What is Wiesenfeld’s worry?
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What is Wiesenfeld’s worry?

It’s the week of Israeli’s birthday and American newspapers and blogs are discussing whether Israel’s birth was marred by ethnic cleansing.

Thank self-appointed pro-Israel advocate Jeffrey Wiesenfeld for this most unwelcome present.

Wiesenfeld is the trustee of the City University of New York who objected to granting an honorary degree to playwright Tony Kushner because of Kushner’s statements on Israel, including charges that Israel was guilty of ethnic cleansing in 1948.

You’d think Wiesenfeld, an old political hand, would know better. Vetoing an honorary degree is newsworthy, and a media frenzy erupted with even Ed Koch defending Kushner. In the end, Kushner received the invitation, but along the way, his views on Israel were widely aired.

Whatever Kushner may believe, it’s worth noting that Congress is on record as labeling as ethnic cleansing the persecutions that led the Jews of the Arab states to immigrate to the new-born State of Israel, which sort of makes the whole ethnic cleansing charge a wash.

What really interests us are these questions: What was Wiesenfeld thinking? What was he trying to achieve? How did he think he was helping the Jewish people or the State of Israel by trying to blackball a playwright?

Wiesenfeld’s war on Kushner is only the most recent incident of self-appointed communal guardians attacking individuals for their liberal or radical positions on Israeli politics and even spending real money in the process. Ads in Jewish newspapers recently attacked the new leader of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Richard Jacobs, for his involvement with New Israel Fund and J Street and before that Israeli billboards attacking New Israel Fund head – and former Knesset member – Naomi Chazan.

These efforts are mystifying, particularly since they’re counterproductive. These activists succeeded only in drawing attention to the positions – and organizations – they disagree with.

Why are Wiesenfeld and his fellows trying so hard to create an ideologically pure Jewish community? What makes them so afraid of people with different views? Are they simply insecure, deeply afraid that their deeply held values can’t survive the parry and thrust of debate?

This is not the behavior of a free people in its land. The Jewish community and Israel are made of sterner stuff.

We believe in a big tent Judaism and a big tent Jewish community. Kicking people out of the tent hurts us more than it hurts them. Evicting liberal Zionists and even radical anti-Zionists makes us all smaller. The more this goes on, the more people will refuse to enter the Jewish communal tent in the first place. And that’s a far graver threat to our people than a playwright’s political statement.

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