THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Newton synagogue cancels talk by critic of Israeli policies

Event is moved to elementary school

By Lisa Wangsness
Globe Staff / November 17, 2010

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Temple Beth Avodah, a Reform Jewish synagogue in Newton, has abruptly canceled an event with the president of J Street, a lobbying group that supports liberal positions on Israel, because of vociferous objections from some members of the congregation about J Street’s politics.

The program, billed as a conversation between J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami and M. Steven Maas, editor of the Boston-based Jewish Advocate, will be held tomorrow night, but has been moved to the nearby Memorial-Spaulding Elementary School.

Rabbi Keith Stern, who has led Temple Beth Avodah for more than 13 years, said a “small, influential group’’ within the congregation voiced strong opposition to hosting the event. Synagogue leaders decided to cancel after “an agonizing process,’’ he said, because they felt the controversy would “threaten the fabric of the congregation.’’

“The understanding was that it was going to be what I considered to be an honest and open conversation with a liberal Jewish organization, but I clearly did not understand how deep the antipathy is among a group within the Jewish community toward J Street and toward Jeremy Ben-Ami,’’ he said.

The event had been scheduled at the suggestion of J Street about a month ago, Stern said. There had been no formal vetting process, and he said he had not anticipated how much consternation it would cause.

“I deeply regret the inconvenience to J Street, and the difficulty that created for them,’’ he said. “I feel badly that people got so exercised here, through a gesture I really believed was about bringing an opportunity to the congregation.’’

J Street, which calls itself “the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans,’’ was formed two years ago as an alternative to AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, and it has drawn support from US liberals.

The organization says it believes that the United States should encourage the peace process in the Middle East, even if it means disagreeing with the Israeli government, because an end to the conflict is in the long-term interest of Israel and the United States.

J Street opposes preemptive military action against Iran and the expansion of Israeli settlements.

But the group’s criticism of Israeli government policies has drawn rebukes from some in the Jewish community, and Ben-Ami’s credibility came under fire recently when he admitted that J Street had received significant funding from billionaire philanthropist George Soros, though Ben-Ami had said Soros did not provide initial startup funding for the group and had strongly implied that Soros was not a current donor. Soros, a Holocaust survivor, has been a critic of Israel and of many US policies supporting it.

A J Street spokeswoman said yesterday that the organization and its local affiliate, J Street Boston, have held events at a number of synagogues and Jewish facilities around the Boston area, including Temple Emanuel in Newton, Temple Ohabei Shalom in Brookline, Temple Sinai in Brookline, Temple Beth Shalom in Cambridge, Beth El Temple Center in Belmont, Hebrew College, and Harvard Hillel.

In a phone interview yesterday, Ben-Ami said he was surprised by Beth Avodah’s 11th-hour decision to cancel.

His appearances, he said, frequently provoke controversy, but rarely result in cancellations.

“My reaction is really one of sadness that this is the state of the conversation in some parts of the Jewish community,’’ he said. “That a small handful of zealous donors to an institution can prevent a larger community from an open and honest conversation is a real shame.’’

Maas said he was disappointed that the event had been moved “just because I think this only adds to the divisiveness, having this behind the scenes, . . . and it distracts from the topic at hand, namely the future of Israel and the peace talks.’’

Alan S. Ronkin, deputy director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in Boston, said J Street is a member of the his group’s council of organizations, and that its voice should be heard.

“It’s deeply troubling that there are people in the community who would prefer to stifle debate, rather than engage,’’ he said.

Jonathan Sarna, a historian of American Judaism at Brandeis University who moderated a panel discussion with Ben-Ami at Temple Emanuel about 18 months ago, said Ben-Ami’s disclosures about Soros’s involvement had hurt his credibility and fueled questions about the organization’s posture toward Israel.

“I have no doubt that there are some people who would vilify anybody to the left of them,’’ he said. “I actually think, in this case, it’s all about the community’s question, which is totally legitimate from my perspective as an observer, of ‘What is J Street?’ Is it simply a progressive organization that supports a different policy for the state of Israel, or is it a Trojan horse for anti-Israel activists?’’

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lwangsness@globe.com.