It’s about a leaflet, but it’s not really about a leaflet.
The leaflet in question contains information about the annual conference of J Street, the liberal pro-Israel group. Last year, Alan Elsner asked if he could add the leaflet to the table of community events and fliers at Congregation B’nai Tzedek, where he has been a member for nearly three decades.
The synagogue told him no.
In February he tried again. The 2018 conference is coming up in April and Elsner, a top member of the J Street staff, wanted the community to know in the same way they find out about AIPAC events, issues of interest to the Conservative movement, and the congregation Sisterhood.
Once again the synagogue said no.
So Elsner took his beef to the press.
For Elsner, the dustup is about B’nai Tzedek seeking to silence the positions of J Street, which opposes Israeli settlements and the country’s occupation of the West Bank.
For B’nai Tzedek’s rabbi, Stuart Weinblatt, the row over the leaflets is the congregation drawing a line around its values, which he said J Street doesn’t share.
Elsner approached Washington Jewish Week in February with an opinion piece about his complaint against B’nai Tzedek. After WJW decided not to publish it, Elsner turned to The Forward, which published it on Feb. 28.
In it, he accused B’nai Tzedek of stifling debate when the executive committee made its decision without hearing from Elsner.
“I was not expecting controversy when I asked last year to have leaflets for the J Street National Conference to be placed on a table outside the sanctuary,” he wrote. “I was not asking to promote the conference in the same way as the synagogue endorses, pushes and publicizes the AIPAC conference. I was merely asking to have information available for anyone who might be interested.”
Elsner was invited to speak at a later executive committee meeting, but he changed no minds. There would be no J Street leaflets at the Potomac synagogue.
So Elsner wrote another opinion piece, which The Forward published on March 20. “The committee sat in silence while I pled my case,” Elsner wrote. “They asked no questions and reaffirmed their decision to ban the J Street leaflets.”
Then he announced that he and his wife were quitting B’nai Tzedek after 29 years.
On March 26, Weinblatt took to The Forward with an opinion piece of his own, “My Synagogue Welcomes Spirited Debate — But We Can’t Promote J Street,” in which he wrote that J Street is anti-Israel.
“Our refusal to promote J Street has nothing to do with stifling free speech,” he wrote. “The Board chose not to promote the activities of an organization which, despite its moniker weakens Israel’s position and seeks to diminish the cooperation and support it receives from the United States. For an organization to be pro-Israel it requires it to do more than just have a tag-line that says it is, which is why we choose not to put out information about its conference.”
Weinblatt, reached by phone in Israel, said he didn’t know Elsner’s opinion pieces were going to be published and would have preferred the whole issue stayed internal. But after two of them appeared, he “wanted to set the record straight.”
He said B’nai Tzedek welcomes a diversity of beliefs and debate. In his opinion piece, he listed a number of people across the ideological spectrum who have spoken at the congregation, including Elsner on a few occasions. The congregation is happy to have J Street supporters, he added, but it has a right to decide what it will promote.
“It is possible to take a principled stand and to be open and pluralistic and still to draw the line someplace,” he said.
When reached for further comment, Elsner said in an email that he and his wife “have decided to not say anything further about this matter.”