I cross that threshold (along w/ my children) has often not been nearly enough. Pillars of the community have stopped talking to me, one literally sent a letter around about how I was both a typically self-loathing Jew and an insincere convert (to which I wanted to say: Pick one, man! I can’t be both!), and another wouldn’t even speak to my children. I’ve literally heard whispers behind my back, and a person in a position of authority told me quite bluntly one day that she’s been asked about me, and that some people figure I must be ok anyway because I’m married to an Israeli (never mind that they know nothing about him, like the fact that he’s an atheist, eats pork, and is to the left of me politically. HE’S AN ISRAELI). I hasten to add that these responses don’t reflect the entirety of my experience there — there are many people who agree with me, many who don’t but with whom I have very pleasant relationships, and a few who got over themselves and stopped leaving when I entered a room (literally).

          But my point is that while I agree with you, I have a larger goal that isn’t served by my agreeing with you. My goal is to change people’s minds, whether in my synagogue or anywhere else. I can’t organize people where I want them to be — I can only organize them where they are. And where a lot of the Jewish community is (both here and in Israel) is a place that still demands the bona fides before credibility will be granted. So I provide the bona fides. Not because I want to, or feel I should, but because it’s a tool to get somewhere else in the conversation.

    • I absolutely see your point and I even agree with it, wholeheartedly. The problem is that I’m in the business of trying to convince people, and on this issue, it has been my sad discovery that people’s ears remained hermetically sealed to anyone they can write off for any reason. Which is why I now even have an entire page dedicated to the question of “what the hell kind of Jew am I?” (see:above) In the post, I was cribbing from my own letter to the officials at my synagogue, so I included the information I’d sent to them, but my plan in the future is to link to that page and be done.

      Sigh. In short: Yes, you are correct.