Varda Meyers Epstein's weekly column
What kind of rabbi visits Arafat's tomb? And why would anyone defend him? These are two questions I've been asking myself for the past couple of hours, ever since I began researching the curious case of Rabbi Neil Blumofe, on a tip from my husband. Blumhofe, senior rabbi at Agudas Achim, the only Conservative synagogue in Austin, Texas, arranged a trip to Israel for his congregants that included just such a pilgrimage to the arch terrorist's tomb. That is until he got called on it by a congregant and was forced by the resultant outcry to change the itinerary.
Thank God for that! Thank God someone had the sense to call him on it. Because seriously—could anything be uglier than paying homage to an evil one who drenched the Holy Land with Jewish blood (collecting a Nobel Peace Prize along the way)?
First, the evidence. Here is the itinerary:And here is a screenshot of the item in question on that itinerary.
Here is the letter that served to expose Blumofe:
20 July 2017
Dear Rabbi Blumofe:
I moved to Austin and joined CAA in 1991. Over the years I have seen a number of Rabbis
serve our community. From the moment you arrived, I was a “Neil fan”. You connected with
the members and you connected with the member’s kids. No one could ask for anything more
than this. With the passing of years, the vast majority of the community supported you in your
transition from Hazan to Rabbi.
I am writing you today because somehow the train has jumped the tracks.
Few in the community would know this but I lived on a Kibbutz in Israel for several years after
high school. I arrived on Kibbutz Ma’ayan Tsvi in the fall of 1977. Ma’ayan Tsvi sits next to
Zichron Ya’acov on the Hof Hacarmel and with the Kibbutz’s fields stretching from the base of
the Carmel Mountains to the Mediterranean.
Each spring, millions of birds migrate north from Africa passing over Israel towards Europe. As
they migrate, Ma’ayan Tsvi’s fish ponds make a nice place for millions of birds to eat their fill of
fish. In the spring of 1978, an American photographer, Gail Rubin was hanging around the
Ma’ayan Tsvi fish ponds taking photos of the dozens of the species of birds. Gail was the niece
of the US Senator from CT, Abraham Ribicoff. We used to chat with her as she wandered
around the ponds and on several occasions, she ate breakfast with us in a little field kitchen that
we used down by the ponds.
On Saturday, March 9, 1978, 13 PLO terrorists came ashore at our beach in two inflatable boats.
Their plan was to land in Tel Aviv and attack the beach front hotels, but the seas were rough and
they ended up on our beach some 40km north of their target. Armed to the teeth, they first ran
into Gail who was taking photos by the fish ponds. After murdering her, they cut through a
chain link fence and started shooting at vehicles traveling on Israel’s main north/south highway
connecting Tel Aviv to Haifa. They hijacked a bus full of Egged Bus Company employees who
were returning to Tel Aviv. As they headed south from Ma’ayan Tsvi towards Tel Aviv, they
were indiscriminately shooting at the vehicles heading north on the other side of the highway.
By the time all the terrorists were dead or incapacitated, 38 people, including 13 kids were
The following day, Yasser Arafat was celebrating the event. A town square in some West Bank
town was named “in honor” of the one female terrorist who participated. I’ve lived my life
knowing that only a slight twist of fate saved me from the fate that ended the lives of these 38
This is but one of dozens of terror attacks which were organized by Arafat’s PLO. The blood of
hundreds of murdered Jews still drips from his dead hands.
Today I learned that you are planning on leading a group of CAA members on a trip to Israel in
June of 2017. Included in the itinerary is a visit to Yasser Arafat’s tomb. I, for one, feel that
your visit to Arafat’s tomb is beyond the pale. To me, it’s no different than were you to travel to
Germany to pay your respects at Adolf Hitler’s tomb, if one existed. Somehow your priorities
have become completely perverted. Apparently you don’t seem to understand that your place is
with the victims of his murderous actions. Not with the murderer himself.
Don’t misunderstand me. You are free to do as you please. Your politics are your own business.
And you have every right, as an American, to make common cause with the Palestinians and to
pay homage at the tomb of Yasser Arafat. But you are not free from the consequences of your
actions. You are the Rabbi to an entire congregation, not to just some faction that agrees with
your personal politics. And to be absolutely clear, the problem here is not the politics of your
Palestinian tour destinations. What’s at issue here is what is in your head and what is in your
heart. You have revealed yourself to be a man of poor judgment and little common sense.
Sadly, your moral compass is completely broken.
Paying homage at the tomb of Yasser Arafat while touring Israel on a CAA affiliated tour,
disqualifies you completely and absolutely from being the moral and spiritual leader of a
Conservative congregation of Jews.
