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January 20, 2004

More on this later, but

Daniel Radosh

More on this later, but I think it's important for me to get out there immediately that 1) I could not disagree more with the ominous spin that Cynthia Cotts puts on the Friedman synagogue thing; and 2) this here blog reflects my personal opinions in my free time and has nothing to do with scrupulously impartial The Week or my job there (obvs).

And now, more on this. I know I shouldn't look a link horse in the mouth, but I was a little chagrinned to see myself quoted so prominently in Cotts's article, especially since readers who didn't see my remarks in their original could easily believe that she and I were saying the same thing.

We were not. I was expressing surprise and amusement over Thomas Friedman's announcement that he founded a synagogue, but I never suggested there was anything wrong with donating his winnings to it (the joke about laundering the check was, clearly, just that). The idea wouldn't even have occurred to me, and after reading Cotts's column, frankly, it still hasn't.

It would be too simplistic and obnoxious to simply label Cotts a bigot and be done with it. (It may help Sullivan understand how poorly this charge reflects on him to note that one man's "pro-Israel" "optimist" is always another's "self-hating, Israel threatening" traitor). On the other hand, Cotts can't be let off the hook just because Sullivan got a bit frothy.

So let me examine (I hate to use the F-word) Cotts's argument in detail if only so it's clear why it's not my own.

She begins, "In this country, everyone's entitled to freedom of worship." So we got that going for us.

But there is something especially freighted about giving journalism award money to a religious library.

There is? Why? Is there some rule about the separation of church and newspaper? This was, after all, an opinion award. Should a man's opinion not be informed by his religious beliefs? It would be a poor faith indeed that could be so easily separated from the real-world.

Note that the other award-winners... donated their cash to less controversial institutions. Krugman's $2,000 is going to the Brooklyn Public Library, Marshall's to a prep school he attended in Southern California, and Tomlinson's to a public library in Charlotte. Presumably, these are places where readers of every political and religious persuasion can find material to inform their opinions.

Cotts has not yet established what makes Kol Shalom "controversial," though she'll attempt to later. But how much tidier it would be for her if Marshall had not rewarded a frickin' prep school, robbing her of the "access for all" argument she probably wants to make. But even if — if — the library of Friedman's choice is most likely going to be frequented by people of certain political and religious persuasions, so what? It's his prize, let him donate it wherever he wants. Again isn't promoting opinions his job? Hell, I'd let him keep it, but the condition was donation to a library (not, mind you, a "secular public library").

Which is probably not the case at Friedman's library of choice. According to the Kol Shalom website, the synagogue seeks "to support and assist" the Conservative Masorti movement in Israel.

It's possible that Cotts simply isn't familiar with how congregations work, but her implication, that because a synagogue takes a particular stand on Israel its every function, down to what books the library stocks, is dictated by that stand is simply false. By highlighting Kol Shalom's statement on Israel (as opposed to, say, it's work serving meals at homeless shelters, Cotts leaves the impression that this synagogue is merely a front for a Zionist political organization. But again, people familiar with such things will know that will know that a formal position in Israel is de rigor, but almost never the be-all end-all. And unless Kol Shalom is unusual for a Conservative congregation, it's unlikely that the entire membership agrees, or is expected to agree, with every statement put forward by the board.

In a 1997 column, Friedman described Masorti as a "grassroots institute." Its president Rabbi Ehud Bandel recently told a reporter that his group strives to maintain a middle ground between the extremists in Israel and to preserve the "Zionist dream of an independent, sovereign, Jewish state. . . . Our three basic principles are Zionism, Judaism, and democracy."

Is it just me, or is Cotts working overtime to make Masorti sound scary? She can't even bring herself to finish the construction that begins "middle ground between the extremists," as if adding, "and the secularists," would make Masorti sound more reasonable to Village Voice readers. Earlier she called it the "Conservative Masorti movement," but that's Conservative as in the branch of Judaism, which in Israel is fairly liberal. And all that stuff about Zionism, well, I'm sure Bandel said such a thing -- to an audience that would understand the context and not assume that Masorti is a Zionist political movement, as Voice readers might. A more encompassing quote about Masorti can be found on its website (which Cotts oddly fails to link to): "In promoting the combined values of Conservative Judaism, religious tolerance and Zionism, the Movement strives to nurture a healthy, pluralistic, spiritual and ethical foundation for Israeli society." Still scared? Masorti is, in fact, simply the umbrella organization of Conservative congregations and havurot in Israel.

In Israel, religion and politics are inseparable. Orthodox Jews have considerable power, and Reform and Conservative groups fight for leverage. While Friedman does not usually identify his arguments as religious ones, he has exhorted moderate Jews to be as passionate as extremists, and he endorsed the war in Iraq, which he casts as a moral imperative.

The war in Iraq? Where did that come from? Is she really insinuating that Friedman only supported the war because his synagogue believes liberal Judaism should have equal standing with Orthodox Judaism in Israel? Or is she just stirring the pot?

Rabbi Maltzman probably has strong political beliefs, too, but he is better known for his bookkeeping habits.

Ah, the artful segue. The whole thing about Maltzman's alleged financial malfeasance is a red herring. Though I guess I owe Cotts for almost inadvertently explaining exactly how Friedman came to "start" a synagogue. The short version will be all too familiar to people who follow such things: There was a conflict between the board and the rabbi. The rabbi was fired. His supporters quit in protest and set him and themselves up in a new congregation. Neither Cotts nor I know whether they were right or wrong, but I try to avoid politics at my own congregation and I'm certainly not going to second-guess decisions made at one I know nothing about.

Friedman's religious beliefs are relevant because they shed light on his political ideology, which he espouses with tremendous authority. In a New York Times column published shortly before Yom Kippur 1997, Friedman called on moderate U.S. Jews to give money to Israel "in a very targeted way," so that it would not end up in the hands of "ultra-Orthodox elements."

Yes, thank goodness we now know about Friedman's religious beliefs or his political ideology would be shrouded in darkness. Um, what? As Cotts' random examples show, Friedman's beliefs are all too well-expressed. He says exactly what he means and explains why he means it. He's an opinion columnist. I guess her point is that he's telling readers to support the same causes that his synagogue supports. And? Should he belong to a synagogue thatdoesn't support the principles he believes in? Even if Friedman were a reporter with a mandate for objectivity, there would be no reason to examine his religious beliefs to find bias. It would either appear in his work or it would not. Or is Cotts really suggesting that no religious Jew can ever be trusted to write about Israel?

In the same column, Friedman wrote that he had recently turned down an invitation to talk about Arab-Israeli affairs to an "American-Israeli educational institution," because he was required to end his speech "on an uplifting note."

Good for him. Would Cotts be happier if Friedman said, "Sure, I'll say whatever you want for a check"? I don't get it.

These days, Friedman routinely bills himself as an optimist.

Even better for him. His outlook has improved.

Asked whether he had ever agreed to give a speech on the condition that he take an optimistic stance, Friedman declined to comment.

Is it possible he could tell where this article was going and wanted to get off the phone? I know I would.

On a lighter note, Steven Weiss over at Protocols came through on my request for a Friedman/Safire prayer service. (And the gang over there is also debating Cotts, natch, noting that she has "gutlessly" refused to answer questions about her own reporting while demanding answers of others.) Jarvis weighs in too. By the way, I said earlier that I had a nice chat with Cotts at the luncheon. That remains true.

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