This past summer, Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park invited former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to sppear in its National Speaker Series on Nov. 8. Starting in mid-July, Phil Freshman, a synagogue member, tried to raise through internal channels his concerns about the invitation and was rebuffed at every turn. He submitted an open letter to the Shofar, Beth El’s monthly newsletter — not allowed. He tried to distribute his letter by leaving copies around the synagogue — not permitted. He asked for ten minutes to discuss the issue at the synagogue’s annual meeting in August — forget it. So he went public, first in the Minnesota-wide bi-weekly, the American Jewish World, on Sept. 18, then in the Sept. 23 edition of the Star Tribune. The synagogue now is justifying its invitation of the Secretary on the ground that it seeks dialogue on difficult issues. Some of that dialogue appeared here earlier. And the dialogue continues. A synagogue officer responded to Phil in the American Jewish World on Sept. 30:
Open minds should listen to Condoleezza Rice at Beth El
By TOM SANDERS
In the Sept. 18 edition of the American Jewish World, a fellow Beth El congregant explained why he is “appalled and saddened” that Condoleezza Rice will be speaking at our synagogue on Nov. 8.
I am appalled and saddened at the polarization and demonization that has infected our public discourse. I am a liberal, but I will listen to Rice with interest, if for no other reason than because, as a Jew and as an American, I believe in listening across the divide.
The previous article passionately argues, and some no doubt agree, that Condoleezza Rice is “a warmonger and abuser of numerous legal values and core Jewish principles.” She committed “deeply immoral actions” and “shares direct culpability for many thousands of American and Iraqi deaths, for the grief and ruin the war has brought….”
Yet there are many in our community who are interested in hearing Rice, and others who have respect or even admiration for her, and they too have good reasons for their views. She was, after all, central to U.S. foreign policy-making for the entire eight years of the Bush Administration and an accomplished foreign policy scholar and policy maker before that.
Considered one of the more moderate members of the administration, she was an opponent of former Vice President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and is entitled to some credit for Cheney’s declining influence and Bush’s belated second-term efforts at a more multilateral foreign policy. She is at least as vilified by the far right as she is by the left.
Rice deserves credit for the AIDS initiative in Africa, a very substantial humanitarian effort to combat what is one of the great human tragedies of our time. And it’s a fact that Bush was reelected even after much of what outrages many Americans was common knowledge. If there’s culpability here, we, the American people, have our share of it.
The point is that it’s a much more complicated picture than the prior article suggests; and, more importantly, that there is a diversity of views among our community members and legitimate arguments to support many of those views. It’s much less about Condoleezza Rice than it is about being open to hearing differing viewpoints.
She’s not the speaker some of us would have chosen; but she is a person of intellect, import, experience and insight. Many of us were thrilled when Bill Clinton came to speak, even though many others have a well-justified moral objection to him. We cannot complain if, this year, the speaker is someone with whom we have issues.
More generally, I am deeply saddened at the descent of our public discourse into mutually exclusive exercises in vitriolic name-calling. Each side gets its “facts” from its own sources, hearing nothing but the echo of its own anger, and shouts epithets where reasoned dialogue is so badly needed: socialist, fascist, Nazi, warmonger. Hopefully, the Beth El community has not become so polarized that the only speakers to whom we will willingly listen are those who share our views.
Our body politic would be far healthier if we were to remember the dispute between the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel, which was resolved when a divine voice decreed that the law is according to the School of Hillel. Why? “Because they were kindly and humble; they taught their own rulings as well as those of the School of Shammai. And even more, they taught the rulings of the School of Shammai before their own” (Talmud Eruvin 13b).
In hosting Bill Clinton, Condoleezza Rice and others, the Beth El Speakers Series stands with the School of Hillel in opposition to polarization and demonization.
And here is Phil’s reply, which in an abridged version also appeared in the American Jewish World:
It’s her immoral actions, not her ‘views’
By PHIL FRESHMAN
Tom Sanders’s response in the Sept. 30 issue of American Jewish World to my commentary in the Sept. 18 issue was an understandable attempt by Beth El Synagogue to save face regarding its upcoming hosting of Condoleezza Rice for dinner and a speech. However, it was also disingenuous and misleading.
Sanders implies that objections to Rice appearing on the bima stem solely from political bias and a desire to stifle dislikeable “views.” He suggests that assertions about her role in planning the Iraq war and agitating for it using false evidence — i.e., warmongering — are merely “vitriolic name-calling.” Each side, he writes, “gets its ‘facts’ from its own sources.”
It isn’t Rice’s “views” that make the Beth El event so disturbing but her immoral actions — involving both the war and Bush Administration torture policy. One “source” Sanders might consult is the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, which in 2004 investigated her war role and found her sworn testimony dubious.
Her actions have been widely documented, in books by former L.A. district attorney Vincent Bugliosi and former national security advisor Richard Clarke (who worked with her) and in New York Times and New Yorker reportage — to name just several “sources.” Her Wikipedia page contains abundant links to the public record (i.e., factual evidence, not blogs).
Contrary to Sanders’s claim that Beth El welcomes “a diversity of views,” its last two speakers were Bush press flack Ari Fleischer and Colin Powell. It hasn’t hosted any speaker who questioned official Israel policies.
Sanders fails to concede that Beth El needs money and that that’s the main reason for hosting Rice, rather than to learn from her “experience.” After all, didn’t we just finish eight years of learning from her?
Altogether, Sanders’s comments recall the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where Michael Palin as the rich landowner is hypocritically trying to calm down wedding guests who’ve watched a berserk Sir Lancelot indiscriminately laughter guests and guards in his misguided attempt to rescue Palin’s wispy son from a forced marriage: “Let’s not go into who killed whom but welcome a very famous and influential knight.”
I am part of a group, Tackling Torture at the Top, which will be peacefully demonstrating our opposition to the appearance of Sec. Rice in a rally outside Beth El Synagogue, 5224 W. 26th St., at 5:15 p.m. on Nov. 8th. We oppose both the illegal and immoral policies that Sec. Rice was instrumental in pursuing, and Beth El Synagogue’s giving the Secretary a platform to justify those policies. We would especially welcome members of Beth El who share our view and do not wish to contribute toward Sec. Rice’s no-doubt extravagant fee to join us.