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      Pro-Israel Congregants Cancel J Street Head's Appearance

      A synagogue near Boston has cancelled an event featuring J Street head Jeremy Ben-Ami, after congregants complained that Ben-Ami was anti-Israel.
      By David Lev
      First Publish: 11/17/2010, 8:21 PM / Last Update: 11/17/2010, 8:26 PM

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      A synagogue in the Boston suburb of Newton has decided to cancel an event featuring J Street head Jeremy Ben-Ami, after congregants complained that Ben-Ami was anti-Israel – with several congregants apparently even threatening to leave the synagogue. After “an agonizing process,” Rabbi Keith Stern, the rabbi of Reform Temple Beth Avoda told The Boston Globe, the synagogue's board decided to cancel the Ben-Ami event, out of fear that it would “threaten the fabric of the congregation.’’

      In the event, Ben-Ami was set to have a “community conversation” with Steve Maas, editor of the Boston Jewish Advocate, about the current situation in the Middle East, and Israel's choices in the peace process. The discussion was also to have featured a debate on J Street's activities and effectiveness.

      Stern told the Globe that he was surprise at how far-reaching and deep the antipathy of some of his congregants was towards J Street, despite the fact that they are usually known for their liberal views. “The understanding was that it was going to be what I considered to be an honest and open conversation with a liberal Jewish organization, but I clearly did not understand how deep the antipathy is among a group within the Jewish community toward J Street and toward Jeremy Ben-Ami,’’ he told the paper.

      “I deeply regret the inconvenience to J Street, and the difficulty that created for them,’’ he said. “I feel badly that people got so exercised here, through a gesture I really believed was about bringing an opportunity to the congregation.” The conversation is one of several similar events that have been held  featuring Ben-Ami in discussions with commentators and journalists.

      Members of the congregation, and many Jews around the U.S., are suspicious of J Street's agenda, said Jonathan Sarna, a historian of American Judaism at Brandeis University, who in the past has appeared at a similar event with Ben-Ami. “In this case, it’s all about the community’s question, which is totally legitimate from my perspective as an observer,” Sarna said “of ‘What is J Street?' Is it simply a progressive organization that supports a different policy for the state of Israel, or is it a Trojan horse for anti-Israel activists?’’

      Much of the criticism of J Street in recent weeks has been due to its false denial of receiving secret funding from billionaire George Soros, a sharp critic of Israel and advocate of a full withdrawal to the 1948 armistice lines. J Street initially said that it had not received funding from Soros, a claim that was later shown up as a lie. Reports said that Soros had given J Street nearly $250,000.

      Soros has been roundly criticized by many inside and outside the Jewish community for his liberal political stances and his far left views on Israel. Last week, American radio talk show host Glenn Beck took aim at Soros in several of his programs. Beck accused Soros of helping to run a “shadow government” bent on controlling the world economy, and accused him of helping the Nazis during the Holocaust, when he was a teenager. In one show, Beck said that “George Soros used to go around ... and deliver papers to the Jews and confiscate their property and then ship them off. And George Soros was part of it. He would help confiscate the stuff. It was frightening.” Jewish organizations were quick to condemn those comments; Abraham Foxman, the director of the Anti- Defamation League, said that Beck's comments were “the height of ignorance or insensitivity, or both.”

      Ben-Ami told the Globe that he regretted Beth Avoda's decision. “My reaction is really one of sadness that this is the state of the conversation in some parts of the Jewish community. That a small handful of zealous donors to an institution can prevent a larger community from an open and honest conversation is a real shame,” he said.

      The Newton event, set for Thursday, has been moved to a nearby elementary school. Interestingly, according to a local Jewish community website in Boston, the original Beth Avoda event was freely open to the public; the rescheduled event requires advance registration.