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Sparks fly at a Hamptons Kiddush: Seeds of Peace merely asks if things might not go more smoothly if children on both sides learn to befriend one another. Alas, some in the community believe it weakens Israel to envision a peace that is anything but the kind that Rome handed Carthage.

One late July morning, I stopped into die Jewish Center of die Hamptons (JCOH), as is my summer custom, for the final few minutes of services and an hour of Torah study.

The guest speakers at services that day happened to be representatives from Seeds of Peace. For those unfamiliar with this marvelous organization, Seedy of Peace brings together children from conflict-ridden regions to a camp in Maine to experience one another's humanness and learn basic techniques of conflict resolution. From 46 Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian teenagers in 1993, the New York-based nonprofit has expanded to include young leaders from South Asia, Cyprus and the Balkans. Under President George W. Bush, Seeds of Peace was recognized by the U.S. State Department for the effectiveness of its model.

JCOH's rabbi, Sheldon Zimmerman, who is rather hawkish on issues related to Israel, nevertheless maintains an apolitical pulpit, and political speakers are kept outside of services. Seeds of Peace squarely fits the apolitical bill. After all, it takes no position on the tightness or wrongness of any side's argument in the ongoing fight over the future of Palestine. It merely asks if things might not go a little more smoothly if children on both sides learned to befriend one another.

Alas, certain elements of the Jewish community believe that it weakens Israel even to envision a peace that is anything but the kind that Rome handed Cartilage. On that Saturday, a few of those people--some regulars, some strangers--distributed handouts filled with lies and libelous statements to each member of the congregation. By a complicated causal chain of McCarthyite associations and use of hysterical language, the handouts defamed Seeds of Peace, Birthright Israel, J Street and even Rabbi Zimmerman. As far as I could make out, the big allegation against Seeds was that someone who had once been a "counselor" at the camp was associated with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) that helped organize the Gaza aid flotilla. Birthright Israel, we learned, was actually an Iranian-funded plot whose goal was to bolster Hamas. "The J in J Street means Judenrein, not Jewish," the writers of the handout insisted. While there was no disruption of the presentation, as was widely feared, services were filled with tension, and some sharp words broke out over lox and bagels during the Kiddush.

Most of us have heard this conspiracy nonsense before, but what surprised me was the fact that before Torah study even began, several congregants complained to Rabbi Zimmerman that he had ruined their Shabbat by bringing politics into a place that should be devoted to spiritual study and reflection. Their ire was directed at him for inviting Seeds of Peace rather than at the provocateurs whose lies and insinuations had created a conflict where none should exist. Now, the center attracts a decidedly comfortable, rather elderly crowd. I am often the youngest person at Torah study by a decade or two, and I am no spring chicken. But how can the very idea of peace, peacefully achieved through the cooperative education of children, be considered politically provocative?

As it happened, the services took place on the same Saturday morning that The New York Times reported that the Anti-Defamation League--which is really just a fancy way of saying Abe Foxman--denounced the idea of allowing the construction of an Islamic cultural center two blocks north of where die 9/11 attacks took place, joining numerous Republican candidates and would-be candidates for office, including Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin. His reasoning is truly incomprehensible. Foxman admits that Muslims "may have every right to build at this site" but opposes it nevertheless. Just as "survivors of the Holocaust are entitled to feelings that are irrational," Foxman explained, so are the loved ones of September 11 victims. "Their anguish entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted," he told the reporter.

So because Foxman is upset about Nazis murdering Jews 70 years ago, Muslims are not entitled to practice the freedom of religion guaranteed them by the United States Constitution. You would think a grown man would be ashamed to make such an argument in public, much less one who pretends to speak for "anti-defamation." Perhaps the organization founded in 1913, which describes its mission to "fight anti-Semitism" and "to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all" should be amended to include "except when it upsets a few alter kockers, then it's okay."

My questions: How long are we going to tolerate these irrational racists as responsible, respected members of the Jewish community? How corrupted by the Holocaust and by Israel's 62 years of war are American Jews that such statements do not offend their sense of logic, if not of shame?

Eric Alterman is a professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and City University of New York's graduate school. His latest book is Why We're Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America.
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Title Annotation:OPINION
Author:Alterman, Eric
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Sep 1, 2010
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