Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt announced Tuesday that she would resign her membership in Young Israel of Toco Hills after the National Council of Young Israel endorsed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to bring followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane into his electoral coalition.
Lipstadt sent a letter Tuesday to Rabbi Adam Starr of YITH after the NCYI backed Netanyahu’s engineering of a merger for the April 9 Knesset election of the Jewish Home and Jewish Power (Otzma Yehudit, in Hebrew) parties. The leadership of Jewish Power includes followers of Kahane, whose virulent anti-Arab statements led to his Kach party being banned from Israeli politics on grounds of racism and inciting violence.
Starr had issued a statement opposing the action by the NCYI.
Informing Starr of her intention, Lipstadt said:
Dear Rabbi Starr:
I greatly appreciate your unequivocal statement condemning National YI’s stance on the welcoming of the Kahane parties into the coalition. You have always openly and publicly stood up against these kind of efforts by National YI and I commend you for that.
However, I must also take a stance. I cannot be associated with an organization that gives such racism, celebration of violence, and immoral policies a “heksher.” Having just written a book that calls for people to speak out and take action when they see antisemitism or prejudice of any kind, it would be duplicitous of me to remain a member of an entity that has the name “Young Israel.”
I do so with sadness because I consider YITH my spiritual home. Even when I am not in synch with all its observances and strictures, I treasure this community. It is warm, welcoming, and supportive. It does much hesed about which we never hear. It happens quietly and with dignity.
I shall be making a contribution equal to my dues to your discretionary fund and hope you will use it to further strengthen that tradition of hesed. I also expect that none of it will go into the coffers of National Young Israel.
Because I have already been asked by folks – from outside Atlanta and outside the USA – what I am doing, I shall be making this letter public.
I do this with sadness but also with the knowledge that you and so many others in our shul (I haven’t yet resigned so I can still say that) share my views.
At this time of rising antisemitism, Jew hatred, and prejudice of all kinds, each of us – and not just our spiritual leaders – must speak out and act individually and collectively. We must become, as I said from the pulpit at our service after the Pittsburgh tragedy, the unwelcome guests at the dinner party, speaking out when we hear something hateful, prejudicial, and wrong.
And so I speak out with deep sadness that such a despicable action is given ‘cover’ by people who claim to walk in the ways of the Kadosh Baruch Hu.
Yours in great respect and friendship,
Deborah E Lipstadt
Lipstadt is the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University. Her latest book “Antisemitism: Here and Now” was published in late January.
In a statement to the Atlanta Jewish Times on Wednesday morning, Starr said:
Dr. Deborah Lipstadt is a treasured friend and teacher of mine. It’s been my tremendous honor to be her rabbi.
Although Dr. Lipstadt has resigned her membership, she has offered to donate the same sum of money to my Rabbinic discretionary fund to support important programs at the synagogue. She may no longer be a member for the time being, but she remains an integral part of our community.
Her resignation has nothing to do with any issue with our shul or its leadership beyond the organizational association with the National Council of Young Israel.
The question of our continued relationship with National Council of Young Israel is one that has been raised by members of our congregation well before their statement from this past week or Dr. Lipstadt’s resignation. They have unfortunately made other statements and established policies not in line with the values and practices of our diverse membership. I fully expect a further exploration of our affiliation with NCYI by our board and membership moving forward.
In addition to our current affiliation with NCYI, my synagogue is a proud member of the Orthodox Union which provides us with excellent support and services.
On Tuesday night, Lipstadt said on Twitter: “I had no choice. This (YITH) is a marvelous community. With a wonderful rabbi. But National Young Israel actions constitute an embrace of murder[er]s and racists and calls it politics.”
Also on Twitter, Ben Sales of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported: “Lipstadt told me Netanyahu’s deal with Jewish Power aligned with other things he’s done, including his praise for right-wing nationalists like Hungary’s Viktor Orban. She’s criticized that, too.
“This was just one more step, but this was a dealbreaker,” Sales quoted Lipstadt as saying.
On Monday, Starr posted on Facebook: “Not in my name and not in my shul’s name! Embarrassed that the sole supportive statement from a national Jewish organization for the inclusion of Otzma came from the National Council of Young Israel.”
Then, on Tuesday night, Starr said on Facebook, “I am currently discussing a response with a number of Young Israel rabbis.”
The National Council of Young Israel represents some 175 Orthodox congregations.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu acted to get right-wing parties to merge in order to meet the threshold necessary to secure a victory in the election. We understand what Prime Minister Netanyahu did, and he did it to have ministers of the national religious and national union parties in his coalition,” the organization said a statement to the JTA.
A wide array of American Jewish organizations rebuked efforts to bring the Kahanists into Netanyahu’s electoral coalition.
Netanyahu pushed for the merger of the Jewish Home and Jewish Power parties because, individually, neither might have achieved the 3.25 percent vote threshold necessary to win seats in the Knesset. Together, that outcome may be more likely, providing Netanyahu with another block that he could add to his Likud party to form a coalition that would hold a majority in the 120-seat Knesset, thus allowing him to remain as prime minister.
Netanyahu and Likud are facing a serious challenge from the new Blue and White party, whose leadership includes three former chiefs of staff of the Israel Defense Forces.
Kahane founded the Jewish Defense League in the United States in 1968. After moving to Israel in 1971, he created the Kach party and served in the Knesset, until Kach was banned for violating an Israeli law against incitement to violence.
Kach also was declared a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department after the Feb. 25, 1994, massacre of 29 Palestinians at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron by Baruch Goldstein, an American-born doctor and Kach member. Kahane was assassinated in 1990 in New York.