Let me repeat myself…. As the leader of our community, your place is with the victims of his
murderous actions. Your place is most definitely NOT with the murderer.
I believe that we have come to an impasse. I cannot understand nor can I condone whatever
thought process has led you to believe that it’s a good idea for you to pay homage to this mass
murderer of Jews. The harsh truth is that there is no reason to wait until you actually visit his
tomb. The fact that you believe that it’s reasonable for you to do so, is enough. It’s more than
You are entitled to your own politics. But this is a bridge too far.
It’s time for you to resign. Depart and let us be done with you. In name of G-d, go!
CC: Caroline Legatt (by email)
Enclosed: Agudas Trip Itinerary
Now you had better believe that letter got attention. And once the cat was out of the bag, Blumofe was forced to change that particular item on the congregation's anticipated itinerary. As you might imagine, however, the hue and the schrie that was raised, were very loud indeed.
On the one side you had the normal people saying, "How could you do such a thing? The guy has so much Jewish blood on his hands. What possible defense could you have for making a pilgrimage to his tomb (and with your congregants wagging their tales behind you!)? Seriously. WTF?"
And on the other side, you had, well, the others. The deranged people who wanted to plead on Blumofe's behalf, as if it were defensible for him, in his official capacity as shul rabbi, to plan to lead a group of congregants on a pilgrimage to pay homage to the murderer of their own people. What could he/they possibly say to smooth this over and make it okay?
As it turns out, a lot. Because spin always requires lots of words.
There was an editorial in the Washington Jewish Week, for instance, called, A rabbi is "lynched," which begins:
Twelve years after his death, Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader and arch-terrorist, is still causing Jews grief. This time, we’re relieved to report, no one died. But there’s no doubt that the life of Rabbi Neil Blumofe, senior rabbi of Agudas Achim in Austin, Texas, was badly shaken. And all because he included a visit to Arafat’s grave in Ramallah in a draft itinerary for a congregational trip that would include Christian clergy that the rabbi knew well.
“I do a lot of work in the non-Jewish community, where we are losing support for Israel,” Blumofe told a Jewish newspaper in New York. Blumofe saw himself in the position of providing “a pro-Israel narrative for those who question and want to be challenged.”
Instead, Blumofe, was attacked — largely online — as a traitor.
Oh, so that's what that was. He was just including the pilgrimage to Arafat's tomb because there were gonna be Christian clergy along on that trip who wanted to go there and heck, Blumofe KNOWS THEM WELL. (Is that important? The part about Blumofe knowing them well? Frankly, I can't see the significance of that idea in this context.)
The "badly shaken" part, well, that's supposed to make us feel guilty for calling Blumofe to task for wanting to pay homage (with congregants in tow) to a modern-day Hitler. Better he's shaken now, while he can still repent his ugly deeds, in my humble opinion. And since we're going backwards in the text, that bit about being "relieved to report, no one died?" Is that meant to inform us we're going way overboard, because Arafat? He's dead. He can't hurt anyone anymore. So what's the big deal about going to some place where his bones just happen to be buried?
And you see, that's the thing! It's a huge deal. You do not pay honor to the evil. You do not pay honor to one who slayed multiple members of your people with the intent of wiping them out completely (and stealing their land). No one should be feeling sorry for Blumofe. On the contrary, everyone should be yelling their heads off. He should lose his job.
Then there was The Forward, which tried to tell us to LIGHTEN. UP. in a piece called, Meet the Jazz-Playing, Erotica-Writing Rabbi Who Planned a Synagogue Trip to Arafat’s Grave, with its " seven facts about the rabbi who went a bit viral," a sort of "did you know" compendium of "Hey Dude, this rabbi's COOL. Pass the weed," kind of facts, such as:
He [writes] his own blog and has published several stories on Jewrotica, an online community that describes itself both as a “hub for Jewish sexual expression” as well as a sex-ed resource for the Jewish community.
Writes his own blog! And does erotica, too. Whatta guy. Whatta JEW!
The New York Jewish Week, not to be outdone, carried an editorial piece from Editor and Publisher Gary Rosenblatt called, Anatomy Of A Takedown: Community builder and lover of Israel, or glorifier of Arab terrorism: could this be the same Texas Conservative rabbi?
This is a cautionary tale of what can happen when the impulse among some supporters of Israel to lash out — in a fierce and often personally damaging way — with whom they disagree plays out. It’s about the harmful ripple effect, fueled by the Internet, of a facts-and-intention-be-damned approach: Ready. Fire. Aim. All in the name of protecting Zion.The results, fed by self-righteousness on the part of the critics, and a miscalculation and feelings of hurt and alienation from the victim, dangerously deepen the gap between Jews on either side of the Israel divide.
