Many-voiced Jewish community

Israeli dispute shows diversity

By James F. Smith
Globe Staff / August 14, 2009

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The Israeli government yesterday resolved its dispute with New England Consul General Nadav Tamir, clearing the way for him to resume his work in Boston. But he will return to a community still grappling with the lessons of the weeklong controversy surrounding him.

Tamir met yesterday in Jerusalem with Director General Yossi Gal, after being summoned to explain his leaked memo criticizing his own government for its rocky relations with the Obama administration. Gal chided Tamir for distributing the memo too widely, making a leak likely, and Tamir said he regretted his handling of the matter, said Yigal Palmor, Israel Foreign Ministry spokesman.

Tamir did not receive a formal censure, Palmor said, and the meeting did not involve “anything like being scolded or reprimanded,’’ contrary to reports in some Israeli media that Tamir had been censured.

While the Israeli government clearly wanted to lay the matter to rest - Palmor said “the page is turned, the case is closed, we all want to put this behind us’’ - the debate persisted, in part over Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon’s characterization of Boston as a liberal bubble, out of touch with the rest of America.

Amid much division over Tamir, one point of agreement was that many diverse voices, from right to left, have found ways to be heard within Boston’s Jewish community. That is a departure from the days when the community’s leaders spoke with a uniform voice, especially on matters affecting Israel.

Many leaders of mainstream Boston organizations such as the American Jewish Committee had stood with progressive groups in firmly backing Tamir, saying he had done outstanding work in his three years here. Many defended him for reporting back to his government on criticism he was hearing of Israeli actions, especially over the refusal to halt construction of settlements in the West Bank, as the Obama administration has demanded.

But some Boston Jews who see the Obama administration’s actions as threatening to Israel sided with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman in chastising Tamir, and they said he should be recalled or fired. Among them were Boston’s Russian Jewish organizations, grouped in the Russian Jewish Community Foundation of Massachusetts.

Although nearly 80 percent of Jews nationally voted for Obama, Jews who had fled the former Soviet Union opposed the Democratic candidate by as big a margin, noted Greg Margolin, editor and publisher of the Jewish Russian Telegraph. He said Russian Jews account for more than 50,000 of the Boston area’s population of more than 220,000 Jews, yet they often weren’t able to be heard on major issues.

“Today, there are two opinions in Boston where there used to be only one,’’ Margolin said. “The left-wing monopoly on public opinion in Boston is broken.’’

Orthodox Jews, too, said they hadn’t been sufficiently heard - and they were part of a segment that was unhappy with Tamir. Rabbi Abraham Halbfinger, head of the Rabbinical Council of New England, said, “there is no unanimity in the defense of the consul.’’ Halbfinger said he had not met Tamir, and “I don’t think he has created a bridge with the Orthodox community.’’

Those on the left concur that there are now more voices among Boston’s Jews - and see that as evidence that Ayalon is wrong in dismissing Boston as a liberal bubble.

“I actually think that it’s the opposite,’’ said Beth Wasserman of the Boston chapter of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, or Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace. “National organizations that are not leftist, like the David Project and CAMERA, are Boston-based.’’

The David Project, a conservative Jewish leadership program, and CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting, both have deep ties with Charles Jacobs, a veteran conservative activist who argued this week that Obama is taking steps that endanger Israel’s security.

In the Tamir case, Jacobs said in an interview, “what you’ve got here could be emblematic of the Jewish community’s increasingly conflicted view of Obama.’’ He added: “I like Nadav, he’s smart, he’s pretty good at making Israel’s case in a liberal Boston, to liberal audiences. He does that very well. But his fear, the way he stated it, is that [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s spat with Obama is going to threaten Jewish life in America. Many people here fear the opposite is true.’’

That Jacobs and his groups are being heard on these points is evidence to Monica Brettler, of the liberal New Israel Fund, that the Boston community reflects the larger Jewish community.

“What might be unique is that Boston is more open to dialogue and receptive to a variety of voices,’’ she said. One reason for that, Brettler added, is because the Jewish Community Relations Council, the organization for Jewish groups in Boston, “has been successful in making itself a real umbrella organization. The breadth of views when there are discussions there is very wide.’’

Nancy Kaufman, the longtime executive director of the community relations council, counts 42 member organizations, from Zionists to Jewish war veterans, Hadassah, and CAMERA.

Calling herself “truly a centrist,’’ she urged caution in categorizing Jews in Boston: “When it comes to Israel, you have to be careful. I know many left-wingers on Israel who are right-wingers on domestic policy issues. Labels are very dangerous.’’

Jonathan Sarna, a Brandeis professor and renowned Jewish historian, said the controversy over Tamir’s memo also shows how the traditional discipline among Jewish groups has faded.

“By design, the Jewish community was supposed to come together,’’ he said. It’s enormously important that that form of discipline has disappeared.’’

Recalling that from the 1950s onward Jews had lined up behind the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, he said “there was a real agreement that on matters of international Jewish interest the community would try to speak with a single voice. . . . That is really what has come to an end.

“Even the supporters of Israel are more reluctant than they once were to simply follow the dictates of the Israeli government,’’ Sarna said.

Rabbi William Hamilton of the Conservative Kehillath Israel Synagogue in Brookline said that with groups from Brit Tzedek to CAMERA thriving, “there is a decided intensity on both wings, if you will, which makes Boston a very dynamic community for Israel activism and advocacy. You don’t have a hard time looking for panelists on both sides of the aisle when you are looking for a hardy debate on what is in Israel’s best interests.’’

Correction: Because of a reporting error, a Page One story yesterday about Boston’s Jewish community mischaracterized Charles Jacobs’s affiliation with the group CAMERA. Jacobs has not been involved with CAMERA for many years.

Clarification: Two organizations mentioned in a Page One story on Friday about Boston’s Jewish community object to being characterized as conservative groups. The David Project describes itself as a non-partisan education program focused on Israel. The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America describes itself as a nonpartisan media watch group that takes no position on Israeli or US policies.