On March 26, nearly 1,500 young Jewish professionals gathered at the Venetian Resort in Las Vegas for an annual event called "TribeFest." One session featured National Jewish Democratic Council CEO David Harris and his Republican Jewish Coalition counterpart Matt Brooks engaging in a civil discussion/debate on President Barack Obama's record on issues of interest to the Jewish community. Midway through the discussion, Sheldon Adelson, the Venetian Resort's multi-billionaire owner, took control of the microphone, and proceeded to trash and belittle the President, at one point saying Obama "should be in diapers." Despite repeated requests that he relinquish the microphone so the discussion could continue, Adelson refused, angrily pointing out that the microphone, the room -- indeed the entire resort and the block it is on -- were his. Adelson, it should be noted, is one of the Republican Party's single largest contributors, and provides a huge portion of the Republican Jewish Coalition's annual budget.
On May 10, Susan Rice, America's United Nations Ambassador came to Boca Raton's Temple B'nai Torah to speak on U.S.-Israeli relations. Her speech, jointly sponsored by the Anti Defamation League (ADL), the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Community Relations Council of South Palm Beach County, was attended by about 500 people. Among them were several dozen, who waved Israeli flags and disrupted Ambassador Rice's speech, proclaiming that she -- and the president she serves -- is guilty of "throwing Israel under the bus." The protesters were escorted from the auditorium and asked to leave the premises. Within hours, a professionally-produced video entitled "Shame" appeared on YouTube. On it, a voice-of-doom narrator proclaims "The Obama campaign treats Jews like criminals . . ."
Finally, Temple Israel of Greater Miami invited -- and then disinvited -- Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz to be the featured speaker at the synagogue's annual "Social Justice Forum" following services on May 25. When synagogue President Ben Kuehne informed temple members that Wasserman Schultz would be addressing "issues of interest to the Jewish community," a vocal minority rebelled. Stanley Tate, one of Temple Israel's longtime benefactors -- who also chairs the Miami-Dade Romney campaign -- publicly demanded the right of "rebuttal" and then resigned his synagogue membership. His complaint was that as chair of the Democratic National Committee, Wasserman Schultz should not be making what he believed would be a partisan speech without someone -- preferably himself -- rebut what she was going to say. In the end, President Kuehne "regrettably" cancelled Representative Wasserman Schultz's speech, citing "potential security and safety concerns and the dignity of the temple, our members and guests "" In his letter to the membership, Kuehne lamented "It is indeed unfortunate when heightened animosity both within and without our temple community inhibits the opportunity for programs that embrace the freedom of thought, expression and civility." And as with Temple B'nai Torah in Boca Raton, Temple Israel has decided that in the future, no candidates for public office -- or their supporters -- will be permitted to speak until after the election.
This brazen stifling of civic discourse is deeply disturbing, to put it mildly. When people of vast financial means can blithely cavil, cajole, threaten and then literally wrest the microphone -- and all it stands for -- from the hands of those who have opposing points of view, democracy is diminished. When those who may indeed hold different positions, opinions or beliefs are treated as mortal enemies, as conscious agents of evil whose words must be forcefully suppressed, we are all in danger. When we can so easily pin labels like "Communist," "Socialist," "Nazi," "anti-Semite," or "Fascist" on those whose only "crime" is holding to a different thought, opinion or belief, we show ourselves to be desperately shallow, egregiously uncivil, and needlessly frightened.
Tip O'Neill must be spinning in his grave . . .
-2012 Kurt F. Stone