Friday, September 19, 2008

Disinviting Gov. Palin: A Sad and Disgraceful Day for American Jews

I live in California and could not have attended the anti-Ahmadinejad Rally at the United Nations in New York anyway. But Californian Jews, too, may recoil at the New York political circus that became a national disgrace for American Jewry as the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (the “Presidents’ Conference”) disinvited Sarah Palin from speaking at the event. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, I attended rallies-upon-rallies-upon-rallies sponsored by the GNYCSJ (Greater New York Conference on Soviet Jewry), the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, the National Conference for Soviet Jewry, and the Presidents’ Conference. Malcolm Hoenlein, now executive director of the Presidents’ Conference, was executive director of GNYCSJ in its time. They always, always had prominent political personalities and candidates speaking. No one ever had a tax-status issue.

In reading the press release that Gov. Palin has been disinvited from speaking at the rally, what were we really being told? That there never were campaigning politicians at New York’s annual Solidarity Day for Soviet Jewry? At the annual Israel Day Parade down Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue?

C’mon. Gimme a break.

If they had invited only Palin but no Democrats, then the Presidents’ Conference conceivably would have invited a series of questions about partisanship. But Hillary was coming. And they had invited other Dems. It was balanced, as these events always are balanced and non-partisan or, more accurately, bi-partisan.

Sen. Barack Obama speaks at churches. Do they lose their tax status? That overheated priest in Chicago, who mocked Hillary from the Sunday pulpit at Jeremiah Wright’s church. Did that church lose its tax status? Bill Clinton campaigned at churches, speaking at Sunday morning prayers. Gore. Even our own Orthodox Jewish VP candidate some time back spoke at plenty of religious houses of worship. There is absolutely no risk of losing tax-exempt status if a balanced array of politicians speaks out on a public stage against a matter of public concern, like Ahmadinejad being warmly greeted at the General Assembly. And Malcolm Hoenlein knows those rules very, very well because he has been at the vortex of American Jewish political activity for at least 35 years.

No organization endangers its tax status by providing a platform for political leaders to speak publicly, with bipartisan concern, over Ahmadinejad coming to NY.

What happened here is that Hillary already was coming. Then Gov. Palin was invited, and Hillary backed out for narrow political reasons — no point in giving Palin a public stage to demonstrate her awareness of an international foreign policy concern, while she simultaneously builds bridges to American Jewry. Hillary took a non-partisan issue regarding a public protest against one of the most dangerous Jew-haters in the world, and she turned it into a circus.

I have been a political activist and street-protest kind of person for 35 years. OK, I stopped after leaving New York in the mid-1980s because we have no good places to protest here. (Where are we going to protest Ahmadinejad – At a beach? At the “Hollywood” sign? In Malibu?) I have never seen anything like this. It is a disgrace, an absolute disgrace, that the organized Jewish community got pushed around like this on so critical an issue and gave in so meekly.

Outside New York, in states throughout the nation, the protest against Ahmadinejad lost all its bite, all its meaning. Words were spoken on a stage, and the syllables floated and dissipated into thin air. The news was the disinvitation to Palin. Here she was, readily accepting a Jewish invitation to add her voice to others across the spectrum on the Ahmadinejad invitation. In a few months, it is conceivable that she could be a heartbeat away from the Presidency of the United States. She graciously accepted our invitation, as Hillary graciously had done earlier – and then we publicly humiliate and disinvite Gov. Palin? It is a disgrace.

And it is not a very nice thing to do, either.

I put my faith in Hashem. For me, in the end of the day, Israel’s survival stems from His grace. In that regard, the United Nations does not matter, nor does Ahmadinejad. Among others whose efforts to destroy Israel have failed, Israel has survived Gamal Nasser, Saddam Hussein, Sheikh Yassin, and Yasser Arafat. In that sense, none of this matters. But, as our Patriarch Jacob prepared for his encounter with the dangerous twin-brother Esau with gifts and with prayer and with a readiness to fight, so we are bidden to pursue the natural course of defense side-by-side with the religious values of repentance, prayer, and charity.

This disinvitation was a shameful decision. As such, it also reflects and recalls the kinds of Jewish organizational infighting that sabotaged rescue efforts during the years of the Shoah. The American Jewish Congress and American Jewish Committee and Anti-Defamation League jockeyed against each other. Rabbi Stephen Wise induced President Franklin Roosevelt to ignore the March of the Rabbis when more than 400 Orthodox Rabbis from throughout America marched to the White House in 1943, seeking an audience to discuss rescue. In their volume “A Race Against Death,” Professors David Wyman and Rafael Medoff tell the sordid details of American Jewish organizational efforts to detour the Bergson Group in its efforts to press Washington to save Jewish lives in Holocaust Europe.

Always the infighting, the smallness and pettiness, even at life-and-death times of Pikuach Nefesh. So sad.

From: "Conference of Presidents" <>
Date: September 19, 2008 3:21:34 PM EDT
To: "Conference of Presidents" <>
Subject: Rally Update

September 19, 2008

We know that organizations are receiving many inquires and protests about the decision not to have any political personalities at the rally. This was not a decision of the Conference of Presidents. We will have the opportunity to explain the full process once the event is behind us. Our partner agencies did not feel that they could continue to participate given legal opinions regarding their tax-exempt status and other factors. The choice was either to cancel or remove all the political speakers. Among the speakers on Monday will be Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik, Natan Sharansky, former Canadian Minister of Justice Irwin Cotler and many top national figures.

We hope that the focus of the rally can now be back on Iran and that everyone who worked to have the maximum turn-out to urge their constituencies to come to protest Ahmadinjad’s threats to “wipe Israel off the map.”

Harold Tanner, Acting Chairman
Malcolm Hoenlein, Executive Vice Chairman
Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations
633 Third Avenue, 21st Floor,
New York, NY 10017Tel. 212-318-6111 /
Fax 212-644-4135

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