Rabbis aim to press China without hurting Israel or Olympic athletes
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Rabbis aim to press China without hurting Israel or Olympic athletes

A large group of rabbis spanning Judaism’s religious movements claims to have an answer to the vexing question of how to send China an Olympic-sized message without harming the interests of athletes or Israel.

In an appeal issued April 30 and timed for the commemoration of Yom HaShoah, 185 Jewish leaders — mostly clergy, and some with ties to this area — appealed to Jews not to attend the Beijing Olympics this summer as tourists.


Demonstrators protest China’s hosting the Olympics as the Olympic torch passes through San Francisco on April 9. Elizabeth Friedman Branoff/Courtesy of American Jewish World Service.

The next day, the Anti-Defamation League rejected the boycott call and said comparisons the clergy statement made to the 1936 Berlin Olympics were inappropriate. This week, the leadership of three major Orthodox organizations released word of their opposition to the move as well.

The main bone of contention is that China is the principal power propping up the regime in Sudan, where government-allied militias have murdered hundreds of thousands of civilians in the Darfur region. China is also cracking down harshly on independence movements in Tibet.

Jewish groups have played a disproportionate and lead role in drawing Western attention to the Darfur killings. Yet deciding whether to confront China, which enjoys thriving trade with Israel, presents a more complicated set of issues than attempting to isolate Sudan, a poor country that does not want relations with the Jewish state.

Also complicating matters is the fact that the United States and Israel have recently scored modest successes in getting China to join the effort to isolate Iran until it ends its suspected nuclear weapons program.

The appeal is cast narrowly, organizers said, as a way around such dilemmas that other groups and nations have faced in determining how to confront the Chinese over human-rights abuses while not harming athletes and national interests.

"There’s a difference between doing business, which is a necessity, and spending discretionary income on sports, which gives a country legitimacy that’s doing a number of very bad things that Jews should be sensitive to," said Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, the head of Manhattan’s Kehilath Jeshurun synagogue, who was a coordinator of the statement.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union of Reform Judaism, said the rabbis’ statement is "a moral appeal to Jewish individuals, not an appeal to the government of Israel." He noted that Israel is a small nation that has had to balance geopolitical realities with compelling moral matters.

Ridgewood resident Rabbi Daniel Freelander, vice president of the URJ, joined Yoffie in signing the appeal.

"I am suggesting that Jews not spend their discretionary income supporting a regime that supports genocide in Darfur and suppression in Tibet and provides missiles to Iran and Syria," said Freelander in an interview with The Jewish Standard. "This is not an ethical use of our funds. I think Jews can watch the Olympics [on television], but there is no positive reason for them to be present at the games."

Lookstein and another Orthodox organizer of the petition, Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg, the former chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Council, saw an opportunity when they learned that China was preparing a kosher kitchen for the Olympics. The outreach to Jewish religious needs struck a chord.

"Beijing’s authorization of the creation of a kosher kitchen at the Olympics village is apparently intended to help attract Jewish tourists to the games, as part of its broader strategy of improving its image and deflecting attention from its complicity in severe human rights abuses at home and abroad," the statement said. "Jews should not be party to the whitewashing of such a regime, kosher kitchen or no kosher kitchen. Regimes that practice or enable oppression, terrorism, or genocide are not kosher."

Greenberg and Lookstein lined up other Orthodox notables to sign on, including Rabbi Norman Lamm, the chancellor of Yeshiva University; Rabbi Dov Linzer, the dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a centrist Orthodox rabbinical school in New York City; and David Bernstein, the dean of the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies in Israel.

Another signatory, Rabbi Saul Berman of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah — who served as scholar in residence at the Jewish Community Center on the Palisades in Tenafly from 1995 to 1997 — said he had struggled with the recognition that "a boycott is a very rough tool."

"I realize that many Jewish organizations are deeply reluctant to undertake a boycott of any kind because it is a tool that is still being used against Israel," Berman said in a phone interview with The Jewish Standard. "I share that concern, which is why we did not call on Israel to join the boycott. Yet I didn’t feel it would be responsible to forgo the tool completely since it can maximize awareness of the genocide in Darfur."

He stressed that the statement’s crafters stopped short of calling for a general boycott of the Olympics or for government representatives not to be present. Rather, the statement urges potential spectators "not to participate [and thereby] to make a public statement on the unacceptability of China’s position in Darfur and human rights in general."

However, the Orthodox Union — the largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization in the United States — went on record against the boycott appeal. "While we share deep concern over China’s record of disrespect for human rights, we do not concur with the selection of this tactic to attempt to protest or influence China’s behavior," the organization’s leadership said in a press release. "Jewish law indeed teaches that the preservation and saving of human lives is of paramount value. But Jewish law cautions that we must act with exceptional care lest we cause more harm than good. The leadership of the Orthodox Union believes such exceptional care is demanded in these circumstances with regard to relations with the Chinese government."

Agudath Israel of America and the National Council of Young Israel each issued statements in the same vein.

The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, which took part in preparing the statement calling for a boycott, noted that Germany used the 1936 Olympics to help create the false impression of secure Jewish communities and thereby diminish American awareness of the impending Nazi threat. (An opinion piece to that effect by Rafael Medoff, the institute’s director, ran in the Standard on April ‘5.)

"Having endured the bitter experience of abandonment by our presumed allies during the Holocaust, we feel a particular obligation to speak out against injustice and persecution today," the statement said. "We remember all too well that the road to Nazi genocide began in the 1930s with Hitler’s efforts to improve the public image of his evil regime. Nazi Germany sought to attract visitors to the 1936 Olympics in order to distract attention from its persecution of the Jews.

"Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, called the 1936 Games ‘a victory for the German cause.’ We dare not permit today’s totalitarian regimes to achieve such victories."

The ADL rejected such parallels.

"We believe that these comparisons are inappropriate," its statement said. "China is a complicated society that is changing and opening up in many ways, and one simply cannot equate the Beijing Olympics with those games in Nazi Germany on the eve of the Holocaust."

Berman said, "There is room for disagreement around the use of a boycott and the ADL’s questions about the need to clearly distinguish Germany in the 1930s and China today. China is not itself doing the genocide. I also understand that politically it’s important for the United States to be in an economically productive relationship with China. Deep condemnation of the behavior of China does not, I believe, undermine that relationship. It alerts public opinion that this issue is real and China’s role is deeply injurious."

Organizers of the statement said they also did not want to harm athletes. The wholesale U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics is now considered a failure that hampered athletic careers more than it moved the Soviet Union to change its Afghanistan policies.

Appealing to rabbis to sign as individuals circumvented the difficult questions that would arise if Jewish organizations were involved. The organizers did not approach Jewish groups, although they hoped that some would sign on. The American Jewish Congress did so.

The ADL, in opposing the boycott call, said, "While there is no doubt that China has an extremely poor human rights record and that its actions in Tibet and Sudan are to be condemned, we believe that asking the Jewish community to engage in a boycott of the games could be counterproductive and would not produce any tangible result."

Some Jewish organizations not only agree with the boycott effort but have gone even further, asking for government action.

Earlier this month at least three groups — the Reform movement; the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an advocacy umbrella organization bringing together national groups and local communities; and the American Jewish World Service, the lead Jewish group in the efforts to stop the violence in Darfur — called on President Bush to boycott the opening ceremony of the Olympics, a high-profile step that would not harm athletes.

Bush spokesmen say he plans to attend, although they emphatically do not rule out a change of heart.

Ron Kampeas is JTA’s Washington bureau chief.

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