Jewish Book Event in Atlanta Cancels Author’s Talk on Zionism, and Uproar Follows
By KIM SEVERSON
ATLANTA — The Jewish community in the metropolitan Atlanta area, by most definitions, is small, vibrant and close-knit.
There are perhaps 120,000 people who identify themselves as Jewish. For as long as most people can remember, relations among the various subgroups have been sometimes cantankerous but largely cordial and supportive.
But an appearance by an author who argues for a more liberal look at Zionism has been causing waves of conflict. Peter Beinart, who edits the Daily Beast blog Open Zion and writes regularly on Jewish politics, was to be one of 52 authors at the popular book festival held by the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta.
But after some members complained, the center canceled his event. Even though another Jewish group rescheduled his talk, the center’s decision prompted boycott threats, criticism from rabbis and charges of censorship.
The two-week festival, which runs through Sunday and draws more than 10,000 people, features a range of talent and explores ideas both cultural and religious. The actor Tony Danza, the musician Michael Feinstein and Deborah Feldman, author of “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots,” are among the featured authors.
Mr. Beinart was to be on stage Wednesday, until some members of the community center began complaining that the views in his book “The Crisis of Zionism,” which was published in March, were not appropriate for the book festival.
Mr. Beinart argues, in part, that younger, liberal American Jews are turning away from the established American Jewish community in part because it is not fostering open debate about Israel and does not defend democratic values in the Jewish state. His change to a more liberal interpretation of Zionism and his call for a boycott of products from Israeli settlements and Israeli-occupied territories have made him a controversial figure.
The community center, which was working with the national political advocacy group J Street to sponsor the talk, helped J Street find a new place to host Mr. Beinart. The 200 tickets for the new event were snapped up quickly.
Leaders of the community center thought they had threaded the needle — the members who complained about Mr. Beinart were appeased, but his point of view would still be part of the discussion.
“As leaders of our agency, we want the center to always serve as a safe place for honest debate, but we want to balance that against the concerns of our patrons,” said Steven Cadranel, president of the center. “No matter what we decided here, the decision was going to have some repercussion either way.”
He was right. Rabbis criticized the decision during services last weekend. Open letters to the Jewish community were published in The Jewish Times.
“Two cardinal principles of Judaism have been violated: a support of censorship and the public embarrassment of a fellow Jew,” wrote Rabbi Philip N. Kranz of the Temple Sinai in Sandy Springs, Ga. He and others vowed to boycott the book festival because of what they perceive to be censorship.
Chuck Taylor, whose family has been part of the Atlanta Jewish community for four generations and who is on the national advisory board for J Street, thinks the community center could have found a better solution, like moving the event off its campus while keeping Mr. Beinart in the book festival. “When you become the Atlanta Jewish Book Festival your obligation becomes larger than just to your members,” Mr. Taylor said.
Mr. Beinart said Tuesday that he had spoken at several Jewish community centers and had never been met with the response he found in Atlanta. It was surprising, but he is not bitter. “I think the mistake is to think that trying to avoid discussion produces unity. It produces a false sense of unity,” he said.
The controversy has had a counterintuitive effect, he and other supporters said, opening up a deeper discussion about Zionism and the role of American Jews in helping solve conflict in the Middle East — especially between generations. “The larger theme of my book is about whether we can find a way as Jews to talk about Jewish power,” he said. “Narratives are still so rooted in victimhood and survival. That is one of the biggest reasons for this generational discord.”
That is a discussion that needs to happen, especially in Atlanta, Mr. Taylor said. “We’re a very supportive community, and I don’t want to be read as criticizing the community,” he said. “But it is also a community run by a very conservative group of people. It is in the South, and this is a conservative region and not as open to more liberal views as other cities might be.”