Lex Rofeberg

Our community recently witnessed a remarkable drama, after a group of individuals identified one of the speakers at Limmud and Shabbat Across Winnipeg as part of an organization with opposing views on American policy related to Israel.

 

 

A variety of volunteer and employed community leaders were contacted. Those who did not dissociate with the speaker were publicly labelled as “pro-BDS” and “Israel-haters”, regardless of previous Israel advocacy work. Unfounded and serious allegations were levelled, not just against the speaker but also anyone associated with the events. Community Facebook pages were overrun by vitriolic comments, some from locals, but many from people not even from Winnipeg. Angry accusations travelled back and forth between strangers, tumbling down into assumptions based on misinformation. Discerning fact from propaganda became challenging. Those unfamiliar with the controversy began to associate community gatherings and learning events with controversy and negativity.

In the end, the speaker was well-received at Limmud, speaking to full rooms about engaging Jews in Judaism in the 21st century – topics that would have undoubtedly appealed to a Shaarey Zedek Shabbat dinner. He was engaging and positive, and fostered open and vibrant discussions – the whole point of the Limmud experience. There was another room where the topic was on Israel; as advertised, that was not his room.
I can imagine this as a case study in a social science textbook. It should not have occurred, in 2019, in my local Jewish community.
This drama did not further support for Israel, nor did it diminish the BDS campaign. Instead, it divided our community and undermined claims that we are open, warm, and inviting. It used up energy for fighting anti-Semitism to target a 28-year-old rabbinical student whose entire life revolves around Judaism.
Listening to another person’s views is not the same as supporting those views. Listening to another person’s views on topic A does not mean one supports that person’s views on topic B. These are basic concepts.

I am not expecting much change from the instigators of this strife, but I hope that the rational majority has learned from this experience and, the next time a similar situation occurs, not fall for inflammatory rhetoric that disrupts community events and turns people away.
Eyal Kraut

* * * * *

This is in response to the incident at this year’s Limmud, where Lex Rofeberg was deplatformed from a Shabbat dinner at Shaarey Zedek Synagogue which was hosted by three shuls and co-funded by the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg.
Deplatforming has become a  frequent occurrence - mostly on American College campuses when generally right wing speakers come and are disrupted or prevented from speaking on a variety of issues. What typicaly happens is tht the speech is deemed offensive by radicalized university students, many of whom see themselves as social justice warriors.
Although I have not seen any news to say as such, we could openly wonder if the leaders of the IfNotNow movement might possibly have participated in such deplatformings in the U.S. If that has indeed happened, then perhaps deplatforming a young Jewish man visiting Winnipeg for the first time might have been justified. But, there is no evidence that members of IfNotNow have ever engaged in deplatforming.
No doubt, the  decision of the leadership of the Federation and the three synagogues was not taken lightly. The employees of those organizations take their responsibilities seriously and work very hard, as do the volunteers of those respective organizations. I have nothing but respect for their contributions to our community.
However, what happened was wrong and embarrassing to our community.
The message we send to the young members of our own community and the precedent we have set for ourselves has made our community weaker, not stronger. It has made our perspectives narrower and less tolerant, not more strident or purposeful.
 I would like to relate an old Talmudic story that you may have heard of before. If not, please search  Wikipedia or various other web sources as I am abbreviating it out of respect for space.

It is the story of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa. According to legend, those two individuals caused the destruction of the Temple and ultimately the expulsion of the Jews from the land of Israel.
In the story’s telling, there was a party and a very wealthy person throwing the party was good friends with Kamsa, but enemies with Bar Kamsa. Accidentally, however, Bar Kamsa was invited to the party and assumed that his  invitation might be a way that the person throwing the  party would want to reconcile with him.

Bar Kamsa arrived but, much to his dismay, the host was extremely upset he was at the party and insisted he leave. Bar Kamsa offered to pay half the cost of the party and tried to persuade the host that his having to leave would be embarrassing. The host refused and insisted he leave and actually ended up physically throwing Bar Kamsa  out of the party.
Now, many people attended this party, including famous rabbis, all of whom said nothing and did nothing. The humiliated Bar Kamsa  blamed the rabbis for his humiliation..
As the story goes, Bar Kamsa must have been fairly well connected as he spoke with the Roman Caesar and was able to turn Caesar against the Jews. Consequently, a series of events began that ultimately led to the destruction of the second Temple and the expulsion of the Jews from Palestine.
I am sure there are many lessons to be learned from this story and one of them is most certainly about respect and dignity.

When we Jews can not act respectfully to one another and  cannot act in a dignified manner, we are undermining our existence.
The purpose of my relating this story from the Talmud wasn’t to retell history. Rather it was to open our eyes to understaning how our behavior can undermine our intentions, and how our silence and tolerance for intolerant attitudes can cause more damage than it actually prevents.
When we let disrespectful things happen to our own people we undermine the very essence of our peoplehood.
Our treatment of Lex Rofeberg is not going to destroy the Winnipeg Jewish community, but is this level of disrespect a lesson how we should act to each other - or to our guests? When internet trolls can bully institutions or whip up donors into threatening the institutions we all rely upon, then are we in a much different place?

Furthermore, de-platforming seems to have a totalitarian aspect to it, where the interests and opinions of a select few can deny access to the opinions of others. This constitutes suppression of free speech and I would sugges that  in other contexts most of our community would fight for this right, yet we are so quick to limit it when it comes to discussion of certain issues - most notably criticism of Israel.
I believe the organizers of Limmud were under intense pressure to completely revoke Rofeberg’s invitation and I suspect that although they resisted this, there will be consequences for them for their position.
It is even more concerning that Lex was not even speaking on subjects related to Israel at all. Apparently, even the slightest taint of impure disloyalty to Israel is some sort of abomination that should haunt him in every community where he travels.
A cursory look on Google reveals that Lex Rofeberg has spoken in many different cities. In addition, he  hosts a podcast in which he interviews some of the greatest Jewish thinkers alive today. I‚Äącould not find one other mention of a community needing to boycott him or “deplatform” him. Google has preserved this honor for us in the Winnipeg Jewish community. I am sure there are some that are proud of this distinction but I, for one, find it embarrassing.

It is also important to note that the IfNotNow movement is a non-unified movement, which means that  participants  within this organization do not necessarily see eye to eye on all matters. For example, members of IfNotNow might mourn the loss of life on both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict, but do not agree about other apsects of that conflict.

What happens if members of IfNotNow, who are  young Jews,  are  unable to dialogue with their established communities because of this Salem witch hunt mentality?
What happens if they are trying to reconcile the images of Israel represented in so much of the media with the morality they were taught in their schools and shuls as kids? Although misguided in some ways, is it appropriate to banish them and their perspectives from our community?
What if all of the justified and honest passion we hold for Israel, our rage and fear of another Holocaust, and our continual need to monitor and defend ourselves and Israel from harassment and prejudice is drawing so much of our attention and our energy that it is undermining us in some way?
What if all of this is accelerating the disengagement of our youth from the very thing we are trying to save for them?
What if, in order to protect ourselve,s we undermine the very thing that makes being Jewish worthwhile in the first place?

Name witheld by request of the writer as that person is in an occupation where they are not supposed to comment on issues publicly.