“Rabbis for Obama” Blur Church and State Unreasonably

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 8-28-12

There they go again. Over 600 liberal American rabbis have ignored their usual concerns about religion invading politics, climbed the wall separating church and state, disregarded the feelings of conservative congregants, and joined “Rabbis for Obama.” As I said when criticizing the original initiative four years ago, I do not object to individual rabbis joining “Jewish Americans for Obama” and expressing themselves as Jews and Americans. However, by building this organization around their job titles, they seek to apply their spiritual authority in an inappropriately secular and partisan way.  What’s next: Ministers for Microsoft to counter Apple’s disciples, or Priests for Pilates to bless one particular form of exercise? Just as the Hatch Act barred federal civil servants from campaigning, just as reporters – not columnists – are discouraged from partisan politicking, just as I as a professor would never endorse one slate of student politicians, rabbis as rabbis should refrain from crass electoral politics — and yes, I especially wish such professional restraint constrained the Israeli rabbinate too.

Whereas courage involves risk, these hypocrites-for-Obama took an easy position. A liberal American Jewish rabbi needs little nerve to endorse a liberal Democratic president against a budget-busting, conservative Republican. Liberalism remains American Jewry’s dominant theology, with the Democratic Party the most popular affiliation even as more Jews label themselves religiously “unaffiliated.”  Increasingly, the American Jewish community is filled with evangeliberals – liberals with evangelical zeal. And despite Israel’s general popularity among American Jews, most are more passionately pro-choice than pro-Israel.

Therefore, it is annoying that these rabbis choose this cause as the reason for overriding their usual desire to separate politics and religion – while still condemning evangelical ministers or ultra-orthodox rabbis who politick, of course. Instead, we need these rabbis to make other, harder, principled stands collectively.  Those rabbis should do their jobs by confronting their congregants’ sacred cows more directly. How about rabbis for more ethical business practices? Or rabbis for less materialism? Rabbis for cheaper, less luxurious, more meaningful, bar mitzvahs?  Or rabbis for less libertinism? Rabbis for less careerism? Rabbis against family breakup? Or rabbis against excessive reliance on electronics? Rabbis for less toxic gossip, exhibitionism and voyeurism on the Internet? Rabbis for a community which judges people on the depth of their souls or the quality of their mitzvoth not their net worth or charitable giving?  Or let’s get bold. How about rabbis for God? Rabbis for Halacha, Jewish law? Rabbis for Shabbat observance? Rabbis for more Jewish learning? Rabbis for musar — moral living?

But no, better to grandstand, better to play politics with the big shots than to risk roiling American Jews’ famous complacency.

Unfortunately, we see a similar dynamic with much rabbinic intrusion in the Arab-Israeli conflict. All those American rabbis rushing to join the J Street rabbinic cabinet, all those rabbinical students moralizing about Israel’s West Bank and Gaza sins, should scrutinize their own society, their own neighborhoods. To reach the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College from the Philadelphia airport, I drive through miles of urban moonscape, home to tens of thousands of broken lives finding refuge in cheap liquor stores, whittling away endless hours on park benches, before reaching suburban Wyncotte. As a native New Yorker, I notice it less when I visit the conservative Jewish Theological Seminary just below Harlem, but it does seem so much easier to preach about how others should solve intractable inter-group problems without tackling those closer to home.

Moreover, in our era of gotcha politics, it would be naïve for the Rabbis for Obama to expect to be so hallowed that Republicans would ignore an anti-Israel critic who advocates boycotting the Jewish state on their membership list. One of this political season’s buzz words  is “optics” – obsessing about how things look — and it counts for rabbis too. Politicians are often held responsible for their allies, with the test coming from the ugliest and most controversial associations not the many safe and obvious relationships.

Of course, that does not make every Rabbi for Obama “anti-Israel” as critics charge. Sloppiness is not collaboration. Still, as a professor, I try to avoid signing petitions with those who policies I abhor, be they from the left or the right.  Rabbis for and against Obama should beware unwelcome bedfellows too.

