“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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Celebrating Israel’s six great achievements

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 4-25-12

Rumor has it that mellowness comes with age. Golden agers are who they are. When Brian Mulroney was Canada’s middle-aged Prime Minister during the 1980s, he recalls being more thin-skinned, much less at peace with himself, than his elderly American colleague, President Ronald Reagan.

Alas, as Israel hits 64, it lacks the tranquility that should be accompanying its age. Lately, our national leaders have demonstrated a surprising skittishness.  Israel’s Interior Minister feels compelled to ban an aging German blowhard whose great work dates from 1959, after he writes a pathetic propagandistic poem.  And the Prime Minister, who never bothered sending an ardent Zionist like me a letter, feels compelled to write a letter chiding troublemakers who tried swooping into Israel on their “Flytilla.”

Of course, I take the forces trying to delegitimize Israel seriously. I share Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fury at their hypocrisy, self-righteousness, and double-standards. I see the harm they cause at universities, in the media, and among gullible anxious-to-be-loved-by-the-goyim Jews. Singling Israel out, questioning Israel’s right to exist, this continuing assault on Zionism as racism, are all outrages – and constitute strategic threats to Israel, especially because they encourage and reinforce the even greater threats from Israel’s hostile neighbors.

The writer Cynthia Ozick was correct. In the 1970s she said Jews are not paranoid but narapoid. That is when you think people are out to get you — and they are.

My issue, however, is tactical. Just as I tell friends damaged by difficult childhoods that “living well is the best revenge,” therein lies Israel salvation too. As we celebrate Israel’s birthday, we should ignore Gunther Grass and the mindless anti-Zionist mob. Instead, we should toast 64 miraculous years, focusing on six extraordinary achievements, one for each decade.

First, re-establishing Jewish sovereignty in the Jewish homeland.  People mocked Theodor Herzl in 1897 when he predicted the creation of a Jewish state half a century later – he was off by only one year. The “wandering Jews” were considered the ultimate stateless people.  Coming home, establishing a state – and keeping it thriving, not just surviving – is one of the twentieth century’s great miracles, now continuing into the twenty-first.

Second, offering a welcoming Jewish home to Holocaust survivors, refugees from Arab lands, and other oppressed Jews while preserving civil liberties and free immigration for all. Since 1948, Israel has absorbed over three million immigrants, as its population has grown to nearly eight million. To Israel, today’s refugee is tomorrow’s citizen; Palestinians are the only people who have been able to convince the UN that refugee status can be inherited. And in a clear repudiation of the accusation that Zionism is in any way racist, Israel has accepted black, brown, and white refugees. Skin color is irrelevant, with nearly 80,000 Ethiopian Jews constituting the only welcome migration I know of involving Black Africans to a mostly white country.

Third, returning the Jews to history, transforming Jews’ image from the world’s victim to actors on history’s stage, with rights and responsibilities. The traditional European caricature of the Jew – oppressed, depressed, broken-down, sniveling – has changed. Israelis are known as strong, exuberant, proud and free. With power comes dilemmas. Israel, like all countries, has its weaknesses, makes mistakes. But Israel, like all great democracies, has powerful self-correcting mechanisms, including free elections, a vibrant press, a strong judiciary, free thinking intellectuals, and an open, self-critical culture.

Fourth, building a western-style capitalist democracy with a strong Jewish flavor. In 2009, 3,416,587 Israelis voted in the Middle East’s eighteenth free national election — meaning Israel’s 18th Knesset election — uniquely involving Muslims, Christian and Jews. Real GDP growth in 2011 was 3.7 percent; America’s growth that year was 1.6 percent.  In this year’s social protests, a strong Zionist spirit infused this collective, innovative attempt to tackle central dilemmas about wealth and welfare bedeviling the entire Western world. And because the Jews are a people, when we talk about a Jewish state, it is not a theocracy, but a liberal national democracy, with a uniquely Jewish accent.

This leads to, fifth, the dynamic old-new Jewish culture making Israel a central force in revitalizing Jewish secular and religious life in the Jewish homeland and abroad while serving as a bastion of Western culture too.  Israel is a modern Western country with a “very high” quality of life, ranking 17th of 187 in 2011 on the United Nation’s Human Development Index. Jerusalem, in particular, is a living laboratory for modern Judaism, with fascinating intellectual and spiritual expressions bubbling up weekly – and imported throughout the Jewish world. More broadly, surveys estimate that 98 percent of Israeli Jews have a mezuzah on their front door, 85 percent participate in a Pesach seder, and 71 percent light Hanukkah candles, as they live in a Jewish space by Jewish time.

And finally, reviving Hebrew.  In 2010, Israeli publishers published 5432 Hebrew books, reflecting Israel’s literacy rate of 97.1 percent, and its world ranking as fortieth in number of books published by a country 97th in population size. The daily experiment of making Hebrew a living language continues. This year, I learned how to spell “You Tube” in Hebrew and to pronounce Google as Israelis do, Goo-gell. And in a quaint genuflection toward our Biblical roots, I learned that the way to say pigs-in-a-blanket (mini hot dogs wrapped in a bun), in Hebrew is “Moshe beTeva,” Moses in a basket.

As the smell of burned flesh wafts over the land –because most Israelis celebrate their national day with barbecues not pigs in blankets — let us hope for a 65th year of mellow, of peace, with the delegitimizers struck dumb, and Israelis living well, not for revenge but to express our good fortune and great fulfillment.

The writer is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, his next book will be Moynihan’s Moment:  The Fight against Zionism as Racism.