OPINION | Beth El should not have invited Condoleezza Rice


I was appalled and saddened recently to learn that Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park – the congregation to which I belong – will host former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Nov. 8, as part of its National Speaker Series.

A major fund-raising tool for the synagogue, the series has brought in the likes of Colin Powell, Bill Clinton, Ehud Barak and Dan Rather for brief speeches from the bima, followed by a question and answer period. Tickets range from $50 to $180 – and $1,000 for those who want to dine with the speaker and have a photo op before the presentation. The atmosphere is heimish, like having a guest at home. Typically, speakers offer no real challenges to mainstream notions about Israeli and U.S. government policies, and audience questions are relatively tame.

So, given this innocuous – if spendy – set-up, what’s my beef?

By “proudly presenting” Rice in its sanctuary, Beth El is implicitly condoning her deeply immoral actions while in office. She continued to promote it enthusiastically and lied to Congress about it, as she did about the Bush administration’s failure to respond to well-documented terror threats that preceded the 9/11 attacks.

Rice thus shares direct culpability for many thousands of American and Iraqi deaths, for the grief and ruin the war has brought, for the hundreds of billions it has cost (making it far harder than it otherwise would be for the U.S. to address its crucial domestic needs), and for related problems that Bush-Cheney policies have caused here and around the globe, including the further destabilization of the Middle East. Israel arguably is far less safe today because of the iniquitous mayhem Rice, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith stirred up.

Publicly, Rice helped fabricate the pretext for the war out of whole cloth. She stoked Americans’ fears of “the next mushroom cloud,” repeatedly offered “evidence” for Iraq’s nonexistent WMD and testified to the “established connection between bin Laden and Saddam Hussein,” all the while knowing there was none.

Maybe you can see why I’m appalled. Why am I also saddened?

By extending this invitation, Beth El suggests that the true implications of Rice’s visit are secondary to her stature as a celebrity and her ability to draw a high-paying audience. More, it suggests a willingness to continue passively consuming routine thinking about the Middle East rather than engaging well-known speakers with a broad range of views who might jostle preconceptions and stir nonhomogenous thinking and discussion.

Rice likely will grab 20 minutes’ worth of canned remarks from her desk, and make sure to oil the audience’s anxieties about Hamas and Iran. The Q-and-A promises to be similarly superficial. Even if one or two hard questions happen to be asked, should anyone expect truthful answers?

Like many synagogues, Beth El needs considerable cash to pursue its mission and serve its congregation well – a need that is very hard to meet in this dire economy. Yet one vital service we expect synagogues to provide, perhaps especially in tough times such as these, is moral leadership.

Displaying tolerance – and it would seem respect – for a warmonger and abuser of numerous American legal values, and core Jewish principles, is hardly a sign of moral leadership. Entering the Days of Awe, Beth El congregants should mull the meaning of giving a platform (plus a hefty check) to Condoleezza Rice and think about the tarnishing message it sends.


Phil Freshman lives in St. Louis Park.

(American Jewish World, 9.18.09)

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