Saturday, January 15, 2011

Rabbi Dobrusin Hijacks Religious Freedom Day Panel

Inspired by incidents of anti-Muslim violence, it was billed as part of celebrating Religious Freedom Day but Rabbi Robert Dobrusin of Beth Israel Congregation (BIC) hijacked the panel discussion on Thursday at the Ann Arbor District Library. One of the featured panelists, Dobrusin bemoaned "an extremely unpleasant situation" and launched into a diatribe against the weekly vigils of Jewish Witnesses for Peace and Friends despite his admission that "our religious freedom has not been threatened, it has not been limited" and "no one has ever been physically prevented from entering our building".

Dobrusin was long on generalities but short on specifics. He admits that JWPF is "expressing an opinion at odds with deeply held feelings of a majority of our members". This gives the lie to the claim sometimes made by vigil critics that many or most of the congregants agree with JWPF's criticisms of Israel but that the problem is mainly with JWPF's tactics. Dobrusin then proceeds to claim that JWPF misrepresents the "relationship" and "connection which our congregation ... feels with the State of Israel." Yet, Dobrusin's charge of misrepresentation is bald-faced with nothing to support it.

He follows with the claim that JWPF "has endeavored ... to publicize its message against the legitimacy of Israel and against any negotiated settlement based a two-state solution". This falsehood is not new.

Regardless of the varying positions individual JWPF members may have, as I wrote in 2007, "In fact, JWPF has never taken a group position on the legitimacy of Israel." Likewise, the group has never taken a position opposing a "two-state solution." In March, 2007, JWPF approved the following statement:
Jewish Witnesses for Peace and Friends have been asked what it would take for us to end our vigils at the Beth Israel Congregation (BIC).

Our answer is simple and well within the power of BIC. We would end our vigils at BIC if the Board of Directors of BIC publicly states its full support for the following principles that basic human rights require:
  1. The full civil and political equality of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel within Israel;
  2. The prompt implementation of the rights of Palestinian refugees of 1947-8 and 1967 to return to their homes and properties in Israel and Palestine as stipulated in UN resolution 194; and,
  3. The prompt end of Israeli occupation and colonization of all lands seized by Israel in 1967.
Although we are not all Jewish, we hold that inequality, the forced exile of millions of Palestinians, and military occupation are inconsistent with the highest ideals of Judaism.
Following his misrepresentation of JWPF's position on Israel, Dobrusin says: "Now, the question is if we express our opinions ... are we accountable for what it is we believe? Can people disagree with us or should we be able to hide behind the walls of our synagogue and say this is our opinion and it can't be debated?"

Dobrusin answers his question in the negative claiming "if we want to have respectful discussion ... we can have respectful discussion ... surely that can happen." So, why is it that more than seven years ago the request of JWPF founder Henry Herskovitz, who regarded BIC as his spiritual home and regularly attended High Holy Day services there, to address the congregation, not at Sabbath services but on a week night evening, was denied?

In more than seven years, why haven't Henry and JWPF ever been invited in for the debate Dobrusin says he welcomes? The answer is, apparently, because JWPF's non-violent exercise of their own Constitutionally protected rights, which Dobrusin grudgingly admits is legal, feels "to us as harassment".

Dobrusin also claims that the signs JWPF members hold outside BIC are "often quite simply untrue." This is a tacit admission that at least sometimes they are true. Moreover, as before, Dobrusin's claims are simply unsubstantiated. What signs are untrue, Rabbi? Let's debate that.

Dobrusin talks about how "restrained," at his behest, the congregants have been in responding to the "harassment" of JWPF. "We don't want physical or verbal confrontation on the street outside the synagogue," he says.

This would have been a nice time to acknowledge that the only people ever investigated or arrested by police in connection with the protests were a Beth Israel congregant, Eli Avny (Assault with a Deadly Weapon), and a guest, Abraham Seligman (Assault and Battery). It would also have been an opportune moment for Chuck Warpehoski to make a belated apology for the fact that the organization he heads, the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice, never took a stand against the violence directed at JWPF members but that probably wouldn't be good for business.

Dobrusin concludes his presentation with a plea for people to support BIC and speak out against JWPF's vigils. Dobrusin frames his plea by saying:
The point I want to stress this evening is really the one with the most importance. You know in the long-run this isn't a Beth Israel issue. And it isn't a Jewish community issue. And it isn't an issue about Middle East politics. It's an Ann Arbor issue. The atmosphere and peace of our entire community is tarnished when people feel tension as they approach their house of worship on their holy day ... as long as this type of action continues the spiritual atmosphere and the sense of comfort and peace of our community is severely damaged and that's truly a shame for all of us. (emphasis added)
What's clear from this is that Rabbi Dobrusin is no student of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Here's something the Rev. King had to say in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail" about "tension" and "peace":
... I am not afraid of the word "tension." ... there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.
No doubt it was men like Rabbi Dobrusin whom the Rev. King had in mind when he lamented the one "who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: 'I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods ... ' "

Rabbi Dobrusin wants us to believe that the violent Jewish supremacist state that he and his congregation support is not the real issue.

Forget that when Israel turned Lebanon into a "free-fire zone" in 2006, BIC responded by publishing on their web site a photo of four Israeli flags along with a statement of support for the "people of the State of Israel at this time of crisis" and stating that "We pray for the safety of those who defend Israel …"

Forget that Rabbi Dobrusin wrote in the Ann Arbor News: "Beth Israel Congregation affirms without any hesitation or equivocation the legitimacy of the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish state, and affirms the right of Israel to defend itself from enemies who seek its destruction."

Forget that BIC sends their young children to Israel and poses them for photos with armed Israeli soldiers.

Forget that Rabbi Dobrusin has offered a halachic justification of torture from the bima.

Forget all that. The real issue is the tension and tarnished peace in our community. Oh, the humanity!

Rabbi Dobrusin wants us to believe that "among the institutions which our community must respect is the sanctity of the house of worship." But Beth Israel's support for Israel has diminished, if not eradicated, its claim of sanctity. As Abraham Heschel explains:
The prophet knew that religion could distort what the Lord demanded … To the people, religion was Temple, priesthood, incense: "This is the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord" (Jer. 7:4). Such piety Jeremiah brands as fraud and illusion. "Behold you trust in deceptive words to no avail," he calls (Jer. 7:8). Worship preceded or followed by evil acts becomes an absurdity. The holy place is doomed when people indulge in unholy deeds.
BIC's support of Jewish supremacism in Palestine is indeed an evil act and an unholy deed. And as the prophet Isaiah (ch. 1) said:
Though you pray at length,
I will not listen.
Your hands are full of blood.
And as the prophet Amos (ch. 5) said to "the House of Israel":
Ah, you that turn justice to wormwood,
and bring righteousness to the ground! ...
They hate the one who reproves in the gate,
and they abhor the one who speaks the truth. ...
Hate evil and love good,
and establish justice in the gate ...
let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
You can find a 3.1 Mb audio file (.wav) of Dobrusin's speech here at

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