Jews must be open to diverse opinions

We're bothered by the uproar over Congregation Emanu-El's decision to host a speaker from the Israeli left.

It's not that we agree with the speaker. A lot of what he said actually bothers us. But we defend his right to free speech in an open society.

And if that fundamental argument doesn't win you over, how about the need for American Jews to be better educated on issues in Israel?

Are we so naive that we can't absorb different viewpoints, as Israelis do, and come to our own decisions on an issue?

Let's remember that the speaker in question was Shamai Leibowitz, an Israeli citizen. Some members of the congregation acted as if the speaker were Yasser Arafat.

Leibowitz is the attorney representing Israeli army reservists who, like himself, have refused to serve in the territories. Although their numbers may be small, the reservists — called "refuseniks" –have continually managed to get Page One headlines in the Israeli press.

Undoubtedly some of what they say may sound like anti-Israel sentiment to some listeners.

To those Bay Area residents who argue that a synagogue is not a place for what can be considered divisive opinions, we ask why. Emanu-El isn't bringing controversial speakers to Shabbat services. Instead, such speakers come on a weeknight.

Moreover, Leibowitz was only one of a number of speakers that the San Francisco synagogue has invited recently to talk about Israel. Others included Thomas Friedman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The New York Times, and Rabbi Uri Regev, executive director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism in Israel.

As home of the largest Jewish auditorium in the Bay Area, Emanu-El is the perfect location for such speakers.

Congregants who don't wish to hear voices critical of Israel's policies can stay home. However, we believe they should come to such events and raise their own voices during the question-and-answer periods to challenge what the speakers say.

We live in a democracy where varied opinions are welcome. Let's not ban them from our synagogues and other Jewish institutions.