I joined the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity — AEPi — in my freshman year of college. In my chapter at Johns Hopkins were mostly what we’d now call “nerds.” Including me: In those days I could imagine a future in which I’d be writing 22 books, but certainly not a future in which I’d be getting arrested 22 times. I enjoyed most of our very tame parties, and most of my “brothers.”
So I am sorrowful to report that AEPi’s recent behavior is a sad example of what happens when love for Israel sours into idolatry of Israel. In a moment I will explain what I mean.
And I’ll suggest what we could do about it.
This “fraternal” organization — originally intended to nurture Jewish community –— has turned sour — and worse, idolatrous — by defining critics of Israel as unacceptable in the community.
There could be no worse anti-fraternal formula for turning off the brightest, most creative young Jews. Telling them to stay away from the Jewish community.
That’s what idolatry does. It deadens both the idol-maker and what the idol-maker venerates. As Psalms 115 and 135 say of idols, “They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not breathe. Those who make them become like them [dead]; so do all who trust in them.”
A minority of American Jews –- few in numbers but rich and powerful enough to matter —- distort our community by supporting whatever policies the Israeli government pursues, without critique or question.
That is idolatry, carving out a useful part of the Flow of Life and elevating it into Absolute Devotion as if were Absolute Perfection.
This kind of idolatrous behavior is not only spiritually bankrupt.
It not only violates one of the Ten Commands of Sinai.
It not only violates what Hillel called Torah’s central command, to “love our neighbors as ourselves” — by justifying the oppression of the Palestinian community in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.
It not only is what Jews have called “Chillul haShem,” casting shame upon the Jewish people in the eyes of others.
It not only hollows out (chillul) the Divine Tree of Life so that it may look untouched from the outside, but within, the life-juice of the Tree no longer flows and the Tree of Life begins to die.
Not only does this idolatry —- in the very name of supporting a worthy instrument for protecting Jews and enriching Jewish culture – - weaken Israel by exposing it to all the dangers of unchallenged, unaccountable, domineering over-reach. (Cf. Pharaoh at the Red Sea.)
This idolatry also tears at the fabric of American Jewish life, treating critics as traitors and making a public pretense of what American Jews actually believe.
The most recent horrendous example is what happened when J Street applied for membership in the “Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.”
J Street is devoted to Israel and committed to give real support – not just mouthwash — to a two-state peace settlement that would liberate not only Palestine but Israel itself. (The jailer who fears and must keep constant watch upon his prisoner becomes a prisoner too — certainly not nearly as despairing as the one behind bars, but a prisoner nevertheless.)
The Conference members voted by secret ballot. That is a shande -– shameful –- in itself. These are not private people in a voting booth. They are more like our Senators and Congressmembers when they vote on bills, whose votes of course are public. We who elected them are entitled to know how they vote.
Those who vote at the Conference of Presidents are each allegedly representing the organization that sends them, and its members. The members are entitled to know how they voted.
Despite the “secret ballot” rule, a vigorous columnist for the Forward, J.J . Goldberg, was able to find out how most of the member organizations voted.
The large ones, from the centrist mainstream Jewish community –— the Reform and Conservative denominational bodies, the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, even the Anti-Defamation League — voted to include J Street.
But a larger number of much smaller rightwing Orthodox groups and right-wing political groups voted NO. Since the Conference goes by “One Group, One Vote,” regardless of the size of membership, J Street was rejected.
So outraged were the centrist mainstream groups that Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the million-plus-member Reform denomination, threatened to quit the Conference of Presidents unless there were major reforms.
And oh yes, among the organizations voting No was AEPi.
“My” fraternity, excluding devoted Jews from what is supposed to be an umbrella organization.
So I called AEPi HQ at 8815 Wesleyan Road, Indianapolis, Indiana 46268-1171, email: firstname.lastname@example.org phone: (317) 876-1913 fax: (317) 876-1057, and spoke with its executive director, Andrew Borans.
When I said I was shocked and unhappy about AEPi’s vote, the first thing he said was that no one was supposed to know how anyone voted.
Of course! — Then no one could complain! In the great tradition of liberte, egalite, fraternite!
When I pressed him about the content of AEPi’s vote –— why would a presumably broad-based organization vote with the right-wingers? — he said 90% of their undergrads and 95% of their alumni had urged a right-wing No vote.
“But,” I said, “I get your emails. I’m a Life Member. I was ‘Master’ (that is, president), of my chapter 60 years ago. I’m even a Rabbi. How come no Email came to ask my opinion?”
“Well,” he said, “we are members of many many organizations and we can’t consult everybody on every vote that comes up.”
(I leave aside whether “every vote” ends up in a major column in the leading Jewish newspaper and in controversy so sharp that the President of the biggest member of the Presidents’ club threatens to quit.)
I asked how many actual flesh-and-blood people these 90% or 95% were. He wouldn’t say. Where did he find them? Well, he met them. Visiting fraternity houses. Raising money. Dinners.
Oh. One more fact. In AEPi’s list of Notable Alumni (see http://www.aepi.org/about-aepi/notable-alumni/), high on the list is Sheldon Adelson, multibillionaire gambling king and multi-million-dollar supporter of Israeli and American right-wing politicians. Adelson snarled at Governor Christie of New Jersey for daring to call the West Bank “occupied territory,” when Christie came to beg royal cash and favor for the GOP presidential sweepstakes.
Also among the “notable alumni” is Michael Schwerner (Cornell, class of 1961) who was one of the Civil Rights workers murdered by the KKK during Freedom Summer, 1964. Now he was a Brother I’d take joy in being Brother with! But you can’t compare Schwerner’s influence to Adelson’s. After all, Schwerner is safely dead. And he never had much money anyway.
So –— what to do? I urge other AEPi members who believe that J Street is a legitimate and valuable part of the Jewish community to say so to the national AEPi leadership and to their own chapters. And I urge us all to say so to any of our kids or grandkids who are thinking about joining a fraternity.
And I urge all of us, AEPi or no, to praise, question, and criticize Israel as we would any other aspect of the world. A more and more flawed aspect, badly needing our work of healing and correction. Not the Perfect One that we may pine for, even worship.
And I urge all of us to resist every effort to squash debate in the Jewish community, about Israel or about the refusal of many of our organizations to face the extreme over-heating of our only planet, or about any other way of driving out those who seek to be truly Yisra’el — to Wrestle God.