This harsh approach some rabbis and rabbinical students take toward Israel has become such an emotional issue for three reasons. First, is what I call the IAF – just as the Israeli Air Force soars high gracefully, the Israel Agitation Factor escalates tension unreasonably. The Israel-Palestinian conflict is a modern flashpoint that magically escalates discussions into shouting matches, especially among Jews. And in an age of delegitimization, when Iran can host dozens of nations at a non-aligned conference this week while advocating Israel’s destruction, when criticism of Israel often degenerates into demonization, internal Jewish criticism stings intensely – and frequently legitimizes the delegitmizers. Finally, Israel remains the largest, most ambitious, collective Jewish project of the modern age.  The most extreme liberal rabbis are turning into nouveau Haredim, aping the ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionism of yesterday and today.

This is not to say that Israel should be beyond criticism from Jews or rabbis. But assessing the optics, sensitive to the fragility of the situation, acknowledging the conflict’s complexity, anticipating how criticisms will be perceived, would calm debates not inflame them.

The backlash against Rabbis for Obama should be instructive. I hope it does not lead to Rabbis for Romney. I hope it does lead to rabbis, especially during their High Holiday sermons, building on positive visions and serious challenges, pushing their congregants spiritually, morally, religiously, rather than pandering to partisan sensibilities, no matter how compelling the heated presidential campaign might be.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published by Oxford University Press this fall.

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Why did 400 rabbis attack Fox News’ Glenn Beck and defend George Soros?

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 2-1-11

American Jewry faces many crises. Jewish education is increasing in cost while often losing relevance, appeal, and popularity. In the Orthodox world, an obsession with petty, pedantic ritualism often obscures larger compelling ethical concerns while tolerating an untrammeled materialism. Among the non-Orthodox, the lures of leisure blot out a commitment to community, tradition, modesty, Jewish learning and Jewish living. Every year thousands of Jews drift away from Judaism, apathetic, lazy, bored. Beyond the Jewish world’s dwindling synagogues, dying organizations, declining schools, and decaying communities, Israel is enduring a vicious assault so systematic that many Jews internalize it, assuming Israel must be guilty of at least some of the many crimes people attribute to it. But, never fear. Amid this trouble, 400 American rabbis united, and spent $100,000 taking their stand – against Fox News and Glenn Beck, while defending George Soros.

I don’t get it. There are so many pressing issues for 400 rabbis “of diverse political views” to tackle.  There are so many fabulous ways to spend those anonymously donated non-transparent one hundred thousand holy dollars – because every charity dollar is sacred.

Moral leadership requires courage. Yet too many rabbis today seem afraid of their congregants. It is easier to bash Fox News than question congregants’ cushy lifestyles, their lazy worldviews, their phoned-in often phony Judaism. It is safer to target Glenn Beck’s obnoxious references to the Holocaust than to challenge congregants to change their lives, recalibrate their values, redefine and revive their Jewish commitments. Predictably, 400 Rabbis taking out a $100,000 ad in the Wall Street Journal to defend George Soros against Glenn Beck’s ranting fed more rants on MSNBC and elsewhere.

In fairness, many of the signing rabbis were sincere, even if it looked like they sought cheap notoriety hitting an easy target. Seeing that two of my closest rabbinical friends were listed at the top, I asked them why they signed the ad, which the Jewish Funds for Justice addressed to Rupert Murdoch and placed in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere. Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, the President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, is offended by Glenn Beck’s constant, sloppy, histrionic invoking of the Holocaust, to demonize those he dislikes, including the controversial financier George Soros. “It is worth paying attention to the way people use language around the Shoah- that’s a lesson I took from my classes with Professor Elie Wiesel years ago at Boston University,” Rabbi Ehrenkrantz explained.  “The Shoah is already poorly understood. And it’s even more difficult for the Holocaust to have meaning in people’s minds if the language surrounding it is cheapened.”

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, Vice President of the American Jewish University, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, also reacted to Beck’s polarizing demagoguery. “What I intended to sign was a strong statement that abusing the Holocaust to impugn politics with which one disagrees cheapens the memory of the Shoah and makes real conversation across the aisle impossible. It is abused on the left and on the right and it must stop,” Rabbi Artson noted. “Hence, I signed. I would have signed a similar statement against impugning President Bush or any other public servant. Differ with the policies, but references to the Shoah are destructive to the democratic process.”

