Thursday, September 15th, 2011...11:35 am

George W. Bush event tarnishes Beth El’s image

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Bush is, at best, a polarizing figure — and many legal experts have compiled detailed cases for bringing the former president and top members of his administration to trial as war criminals

By PHIL FRESHMAN

As a longtime member of Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, I was troubled to learn that my synagogue will host former President George W. Bush for hors d’oeuvres and a 6 p.m. speech on Sept. 21.

Chiefly arranged by former Beth El Board President Elliott Badzin, this “intimate evening” with the former president (as the official announcement bills it) is limited to 250 people, with ticket prices starting at $1,250. The press won’t be allowed to cover the proceedings. In fact, the event isn’t even mentioned, much less advertised, in the synagogue’s online events calendar or in its monthly print-and-online newsletter.

Bush’s regular speaking fee reportedly ranges from $100,000 to $150,000. If the event sells out, the synagogue stands to reap more than $300,000.

It’s no secret that Beth El needs such large cash infusions to pursue its multifaceted mission — a need that’s hard to meet in the current wobbly economy. Doubtless, the primary impetus for inviting Bush is to address that need. (Some of Beth El’s more affluent members were heavily invested in Bernie Madoff’s investment scam, so the shul was hit hard when that swindle was exposed.)

Yet beyond questions of money, this event amounts to the promotion of a particular political agenda — not to mention aiding the public relations campaign of an ex-president trying to burnish his tarnished image.

Of course, Beth El has the right to present speakers of its choice. But it is not entitled to serially promote a particularly biased perspective through the forum of a house of worship, which it has done by hosting former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and, most recently, Michael Broyde, the Emory University law professor and rabbi (who advocates torture “under certain circumstances”), among others, during the past few years.

Regardless of its limited scope and relatively private nature, the Bush appearance will be seen as bearing the Beth El seal of approval. The synagogue’s public image will be further stained, adding to the negative reactions in both the community and congregation to the Rice and Broyde events. The Rice speech, in November 2009, drew more than 100 protestors to Beth El to decry her role in promulgating the Iraq war and facilitating the use of torture in interrogations of suspected terrorists.

Bush is, at best, a polarizing figure. Many legal experts, notably including retired federal prosecutor Elizabeth de la Vega and former Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi, have compiled detailed cases for bringing Bush and top members of his administration to trial as war criminals. Bush instigated the unprovoked invasion of Iraq on a trumped-up pretext — and we’re still there, still paying for his decisions and actions. The war has claimed more than 100,000 innocent lives, wreaked havoc among its wounded survivors, catalyzed Islamic terrorism, and worsened Middle East unrest.

Moreover, Bush authorized the frequent use of torture, abusing well-established U.S. and international law and violating cherished American — and Jewish — values. In his recently published memoirs, he makes no bones about having ordered practices such as waterboarding, which the U.S. government today officially forbids.

If the Beth El organizers think Bush’s shameful legacy is something that can be ignored in the name of fundraising, they are sorely mistaken. Synagogues are expected to promote and represent the moral high ground. This intimate evening with Bush in the sanctuary risks forfeiting any claim to that moral position.

Sept. 21 follows the 10th anniversary of 9/11 by more than a week, but it falls right on the annual International Day of Peace; the irony of that coincidence hardly needs underscoring. This year, too, Sept. 21 comes on the eve of the High Holidays. I’m reminded of a verse from Deuteronomy that’s cited often during this period of introspection and self-evaluation: “I have set before you life and death: therefore, choose life that both you and your seed may live.”

Beth El’s hosting of George W. Bush likely will lend those words a discordant ring in the minds of not a few Twin Cities Jews this season.

***

Phil Freshman lives in St. Louis Park.


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14 Comments

  • Phil Freshman has spoken the truth sternly, strongly, and plangently. I do admire his forbearing, I could not keep that tight a rein on my verbiage when it comes to castigating our former President, defintely the worst to hold that office in the last century or so, maybe even in the entirety of US history. I feel that its damed shameful of Beth El to bring to the fore the head of the most radical American administration since that of Jefferson Davis. I pray that he will not be brought up to the bimah to speak — that would be flirting with outright blasphemy.

  • My friend Phil Freshman has presented an extremely biased view of the visit of Former President Bush and has used some false information to support it.

    By comparison with our present president, Mr. Bush is a hero to those who support Israel. To many of us, his courage in resisting the vicious accusations of the left-wing media in order to prosecute the war on Islamic terrorism was highly admirable.

    Waterboarding has been used by the U.S. Military for training purposes and its being categorized as “torture” is highly controversial, not a foregone conclusion.

    Mr. Bush may be “polarizing” to Phil Freshman, but “at best” is a misuse of language. At best Mr. Bush is to be seen as a genuinely courageous and noble leader of our nation in difficult times.

    If I were a member of your synagogue, I would consider it an honor to welcome Mr. Bush as a speaker.

  • War Criminals Watch is an organization that publishes a list of upcoming appearances by top officials and lawyers from the George W. Bush administration whom it considers war criminals. Of the last 60-70 speeches listed, one has been at a synagogue. Beth El is getting a well-deserved reputation, but in the process it is tarnishing the entire Jewish community.

  • George W. Bush’s appearance can be cancelled.
    So a plea is given that Beth El Synagogue takes a stance against torture by not having the person who OK’d torture to speak in its House.

  • Well written my friend…..
    As a progressive Christian (Episcopalian) clergy member I cherish my relationships with the Jewish community…..and as a friend of many Jewish brothers and sisters, and resident of Saint Louis Park I have attended multiple services at Beth El Synagogue. Hosting such a controversial person speaker as the former president does nothing to continue the long standing reputation Beth El has in the community. I am disappointed now as I was when Secretary Rice spoke.

