Keeping Anti-Obama Jews from the Temple

by Abraham H. Miller (June 2012)

In Florida, Jews witnessed an unprecedented and shameless event. Jews were barred by other Jews and law enforcement personnel from entering a synagogue. And when the stigmatized Jews sought to make their grievances known by peacefully demonstrating on the grounds of the synagogue, they were told to get off the property.   

To add insult to injury, the prohibited Jews were pro-Israel activists, who came not to disturb, but to raise issues with Susan Rice, the US Representative to the United Nations, who was speaking inside Boca Raton’s B’nai Torah. Rice is not exactly known for her pro-Israel positions. Ambassador Rice has announced before the world community that Israeli settlements—not terrorism or repeated attempts at annihilating the Jewish state—were the main obstacles to peace between Arabs and Israelis. 

Rice is part of President Barack Obama’s campaign advance team. Having gained two electoral votes since the 2010 election, Florida, with 29 electoral votes, rivals New York in importance. And with 650,000 Jews, most of them elderly and pro-Israel, lining the Interstate 95 corridor, Obama needs to reinvent himself as a friend of Israel. Jews defecting from their traditional Democratic loyalties could easily throw Florida's electoral votes into the Republican tally. 

The pro-Israel organizer of the opposition to Ambassador Rice’s exercise in disinformation was Alan Bergstein, a New York writer and pro-Israel activist who has no problem understanding that Obama is no friend of Israel. Bergstein was quickly pointed out by congregants to the security detail and kept out of the synagogue. But Bergstein was only one, of a number of people, who apparently was on some form of Obama-administration black list.

Days later, a strikingly similar incident occurred just down the I-95 corridor in Miami at Temple Israel.  Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chair of the Democratic National Committee, was to speak at Temple Israel about the Middle East. Schultz is one of the most vociferous and active Obama supporters, an avatar for the idea of a true believer. Among those who objected to the idea that being a Jew was synonymous with being a Democrat was Stanley Tate, a decades-long member of the congregation, philanthropist, and activist for Republican candidate Mitt Romney. Tate requested time to rebut Schultz. He was denied, and he quit the congregation. The fall out caused the congregation to cancel Schultz’s presentation for alleged “security” reasons. 

In America, religious organizations benefit from a tax code that prohibits their involvement in politics. Yet, every denomination finds someway to clumsily circumvent this prohibition, which is almost never enforced.  The Democratic Party of Evanston, Illinois, for example, holds its candidate endorsement meeting at Beth Emet Synagogue. 

The one-sided collusion between religious groups and partisan politics is a dangerous phenomenon, for it shatters the separation between church and state. Such collusion also breeds intolerance, so obvious in the behavior of the two synagogues in Florida with regard to their inability to acknowledge dissenting positions. 

Without being concerned about the imagery of Jews keeping Jews from entering a synagogue, a behavior that conjures up memories of Nazi Germany, the members of B’nai Torah were totally insensitive to the symbolic statement they were making. Their commitment to their partisan cause was so intense that it subsumed their identity as Jews. Can one imagine being a Republican in such a congregation or in one that hosts the internal political meetings of the Democratic Party, as Beth Emet does? All these synagogues have transmitted a strong message: you can only pray with us, if you think politically as we do. We are Democrats first and Jews as an afterthought. 

The lesson of this behavior is that we are witnessing the breakdown of institutions that mitigate the intensity of politics. A truly pluralistic society needs institutions that do separate themselves along the political divide. Of the American Civil War, it is said that the inevitability of the Civil War arose when the issues that divided North from South permeated all competing interest groups. Few groups avoided the sectional fissures that separated the society. 

The Jewish congregations noted here are indistinguishable in their behavior from congregations in other denominations. The Jewish congregations have simply been so fiercely unrestrained in their behavior recently that they have made news. And while all congregations that are politically intolerant might revel in their immediate political successes and their stifling of dissent, in the long run they will further polarize a society already fractured by a president whose conception of partisanship is based on divisiveness and identity politics. 


Abraham H. Miller is an emeritus professor of political science. His editorial essays have appeared in print and on the Internet.   


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