I share my friends’ distaste for Holocaust-fueled histrionics. But they and their 398 colleagues missed repeated opportunities to denounce the sloppy invoking of the Holocaust when George W. Bush was president. George Soros himself did to George Bush what Glenn Beck does to George Soros. Saying he believed the White House was guided by a “supremacist ideology,” Soros said in late 2003:  “When I hear Bush say, ‘You’re either with us or against us,’ it reminds me of the Germans… My experiences under Nazi and Soviet rule have sensitized me.”  Moreover, too many of Soros’s fellow anti-Zionists frequently deploy the offensive, inaccurate Nazi analogy to bash Israel.

Yet with most American Jews often placing their liberalism before their Judaism, it does not take much courage for their rabbis to take on Fox News. Liberal rabbis attacking Glenn Beck is like stand-up comics mocking the bald guy in the front row. The laughs are cheap, easy, predictable but forgettable.  Moreover – and I say the same thing about Israel’s National Religious camp – theologians should beware confusing the clear lines of faith and morality with the messy compromises of politics and governance.

When drafting a call for civility regarding Israel, defining blue and white lines to affirm and red lines not to cross (www.restoringsanity.info), I learned the Zen of such declarations. If too bland, they lack punch; if too biased, they backfire. In these polarized times, finger-pointing in one direction when championing centrism is like Sarah Palin’s daughter Bristol preaching abstinence while pregnant.

Predictably, the ad fueled the flames of partisanship. Rabbi Artson reported that the responses he received to his signing “skewed along political lines… conservatives deplored the signing as hypocrisy and liberals celebrated it as courage.” He asks: “Is there no one left who thinks, across the board, that using Nazi labeling is illegitimate whether it comes from left, center, or right? Is there a way to say that and for people across the spectrum to chastise their own when that line is crossed?”

This is where the rabbis’ collective wisdom failed them. In today’s polarized community, big tent civility must be nurtured, cultivated, taught. An ad with 400 rabbis complaining about loudmouths from both sides of the spectrum sloppily invoking the Holocaust would have worked; this ad, singling out only one manifestation of the broader problem politicizes complaints about the Holocaust. An ad with 400 rabbis calling for a more respectful tone in politics, acknowledging abuses from both sides of the spectrum, would have worked; this one-sided ad risks reducing a call for civility to a partisan battering ram – which we certainly don’t need.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow. He is the author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” and, most recently, “Ronald Reagan: A Very Short Introduction.”

How intellectuals enable Islamism

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 7-28-10

The human rights activist and Canadian parliamentarian Irwin Cotler recently released yet another important document, “The Responsibility to Prevent” petition, detailing how Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran oppresses its own citizens and threatens the world. Yet, like too many smokers ignoring clear cancer warnings, many liberals and intellectuals ignore the Iranian menace. Just this week, as Europe and Canada toughened their sanctions against Iran, filmmaker Oliver Stone denounced American policy toward Iran, suggesting we all should be kinder to Ahmadinejad and his government.

It is one of today’s most perplexing mysteries. Although human rights talk has become ubiquitous, “human rights” is too frequently wielded as a political weapon rather than respected as a universal standard. Thus, the UN Human Rights Council becomes the world headquarters for hypocrisy, with dictatorships blithely sitting in judgment on democracies while covering up their own crimes. Even more surprising, beyond power politics, hypocrisy is rampant. Many intellectuals, academic, journalists and human rights activists themselves, who should be paragons of purity, are too frequently enablers of evil, giving cover to international criminals while singling out the US and most especially its close ally Israel for condemnation.

This epidemic of moral idiocy is epitomized by the harsh treatment Israel endures combined with the tremendous leniency afforded Islamism. The failure of so many Western thinkers today to condemn Islamism is as outrageous as was their predecessors’ failure to recognize Communism’s evil in the 20th century. While Communist appeasers fanatically sought the noble idea of equality, today’s Islamist appeasers have been similarly blinded by their zeal for diversity.

