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The Coming Storm: Obama and American Jewry


There's a storm coming. It will pit a well-organized community of substantial resources but also substantial insecurity (particularly when it comes to charges of dual loyalty) against a popular president of considerable eloquence but misguided policies that identifies Israeli settlements as the main obstacle to Middle East peace. The inevitable clash will separate sunshine Jewish patriots who back Israel when convenient against those who stand with Israel even when it means losing their invitation to the White House Chanuka party.

The bogus issue of settlements is already being swallowed whole by many well-meaning Jews. Last week Dan Fleshler, a leader of Americans for Peace Now wrote in the New Jersey Jewish Standard that Obama has no choice but to pressure Israel because "it is fruitless for a well-armed, occupying power to negotiate the terms of a viable settlement with an almost defenseless occupied people unless a third party mediates and presses both sides." In reading Fleshler, one wonders whether he has been himself occupied with building a settlement on the moon with no knowledge of event's on earth. Is he seriously suggesting that the thousands of Katyusha rockets and non-stop suicide bombers that have killed more than a thousand Israelis (the population equivalent of thirty thousand dead Americans) have come from a 'defenseless' foe? Would Fleshler likewise argue that the United States ought to have pressure from, say, Russia or China to make peace with the terrorists in Afghanistan, seeing that America now represents a 'well-armed, occupying power' against the comparatively defenseless Taliban? Or is it only Israel that is forbidden from defending itself. Sorry Mr. Fleshler, but Jewish values do not dictate that the only moral Jew is a dead one who refuses to fight in the face of a sixty-year terror onslaught.

Any return to the 1967 borders, which is what Obama's attack on the settlements represents, is simply suicide for Israel. The borders are utterly indefensible. The Arabs know it, which is why they press for it. Had Israel not dismantled its settlements in Gush Katif, Gaza would not have become a terrorist state ruled by Hamas, an organization that kills even more Palestinians than it does Israelis.

But misguided Jewish apologists aside, are the rest of us prepared to speak up against the policies of the administration? By this I do not mean the drunken racist rants of the American Jewish hooligans who got attention disgracing themselves on YouTube last week, their bigoted drivel against our democratically elected President representing an abomination to Judaism. I have already written several columns lamenting how a small minority of the large and praiseworthy contingent of Jewish youth who go to Israel from the United States after High School ostensibly to study in Yeshivas end up instead hanging out on Ben Yehudah Street making asses of themselves. That they have no proper supervision and that they are allowed to go through their year in a drunken stupor is an outrage that must be finally addressed by the institutions who host them.

Rather, I mean courageous and intelligent criticism that accepts the President's praiseworthy efforts in making peace but decries his soft posture on tyranny when he bows to an Arab potentate who oppresses women and warmly embraces the dictator of Venezuela.

Asher Lopatin was one of the first students I met at Oxford and the University's first orthodox Jewish Rhodes scholar. Today he is the successful rabbi of one of Chicago's most youthful congregations. He is also Rahm Emanuel's Rabbi. But that did not stop him from criticizing the White House Chief of Staff in Newsweek for his unfair pressure on Israel. Rabbi Lopatin could easily have basked in the aura of being Rabbi to one of the most influential men in the world. Instead, he spoke truth to power.

In promoting the new translation of his Hebrew prayer book, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks constantly reminds us that he studies Bible with the Prime Minister of England. That's nice. But a few years ago Rabbi Sacks spoke out publicly against Israel, telling London's Guardian newspaper, "There are things that happen on a daily basis which make me feel very uncomfortable as a Jew." Sacks is a brilliant man but with a long history of pandering to whatever audience he happens to be addressing. He would do well to remember the admonishment of Mordechai to Esther on the responsibility of being close to political power: "If you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place."

But while Europe and the UK are significant, the main battle lines will be here in the US and now is the time for American Jewry to organize. From schools to Universities to Shules and JCC's we must make it clear that when seventy-six percent of Jews voted for Obama and filled his campaign coffers with cash it was not in the expectation of biased policies against Israel. We're upset, disappointed, and we won't take it. We'll march in the streets, write op-eds and blogs, and publish ads making it clear that America should be standing with the Middle East's only democracy and America's most reliable ally. As Charles Krauthammer pointed out, our President undermines his moral authority when he pledges that henceforth America will "forge partnerships as opposed to simply dictating solutions," but then only applies that pledge to Iran, Syria, Cuba, and Venezuela, but not to Israel.

Last year, right after Obama captured the democratic nomination, I received a phone call from his campaign asking if I would serve as one of the national chairs of 'Rabbis for Obama.' It was a tempting offer. I was moved by the candidate's remarkable personal story, his iron discipline, his soaring oratory, and most of all, the fact that his victory would be the culmination of my hero Martin Luther King's dream of a man being judged by the content of his character rather than the color of his skin. In the end I declined because I feared that Obama would draw a moral equivalence between Israel and the Palestinians and pressure the former to appease the latter. But even I never suspected that it would happen so quickly and so lopsidedly.


Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the founder of This World: The Values Network. His upcoming book is The Blessing of Enough: Rejecting Material Greed, Embracing Spiritual Hunger.