Jewish scholar and activist Leonard “Leibel” Fein, who died last week, was a prominent voice of Jewish liberalism and left-wing Zionism for almost half a century.
Just one indicator of his prominence was the frequency with which he appeared in JTA’s coverage of American Jewish life, mentioned in more than 100 articles dating back to 1966.
While Fein published only two Op-Ed pieces in JTA (in 2004 and 2011), his personality, eloquence — and consistently left-wing views — emerged in reported articles, as he spoke out in conferences and debates, founded new organizations and campaigns, and wrote and circulated public letters on issues of the day.
Below is Fein in his own words, culled from the JTA archive:
On social justice:
“Jews should be involved massively in tutoring. If we have a surplus of anything, we have a surplus of literacy.” (1998)
“Hunger in America is not a consequence of drought, natural disaster or a lack of food. There is more than enough food in this country for everyone to ‘enter and eat.’ That’s why, when we think of hunger here at home, we do not think of it as a tragedy; we think of it as a scandal.” (2011)
On intermarriage, Jewish identity and the challenges of American Jewish life:
“Our synagogues are organizational and architectural successes, but Judaic failures.” (1971)
“Not so long ago it appeared that Judaism in America was oriented merely around nostalgia, that Jewish history had for all practical purposes come to an end… But the continuing peril of Israel and the miraculous resurgence of Soviet Jewry, and perhaps even, though less dramatically, the apparent” re-awakening of anti-Semitism in the United States “have once again made it both interesting to be a Jew and somewhat dishonorable not to be.” (1971)
“I don’t think intermarriage is the principal reason for the depletion of our numbers. It’s boredom.” (1996)
“Bigger pools and better early childhood education programs are important, but they are not how we’ll be measured,” he said [at a conference where the Jewish Community Centers Association of North America announced its intention to promote “meaningful Jewish community.”].“We can’t be satisfied to remain in health and hobbies, as important as they are. If that’s all there is, the center becomes a cafeteria with only appetizers and desserts.” (2000)
On a United Nations Security Council resolution that condemned Israel’s 1980 declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s “complete and united” capital:
(In a letter Fein drafted that was signed by several Jewish leaders who, like Fein, were known for publicly criticizing Israel’s Likud government on other issues) “We believe that the United Nations has no moral authority to speak to the Jerusalem question. In a complex and anguished world, the UN and its member agencies have repeatedly behaved as if the Middle East were the only area of international crisis warranting their attention … Further, the UN’s obsession with the Middle East has demonstrably failed to advance the course of peace even in that troubled region. Citizens of the United States, and of the world, are forced to conclude that the United Nations has been taken hostage by the PLO, to no good purpose. (1980)
On Jewish liberalism and parochialism:
The persistent liberalism of American Jews is “rooted in the perception that while one is permitted to be rich, one is not permitted — not in this oh-so-fractured planet — to be comfortable.” … “For every ounce of protection we thereby gain for Israel” by supporting such pro-Israel but otherwise objectionable right-wing ideologues as Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell and Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), “we will lose a pound of protection for pluralism.” (1988)
On giving up the reins of Moment, the Jewish magazine he co-founded:
“One doesn’t end 12 years of obsession without second thoughts. This was my baby and I’m giving it up for adoption.”
However, he said, “I have examined the credentials of the adoptive parent and found him worthy. I think that he can be a nurturing parent.” (1987)
“Smoking so manifestly contradicts the commandment to guard your life that it’s a sin,” Leonard Fein, head of the Reform movement’s Commission on Social Action, said in a voice roughened by decades of inhaling cigarette smoke.
“That makes me a sinner,” he admitted, adding that quitting for good is “very actively on my agenda now.” (1997)