The result is a topsy-turvy moral universe. Israel gets no slack internationally and is constantly condemned for sins, both real and imagined.  Perverse groups such as Queers against Israeli Apartheid pop up which, considering how free democratic Israel is and how unfree much of the Arab world is, makes as much sense as Doctors against Anti-Smoking Campaigns or Liberals for Islamism. Israel’s harsh critics fail to see that if they were less relentless and more credible they could have more impact. Tragically, delegitimizing Israel, criminalizing every Israeli act of self defense, questioning only Israel’s right to exist but no other nation’s, makes peace harder to achieve. How can a nation that is ostracized have enough faith to compromise, especially when Palestinians spearhead many of these efforts to wish Israel out of existence?

Similarly, the moral free pass Islamism often enjoys encourages many evils threatening world peace today. Iran acts arrogantly, pursuing its nuclear goals, troublemaking worldwide by arming Hizbullah, Hamas and other terrorists, squelching, jailing, raping, torturing its own citizens. Saudi Arabia continues its stealth strategy, lavishly financing much terrorism, spreading its radical, sexist, homophobic, totalitarian, anti-democratic, anti-Western, Islamist-supremacist Wahabbi ideology, while masquerading as a responsible government and Western ally. America’s handful of homegrown terrorists feel emboldened, knowing that the president himself hesitates to identify an Islamist massacre at Fort Hood, or Islamist attempts to blow up a jetliner and Times Square as Islamist terrorism.

Paul Berman, a thoughtful writer with impeccable liberal credentials, has spent a lot of time and lost a lot of natural allies since September 11 examining both the evils of Islamism and the cowardice of many modern liberals. His 2003 tour de force Terror and Liberalism was based on his unfashionable instinct to do some homework and read the Islamist tracts available in English in bookstores near his Brooklyn home. The result was a terrifying guided tour of the Islamist ideology rooted in the worst jihadist impulses of traditional Islam, further poisoned by Western fascism and Communism, yet packaged as palatable to too many Muslims in the West and liberals in denial.

In his latest book The Flight of the Intellectuals, Berman uses a case study, exploring the curious tale of Oxford fellow Tariq Ramadan. Ramadan is a clever, manipulative professor who has become an intellectual pop star by disguising his radical Islamism as moderate, even progressive. Berman’s book is gripping, both when he explores just how radical, violent, anti-Semitic and destructive Islamist ideology is and when he identifies the many professorial and journalistic patsies who help Ramadan con the world.

Berman dissects Ramadan’s loyalty to the jihadist teachings of his grandfather Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood who was a close ally of the murderous Palestinian Hitlerite Haj Amin el Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. The Grand Mufti, who also  plays the role of villain in another must-read book Palestine Betrayed by Efraim Karsh, was  embraced by al-Banna not despite but because he supported Adolf Hitler. A master of “double discourse,” which Berman defines as “language intended to deceive Western liberals about the grain of  his own thought,” Ramadan softpedals this lethal legacy just as he employs a “veil of euphemism” when discussing the destructive Islamist addiction to terrorism.

Berman explains how the world’s supposed anti-racists became racist themselves. Radicals, then many liberals, in the 1980s began embracing a worldview that was sociological not ideological, with “a focus on social class instead of a focus on ideas.” And, tragically, bullying worked: the intimidation of the novelist Salman Rushdie and the generalized threat of terrorism cowed many intellectuals, keeping them in line.

Paul Berman’s book echoes the wake-up call Efraim Karsh conveyed. Too many of us have internalized the delegitimization campaign against Israel and the West, ceding too much ground, forgetting the basics, losing our way. Much of the attack on Israel and the West today is rooted in traditional anti-Semitism crossbred with Islamic fundamentalists’ repudiation of enlightenment and liberal ideas. To regain our footing, we should study the origins of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as Karsh does, learn about the Islamist enemy as Berman does. At the same time, we must return to the liberalism of Thomas Jefferson and John Stuart Mill, of Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt, of Betty Friedan and Martin Luther King, of Golda Meir and David Ben Gurion. These heroes were visionary enough to dream of a better world – and tough enough to take on their enemies when necessary.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, and, most recently, The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. He can be reached at gtroy@videotron.ca