Not Your Bubbe’s HUC
by Rabbi Pesach Lerner and Rabbi Yaakov Menken
The first ordination banquet of the Hebrew Union College of Reform Judaism, held in Cincinnati in 1883, did not go smoothly. A group of invited rabbis opened their menus, realized that the first course was to be little-neck clams, and immediately left.
Fast forward 125 years, to this year’s graduation and ordination ceremony of the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, held at the Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles, California on May 14. Once again, the abandonment of Jewish values was too profound for some of those invited — including at least one of the graduates.
The reason, in this case, was the keynote speech by Michael Chabon, a well-known leftist and anti-Israel activist, a past collaborator with the discredited anti-Israel group “Breaking the Silence.”
Chabon led a tour of Judea together with that organization, during which he called the occupation “the most grievous injustice I have ever seen in my life.” Regarding the Cave of the Patriarchs, he said: “to see that place being dishonored and made less sacred and less holy by the presence of this incredibly cruel and unjust machinery, some literal machinery and figurative machinery of oppression, it offends me.” He would have preferred to see Hebron with no “machinery” there to prevent a repeat massacre of its Jewish visitors and residents. Inverting the reality, he claimed the Jews of Hebron see Arabs as “less truly human.”
Despite the above, HUC Interim President Rabbi David Ellenson introduced Chabon as a “moral voice,” emphasizing his book dealing with “fifty years of Israeli occupation in Palestine” — the book inspired by his collaboration with BtS — and claimed the book is especially relevant due to the relocation of the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
Taking to the stage, Chabon wasted no time bashing Jewish self-defense, Judaism, and the Jewish People. Chabon had nothing to say about the evil of terrorism, and the rampant desire through much of the world to murder Jews. He only found fault with self-defense — for, in his eyes, “security is an invention of humanity’s jailers.” In his view, it is the desire of Jews not to be slaughtered that is the true evil in the Middle East.
He maligned Israel’s security barrier, built to prevent further atrocities such as the Dolphinarium, Sbarro and Park Hotel suicide bombings. “Anywhere you look, it is and has always been a hand of power drawing the boundaries, putting up the separation barriers and propagandizing hatred and fear of the people on the other side of the wall. Security for some means imprisonment for all.”
He went on to say that intermarriage is “the source of all human greatness,” while “endogamous marriage is a ghetto of two.” He condemned Judaism in particular by saying that “any religion that relies on compulsory endogamy to survive has, in my view, ceased to make the case for its continued validity in the everyday lives of human beings.” He said he finds Passover depressing, given his belief that Yetziyas Mitzrayim “is all just a bunch of baloney.”
At least one graduate, Morin Zaray, left in protest. In an op-ed in the LA Jewish Journal, Zaray wrote: “I know that the same wall he said he despised enabled me to live a normal life and to use the bus as a young girl… It was as if horrific terror attacks have never occurred against these Jews — this ‘sorriest’ and most ‘riotous’ group of ‘convicts’ Chabon has ever seen. Maybe he hasn’t seen the virulent Jew-hatred that permeates Palestinian society.
“I turned back to look at my brother, who served in a combat unit in the Israel Defense Forces. He looked sick to his stomach. I got up from my seat and approached my family… I asked my mother if not seeing me graduate would disappoint her. She responded that she would feel ashamed to see me walk on that stage after what had been said. We stood up and left the sanctuary. Standing outside, I was nearly brought to tears as I heard the crowd of Jews give Chabon a thunderous applause.
“For someone who presents himself as an intellectual — steeped in nuance — Michael Chabon has a remarkable ability to present a one-dimensional reality in which the Jews are evil oppressors and the Palestinians are powerless victims, with no agency, no responsibility and no blame. Such a careless disregard for depth and complexity dishonors an institution of higher learning — particularly a Jewish one — particularly on a graduation day.”
Ellenson responded: “it does not occur to us at HUC-JIR to quash or vilify political criticism of Israel out of a preemptive fear of controversy.” He even had the audacity to claim that Zaray’s tearful essay, bemoaning how Ellenson and Chabon “ambushed” and ruined her graduation, was testament to the diversity of opinion at HUC-JIR.
At the podium, Chabon advocated for abandoning the defense of Jewish lives and the destruction of the Jewish People through intermarriage. This is not an interpretation of his remarks, but their simple meaning: he called for the Jews to disappear. And the Hebrew Union College of Reform Judaism not only welcomed him, but gave him an extended round of applause.
These are the people demanding Israel bow to their wishes concerning Israel’s security, the peace process, the Western Wall and matters of Jewish status.
Rabbi Pesach Lerner and Rabbi Yaakov Menken are the President and Managing Director, respectively, of the Coalition for Jewish Values.