Visionary thinker, activist and leader in the American Jewish world Leonard (Leibel) Fein died on August 14 at the age of 80. Since his death, much has already been written about him, and without doubt much more will be.
He was revered, respected and loved by so many he had mentored, worked with and inspired – as a professor, a founder of Moment Magazine, the creator of Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger and The National Jewish Coalition for Literacy, a co-founder of Americans for Peace Now, an avid supporter of the New Israel Fund, an active member of J Street. He was also, of course, a prodigious commentator on the world scene – especially on the Israel he cherished, but whose policies he wasn’t shy to criticize when he believed they merited such treatment – as a regular columnist for The Forward and other outlets.
By speaking his truth eloquently and unabashedly, he inspired, and also enraged, many. But few, I think, could legitimately or effectively challenge the power of his pen, the passion in his heart and the strength of his moral conviction.
I don’t claim to have the depth and breadth of relationship with Leibel that many others had. But I was fortunate enough to live in the city he also called home – Boston – and I had the chance often to break bread, relish music and collaborate with him on projects we both valued. I’ll mention a few.
Eight or nine years ago the Islamic Society of Boston (ISB) had broken ground on what was slated to be the largest mosque in New England. But some in the Boston community weren’t pleased with that prospect, and a lawsuit was filed challenging the city’s transfer of land to the ISB as a violation of church-state separation. At the same time, FOX News and The Boston Herald began carrying stories claiming that current or former ISB leaders had made anti-Semitic remarks or had ties to terrorism. (One FOX News image depicted Osama bin-Laden next to an artist’s rendering of the mosque.) The ISB ultimately filed a defamation lawsuit, which included claims against the pro-Israel advocacy group The David Project.
At that point, much of the institutional Jewish community in Boston closed ranks, and essentially declared that dialogue between the Jewish and Muslim communities was suspended.
Leibel and I joined with several others who found this an unacceptable proposition.
We urged mediation of the legal disputes, and a closer connection between the two communities. In due course, the lawsuits were dropped, but tensions remained high. In the face of this discord, we formed a small committee of Jews and Muslims, and drafted a joint statement called “Building a Community of Trust.” Rolled out a few days before Rosh Hashanah and Ramadan in 2007, it was signed by a diverse group of Jews and by the leaders of every Muslim institution in greater Boston.
Seeking to “build trust and mutual understanding,” the signers affirmed “the common humanity of all racial, religious and ethnic groups, and their common need for safety, security and dignity,” while decrying “all forms of terrorism, racism, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim prejudice, and stigmatization....”
That fall, the statement was read in mosques and synagogues around the city.
In calling for “hope and not fear,” and in each of its fundamental principles, it bore Leibel’s imprint and his imprimatur.
Another collaboration: In much of the institutional Jewish community, groups – including Jewish groups – that support, in any shape or form, boycott, divestment, or sanctions intended to influence Israeli policies are viewed with disdain and worse.
Even discussion of boycott as a tactic to influence policy in Israel is considered so treyf by some as to be entirely off-limits.
But others in the Jewish community – including Boston Workmen’s Circle (BWC), where I served as president from 2007- 2013, and where Leibel was a card-carrying member – believe that difficult subjects like these deserve to be dissected and debated openly, and not viewed as so toxic as to be untouchable.
In that spirit, in October, 2011 BWC hosted a debate that included Rebecca Vilkomerson, director of Jewish Voice for Peace, a rapidly-growing organization which, on account of its positions on boycott and divestment, was included in 2013 on the Anti-Defamation League’s list of “Top 10 anti-Israel Groups in America.”
Joining the debate were the former director of the New England chapter of the American Jewish Committee, and Leibel Fein, representing himself. Leibel found himself staking out what was really a middle ground in the debate, expressing a Zionist’s unashamed love for Israel and its right to exist, combined with an unapologetic critique of those policies – like the continuing, oppressive and corrupting occupation – that he believed betrayed Israel’s aspiration to be a just and democratic homeland for the Jewish people. This was vintage Leibel Fein.
Two years later, Leibel took a big step.
In August of 2013, in his column in The Forward, he publicly called for a boycott of Ariel, the Jewish enclave that juts into the West Bank 10 miles beyond the Green Line. Specifically, he cautioned American Jews who visit Israel to stay away from the city, to “treat it as an offense against peace.”
Having mentioned approvingly a number of other boycotts in recent history, some successful, he continued: “[W]e cannot dismiss calls for a boycott of products made in the territories Israel occupies as inherently wicked, nor for that matter can we automatically condemn Israelis or tourists for boycotting the West Bank itself. Ariel is not the issue; conscience is the issue. Conscience, and the chance to be effective.”
Again, this was Leibel being Leibel. Loving Israel, but speaking truth to the Jewish institutional world when he saw it reticent to open its eyes wide enough, seeking justice where it was needed, offering hope when it was in short supply.
I’m privileged to have known him. His voice and his heart are already sorely missed.
The author is an attorney and was president of Boston Workmen’s Circle from 2007-2013.