Well, Mr. Editor Sir, for the record, the fact is that the itinerary of a trip Blumofe arranged for his congregation concludes with a pilgrimage to the tomb of a man who spilled gallons of Jewish blood. His intention? There IS no intention that can make this okay. Wanting to expose congregants to both sides of a narrative? One for their people, one for MURDERING them?
Sorry. That is not okay. I do not have to understand Arafat to repudiate his deeds. And I understand Arafat's sycophantic terrorist followers only too well. The problem, Rabbi Blumofe, is that you do NOT.
You, Rabbi Blumofe, don't understand that the only understanding they, the terrorists, want, is the one in which you and your people are in several pieces six feet under, preferably by dint of a violent act, and with your land safely in their bloodstained hands.
Apparently, Rosenblatt does not understand this, either.
Alienation? Deepening the gap between Jews? I gotta say that there is nothing I want more than to deepen the gap between me and people like Blumofe. And you should want that too, Mr. Rosenblatt. (Maybe you would if you spent some time with people whose lives were affected by terrorism, attended a few of their funerals, visited THEIR graves.)
Finally, there was the Times of Israel piece, The American rabbi who dared consider a visit to Arafat's grave. I loathe giving them page views, so you're going to have to Google it if you want to see this piece. But as per the other apologias, the hint of the focus is in the title. Blumhofe is not evil. Why he's positively DARING. Courageous, don't you know (you peons, you utter basket of DEPLORABLES).
Here's a quote:
In addition to the Ramallah stop, the itinerary in question included a visit to the illegal West Bank outpost Havat Gilad and an overnight stay in the nearby settlement of Har Bracha, as well as a meeting with the head of its yeshiva.Blumofe had met one of MEJDI’s Palestinian guides while on a personal visit to Israel — one of many he has taken over the past several years — and said he was impressed with his critical view of the Palestinian narrative. The rabbi felt the tour operator would be a good fit for the trip he had in mind.In addition to interested Jewish congregants, Blumofe, who is the president of Interfaith Action of Central Texas, planned to include Christian clergy from streams that are not necessarily friendly to Israel. He had hoped, “based on my long term, invested relationships with various people in the interfaith community, that new relationships could be fostered and fresh paths made,” he told The Times of Israel.
"Fresh paths" such as the one leading straight to Arafat's tomb. How lovely. And of course, we'll throw in a few token visits to "illegal" Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria to make everything fair and balanced.
I spoke with Ardie Geldman about tours and tokenism. Geldman is the founder and director of iTalkIsrael, offering home hospitality, lectures, and tours in Gush Etzion to visitors from all over the world. I asked him, "So, as bad as a visit to Arafat's tomb would be, the itinerary would have exposed them to the settlers' narrative, too. Right?"
"Yes, that's true. They are "yotzei"* with a short, obligatory visit with "the other ('settlers') side." But more often than not, their guide sets them up with what to expect to hear from the "settlers," and sure 'nuff, what'dya know, that's exactly what the settler says.
"More to the point, the visits with Palestinians are designed to tap the visitors emotions, i.e., visits with families in their homes, with meals, hearing personal stories of tragedy suffered at the hands of the IDF and "settlers." The rule of thumb with visits to a "settlement" is first to take note of the quality of life it reflects in comparison to the Palestinian hovels to which they are taken. The discussions are generally at the impersonal and political level in which the designated "settler" or "settlers" are put on the defensive about the very existence of their community and are often made to answer for what the visitors don't like about the Israel Government's or the IDF's policies vis-a-vis Palestinians.
"And, of course, there is always the calumny of water. Yes, many Palestinian suffer from a shortage of water; no, this is not Israel's fault. In short, the visit with Palestinians is intended to engage the visitors' emotions of pity and concern, while the visit with the "settlers" is geared to excite anger."
So there you have it. Were Blumofe's intentions good? I suppose it's possible. He is just as likely to be brainwashed about Israel as any other liberal American Jew. Except for the fact that he must be at least somewhat conversant with Jewish history and the Torah as a Conservative rabbi. And that's where I just can't fathom him dialoguing on issues such as the legality of building Jewish homes in the Jewish homeland of Judea and Samaria. Or giving honor to a murderer of his people.
Nope. I just can't find a way to square this and that's not a shortcoming in my ability to dialogue and see the other side of things. Rather it's a shortcoming of Neil Blumofe. He, Blumofe, can't accept the narrative of his own God, can't accept the Torah, can't absorb his own people's brave and tragic history. And by dragging the feet of his congregants into this mess alongside him, he has committed a grave sin.
No pun intended.
*considered to have fulfilled their obligation, as in a religious obligation.