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Rabbi Shmuley Boteach Headshot

A Plea to the President to Promote Arab Freedom

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Dear Mr. President

Forgive me for being so pretentious in writing you an open letter about human freedom. No doubt your experiences have taught you much more on the subject than I have knowledge of. But I feel that you are at a historic crossroads. You have the opportunity, more than any president that has preceded you, to bring freedom to hundreds of millions of Arabs in the Middle East who live under political tyranny. And I am puzzled as to why you are not availing yourself of this once-in-a-millennium opportunity. With all due respect, Mr. President, you're blowing it.

As a syndicated talk radio host I was present at your mesmerizing speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004. I knew then that you were destined for great things. As a lover of refined oratory, I was thrilled by your soaring rhetoric and uplifting cadences. When you campaigned for the presidency, although I could not agree with many of your policies, I was impressed with how you were prepared to take on the entire Democratic establishment. You struck me as a man of courage and vision. I even published a syndicated column during the campaign stating that the Jewish community had much to learn from you in pride you took in your given name, ceasing to use 'Barrie' and embracing 'Barack', which, you explained, meant blessing in Hebrew. If only more Jews were proud of their Jewish names and identities.

This and perhaps some other considerations led to your campaign reaching out to me and asking if I would serve as national co-chair of rabbis for Obama. I had to respectfully decline. Amid my admiration for your talents, I still questioned your commitment to human freedom and promoting democracy, especially in light of your considerable criticism of President Bush's efforts in Iraq and your tenuous commitment to the state of Israel.

Still, although you were not my candidate I took great pride in a nation that elected you our first African-American president. I am a white man who throughout my life has had a very warm and close relationship with the African-American community. When I was Rabbi at Oxford University a young Rhodes scholar named Cory Booker served as president of the student organization I founded. Cory today is one of the country's most respected and successful mayors and remains a dear and close friend. Through Cory and others I came to immerse myself in the writings and speeches of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and other great African-American leaders. As a Jew what appealed to me was the passion and yearning for liberation and freedom that echoed and resonated through their unforgettable speeches and writings. I came to memorize many of King's speeches and took my children on an RV trip to many of the important venues where he delivered his incomparable oratory. I later had the magnificent privilege of preaching at the Martin Luther King Chapel at Morehouse College in Atlanta where I met Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King III.

Seeing you as one of the great communicators of our generation I was sure that you would use both your eloquence and your perch as President of the United States and leader of the free world to elevate the discourse on human freedom worldwide.

You can imagine, therefore, how disappointed I was to see, in the first few months of your presidency your embrace of Hugo Chavez, your curtsy to the King of Saudi Arabia, your disrespect toward the Dalai Lama in sending him out to through the service entrance in the White House, your original silence on the street protests in Iran in 2009, and, most recently, your state dinner where you honored the president of China whose regime, though a necessary commercial partner with the United States, brutally oppresses human rights.

I said to myself, however, a perhaps these were diplomatic niceties that you felt were necessary in order, perhaps, to have more influence over these men and bring change to their regimes.

But, Mr. President, what possible excuse could there be for you not to use your God-given talents to sound the clarion call for human freedom as Arabs throughout the Middle East now brave torture and public slaughter in order to demand their freedoms and rights? How could it be that you have the world's most formidable bully pulpit but are barely utilizing its microphone to galvanize Arab peoples to topple the corrupt, and brutal regimes that enslave them? Is it logical that viewers throughout the world should watch street protests in Yemen, Bahrain, Iran, and even Libya and have it unaccompanied by any dramatic endorsement by the leader of the free world? Where, sir, is your voice?

Surely every president wishes to be transformational and here you have been given an unequaled opportunity to change the very course of history by liberating hundreds of millions of people who are not given the simple privilege of reading the truth in a newspaper, publicly protesting their government's policies, or voting to determine the leaders who will govern them, and you are blowing it.

To use your oft-repeated words, Mr. President, Let me be clear. I am a Jew who loves and supports the state of Israel with every fiber of my being. I believe Israel is a shining beacon of democratic liberty and human rights for the Middle East and the world. But the same Judaism that teaches me to love my people and the promised land also teaches me, as the very first lesson in Genesis, that every human being is created equally in the image of God and that all human beings are my brothers and sisters. Every Arab is the absolute equal of every American in the eyes of God and deserves to be free. You can serve as G-d's instrument in their liberation, Mr. President, if only you would find your voice.

As an American who enjoys the blessings of liberty from the first breath I took in a Los Angeles hospital, I must agitate for the rights of all of God's children to taste of the same. And if need be, we must push you too, Mr. President.

Please ask yourself, if Martin Luther King were alive today, what would he do? When he started to see millions of people throughout the Middle East risking life and limb to demand their freedom, would he limit himself to a few sound-bites at a press conference? Would he deliver speeches about freedom only after the fact, as you did with Egypt? Or would he employ every word in the English language as a weapon and a cudgel to beat back the forces of oppression and allow innocent men and women in the world's most oppressive region to be free?

Your near-silence and failure to grasp the enormity of the moment is puzzling. Surely more than any recent American leader, your presidency was historic. It is therefore time for you to rise to the challenge. It is time for you to understand the momentousness of the occasion and lead.

I would be dishonest if I did not share with you the fact that I have become a growing critic of both you and your policies. It is nothing personal. I believe you are a fine man, an exemplary husband and a loving father. But you are becoming an increasingly ineffective leader when it comes to America's most important value, that of democracy and human freedom. History will judge you harshly for having missed this opportunity to liberate hundreds of millions of people.

But I write this to you as a sincere gesture, one American citizen addressing his president and our Commander-in-Chief, asking him to prove his critics wrong, grab the mantle of history, and lead.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has been voted for the past four years by Newsweek as one of the ten most influential Rabbis in America. He was the London Times Preacher of the year 2000 and is the international best-selling author of 25 books, most recently 'Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life.' Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.