American Jewish World | George W. Bush event tarnishes Beth El’s image

Published on September 15, 2011 by American Jewish World

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.

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