How a leaflet led to a media fight over J Street

Alan Elsner (photo by Joe Mabel) and Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt (file photo)

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.”

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  1. Sad! Some of Rabbi Weinblatt’s friends are active devotees of J Street. They are also life-long Zionists as deeply committed to Israel as is this well-respected and very able Rabbi. I hope he will not disavow us, his friends, some of whom are also colleagues. Alan Elsner is the kind of Jew most Rabbis wished were members of their congregations. A debate over a flyer? Seriously? Will Israel’s survival be enabled and enhanced by this “principled” position? Would that the Rabbi would accept J Street’s invitation to attend its forthcoming national conference (the subject of the flyer)! He would witness thousands of lovers of Israel aligning Judaism’s most cherished values with a passionate love for the Jewish People and the Jewish State. Together, may all Jews and all supporters of Israel (including those with whom we disagree) be inspired to declare the concluding Seder hope for all of us “next year in Jerusalem.”

  2. To add to R. Berlin’s reply;
    Ir Amin, the Israeli organization working in and for a Jerusalem of all its inhabitants, reminded in its Pesach message not to forget THIS YEAR in the living Jerusalem and the issues to be faced there now.

  3. It is a sad commentary on the state of the Jewish community when a Rabbi and the Board of a synagogue are forced to stand up for Israel against a Jewish organization which regularly defames Israel. Rabbi Weinblatt is loved by his congregation for his devotion to truth, Torah and Israel. His actions in this case justifies our trust in him.Now Alan Elsner, the J Street staffer who sought publicity for J street, can add defaming Congregation Bnai Tzedek to his list of defamations about Israel.

  4. Bnai Tzedek Congregation is fortunate that Rabbi Weinblatt is a principled and staunch defender of Israel. His decision to bar J Street’ s flyer advertising its convention was entirely appropriate, given the organization’s established record of defaming and undermining Israel at every turn. As Alan Dershowitz stated, “I think J Street has been the most damaging organization in American history against Israel” (Tablet Magazine, 8/15). Rabbis everywhere should proudly follow Rabbi Weinblatt’s example

  5. In the face of Mr. Elsner’s public and unfounded complaints, it would have been easy for Rabbi Weinblatt to stay silent, rather than ruffle feathers, and the fact that he didn’t is a testament to his principled leadership.

    I am very saddened by Mr. Elsner’s articles for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the Elsners have always been a bright light in our community. However, I do not understand what synagogue he has been attending for these past 30 years. Far from shutting down debate about Israel, the Rabbi encourages it any time it is brought up. I have heard Mr. Elsner, himself, engage in these debates.

    Expressing disagreement is not the same as shutting down debate. Neither is refusing to promote a particular organization. Frankly, I’m not sure how displaying a brochure about a conference can be construed as debate as opposed to promotion. This is not a Starbucks bulletin board. Debate is encouraged; promotion is earned.

    Nevertheless, when emotions run high, particularly within a family, such distinctions can be hard to swallow, and I truly hope the Elsners will reconsider.

    For what it’s worth, I would like to express an opinion, and I hope I am not accused of being intolerant of other views. After reading the articles, I went to the J Street website to see who will be speaking at the convention. A quick skim found Husam Zomlot who tweeted the following about Israel on January 11 of this year:

    “Targeting children through decades’ long policy of child imprisonment, torture and murder is morally repugnant and confirms the bankruptcy of the occupation. Israel’s killing with impunity must end, and Israel must be held accountable for its ongoing crimes.”

    It’s hard to understand how an organization that claims to love Israel would give a platform to someone who spews this venomous blood libel. Moreover, if J Streeters truly believe this about Israel, how could they possibly love her?

    After reading Mr. Zomlot’s hate speech, I also came across a video of Marcia Freedman who has served on the J Street advisory board. During a panel discussion at the 2015 J Street convention, Ms. Freedman stated that if Israel would just become a “true democracy,” then Jews can become the minority in Israel and still have a homeland because they would be a “protected minority” based on the laws of the land. There was a lot of applause from the audience on that point. Is this also a tenet of J Street? Does anyone truly believe that Jews can count on being protected?

    “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” I am thankful for people like Rabbi Weinblatt who are not afraid to speak out.


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