    Phil, you stand in line with a history of the strong prophetic voices we commonly share….
    Well Done!
    shalom

  • To Gideon: Just last night, I heard a speech by Dr. Michael Rip, who is a contracted instructor for the Advanced Intelligence Training Unit at the FBI Academy, Quantico, Virginia. His 4-day course, Critical Thinking for Intelligence Analysts, is one of the three core competencies for intelligence analysts identified by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Participants are drawn from all branches of the intelligence community. He says there is no doubt waterboarding is and has always been torture. President Obama, Attorney General Holder, Sen. McCain, and the overwhelming majority of legal experts agree. There is no “controversy” on this issue, except for Bush administration officials and its apologists.

    Dr. Rip also pointed out that waterboarding was used in the SERE program because in the Korean War, waterboarding of our soldiers led to so many false confessions that North Korea used as propaganda. Our military was never under the impression that timely, reliable, actionable intelligence could be achieved through waterboarding or other forms of torture.

  • We Jewish people abhor the torture that Nazis and other totalitarian groups, led by maniacal dictators whose total lack of human morality, allowed them to arbitrarily imprison, torture and murder innocent Jewish people. Phil Freshman’s reasonable call to refuse George W. Bush at a Jewish holy-place is compassionate and reasonable.
    Bush allowed and encouraged the torture of his imaginary enemies, without trial. Bush’s depraved acts stands in the distant shadow of Adolf Hitler and Dr. Joseph Mengele.

  • George W. Bush has outright admitted without apology that he authorized waterboarding and other practices that international law, domestic law, the Red Cross and Amnesty International have called torture.

    Waterboarding was invented by the Catholic Church during the Spanish Inquisition. The practice was first used by American soldiers during the 1890s war by the US against the Phillipines. After WWII, the US prosecuted the Japanese for waterboading as a war crime. Long before the US exposed a few of its soldiers to waterbroarding “for training purposes” as Gideo Rappaport disingenuiously notes, Latin American soldiers were taught waterborading (along with other “enhanced interrogation” techniques, like using electical shock) at the US Army School of the Amreicas at Ft.Benning,Ga.for decades. The results were decades of dirty wars against their own civilians, union activists, students and human rights advocates in countries like El Salvador, Guatamala and Nicarugua.

    Given the historical record of human rights against the Jewish community, that any Jew would support waterboarding–or any torture practice—and that a synagogue would invite a politician who massively broke international and domestic law against torture, is shocking. It is as if the victim has become a perpetrator—or at least a supportive bystander.

    Beth El’s moral credibility is undermined by inviting Bush to speak, by making excuses for a centuries-old torture practice like waterboarding and refusing to oppose torture. One expects more human empathy and basic decency from a Jewish institution.

  • Bush was just abruptly canceled from a similar fundraising appearance scheduled in Toronto, Canada, the day before he is to come to Beth El. Apparently students and faculty of Tyndale University, College and Seminary, a non-denominational evangelical institution, thought better of their decision to invite the war criminal: http://www.thestar.com/news/article/1053604–george-w-bush-s-toronto-appearance-canceled

    This Synagogue’s leaders need to examine their consciences. Why do they insist on hosting only the likes of Ari Fleischer, Condi Rice and Bush and not invite someone to speak against torture and the use of pre-emptive wars of aggression?

  • An excellent editorial by Phil Freshman and thanks to the AJW for publishing it. It’s unfortunate when a synagogue’s prime focus is toward wealthy donors with deep pockets.

  • What a fantastic job Phil did in his opinion piece on Beth El’s hosting of George Bush in order to raise funds for their synagogue. It was brilliantly written and very well thought out. Thank you Phil.

  • A visit by Bush to any place of worship is an abomination. His visit to Beth El is not chess move in defense of Israel; it is a blatant attempt to raise money by the temple leadership. In inviting this war criminal to be the vehicle for fund raising, the temple leaders call into question their their values, never mind their willingness to risk the public image of their faith. They also send a clear message to all members–“we make decisions based on money, not on morals.” In the end, Israel is not elevated, but denigrated by this Bush event. And the temple risks losing its most faithful and morally pure members. Having Bush appear is a risk not worth taking.

  • America’s politically conservative Jewish Community are walking a very dangerious path with the right wing Christian community. At some point they will get upset that their not making converts. When they fail and their are no “New Atheists” or gay people to blame, they will look to others. The American right wing political/religious agenda can be climpsed in Uganda and the killing of people for being gay.

    Before inviting any religious/political leader like Bush, who advocates a Christian fundimentalist agenda, has anyone taken into considerations why they support Israel, it is not because of tolerence or justice, it is to hasten the end of the world. It can be as scary as Hamas. I do not envy Israel’s leadership having to walk between fanatics of any kind.

    Iraq has the second largest source of fresh water in the Middle East, the Bush administration helped ensure Israel will not be part of the development in the region after American troop leave but the Persian Gulf investor will be right on top of the situation.

    Thank you for the article and website.

  • i am curious if you had similar complaints when Bill Clinton came to the Synagogue? This past president was paid a huge fee for his appearance. He had his own issues.

    When I grew up the Democrats were known as “live and let live” party. And the Republicans were known as controlling.

    Boy has that changed! There is such a double standard of acceptance here!

    If you believe in what I believe, you are welcome to come…otherwise stay away!

    GWB –a friend to Israel for sure. Will you, and the rest of your liberal buddies who detest this man, continue to support Barrack Hussein Obama in this election? Would you embrace him to come speak at our Synagogue–even though he clearly isn’t a friend to our Jewish friends in Israel???

    Ron Mash

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