Twelve years after his death, Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader and arch-terrorist, is still causing Jews grief. This time, we’re relieved to report, no one died. But there’s no doubt that the life of Rabbi Neil Blumofe, senior rabbi of Agudas Achim in Austin, Texas, was badly shaken. And all because he included a visit to Arafat’s grave in Ramallah in a draft itinerary for a congregational trip that would include Christian clergy that the rabbi knew well.
“I do a lot of work in the non-Jewish community, where we are losing support for Israel,” Blumofe told a Jewish newspaper in New York. Blumofe saw himself in the position of providing “a pro-Israel narrative for those who question and want to be challenged.”
Instead, Blumofe, was attacked — largely online — as a traitor. It began when a congregant called on him to resign. The congregant’s letter went viral. And then came others, including an open letter to the rabbi that asserted that “your actions have opened up an entirely new page in the history of treachery.” Blumofe responded and said that the visit to Arafat’s grave had been removed from the itinerary.
But the story had legs. One Austin resident who had served in the Israel Defense Forces called on area philanthropic donors to “withhold further funding” of Blumofe and the JCC, where Agudas Achim is housed, “until anti-Israel activities come to a stop.”
Protesters also connected the rabbi to a number of organizations of which Blumofe is not a member. Such disregard of facts is one symptom of the coarsening of discussion in the Jewish community and in society at large. Another symptom is the rush to judge people without a full understanding of the context of challenged activity. We see this all the time in letters to the editor of this publication.
In the Blumofe affair, it has been reported that many of the rabbi’s strongest attackers are not themselves active in the community. While not every Jew participates in the community, of course, this sort of vigilantism — from anyone — is not good.
We’ve seen similar things in our own community, although the virtual lynching of Blumofe was particularly disturbing. And, of course, there is that recurring painful irony of those who call for a boycott of this or that Jewish institution being among those who shout the loudest against boycotts of Israel.
This is one we can’t blame on Arafat. He’s dead and buried. But as we approach the High Holidays, this unfortunate story should serve as a reminder that humility is a Jewish value. Rabbi Blumofe hasn’t lost sight of that: He admitted that a visit to Arafat’s grave would have been a mistake.
Would that his critics have such a gentle soul.