Quite a number of years ago, I came to the defense of a friend who had lent his name to a coalition of religious leaders promoting civil discourse. A member of his then-denomination of Christianity had attacked him for allowing his name to be listed with liberals like me. I called the critic and introduced myself. I suggested to him that the positions he found objectionable in me and others like me – reproductive health care, sexual orientation, gun ownership – had nothing to do with our call for more courtesy in public conversation.
The gentleman was very polite, even respectful, when he said, “Rabbi, would you join a group for a good cause if you knew that you would be sitting with Nazis or members of the KKK?” I remember stammering at the question. Before I could collect myself, he continued. “I mean you no offense when I tell you that, having researched your public positions, I could not see myself included with you and others who agree with you.”
It sounds pretty intolerant. (Maybe because it is pretty intolerant.) But I understand his point. Everyone has a boundary to maintain. In much less serious circumstances, George Carlin discussed driving on the highway. “Everyone going slower than you, no matter what your speed, is an idiot. And anyone going faster than you is a maniac.” The same is true of faith and conviction. Anyone more liberal than you is a heretic, and anyone to your right is a fanatic.
The subject came up in 2008 when then-Senator Barack Obama found himself under scrutiny for his relationship with Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a firebrand preacher whose rhetorical flourishes often crossed a line between provocative and condemnatory, and William Ayres whose civil disobedience during tumultuous times gave way to a political profile far to the left of spectrum. (I know those descriptions are unsatisfactory to everyone…but they are true, and not the immediate point.) The question raised about the man who would be president was about the company he kept. Just how much influence did Rev. Wright have on the parishioner who relied on him for guidance? Just what was the common ground this former community organizer found with a self-proclaimed radical?
The questions weren’t answered until Mr. Obama became President. We have not heard from or about either Rev. Wright or Mr. Ayres in eight years, not including the folks on the far right of the political spectrum who have spent the Obama administration looking for evidence of his sedition.
Now we have another cohort of friends and advisors who are attached to an incoming president. Some of them, like Steve Bannon, seem unsavory to those inclined to disagree with his political positions and his tactics for advancing them. But others are demonstrably on the wrong side of right behavior. That is to say that, like Rev. Wright and Mr. Ayres, they are within their constitutional rights to express themselves, but they have crossed the boundary I seek to maintain between “may” and “ought.”
It is already tiresome to talk about Richard Spencer, and talking about him gives him oxygen of which he ought to be deprived. But whether out of puckish theatrics (as he claims) or the echoes of bigotry (a more widely-held position), his language and behaviors in promoting Donald Trump make most Americans uncomfortable about their safety and security. (No, I can’t quantify that, but I only need 50% plus one, so I am pretty confident.)
Corey Stewart, who chairs the county board of Prince William, Virginia, has the dubious distinction of getting fired from his state chairmanship of the Trump campaign for being too extreme. He wants to be the next governor of the Commonwealth. To promote his campaign, he announced the raffle of an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. That is the type (if not exact model) of weapon used in the attacks in San Bernadino, Newtown, Orlando, and Aurora and, incidentally, in Prince William County itself during the siege laid by the Washington-area sniper. Why? Because he can, he says. Mr. Trump has not commented.
If the President-Elect can claim arm’s length from the two characters above, he has less credibility in discounting Carl Paladino. Responding to a poll about hopes for 2017 in a local paper, the Buffalo school board member wrote that he hoped President Obama would die of mad cow disease and that “I’d like [Mrs. Obama] to return to being a male and let loose in the outback of Zimbabwe where she lives comfortably in a cave with Maxie, the gorilla.” The best defense he can come up with is that it was meant to be a private joke, not a public statement. Mr. Trump has a long relationship with Mr. Paladino who calls himself an ally and advisor. No comment from Mr. Trump.
It is entirely possible that none of these yahoos will get any closer to the White House than Jeremiah Wright or Bill Ayres, in which case the concerns about them (and others) will slink away to the corner of leftist bigotry that mirrors the litter box on the right. In that case, those of us with reservations about the character and values of our next president will have to choose to acknowledge misplaced concern or become just as reprehensible as birthers and conspiracy theorists.
The measure of any presidency is the state of the union. There is a referendum on how it is going every two years, and an absolute endpoint. But in the process, one of the metrics is the company he keeps. I will try to keep my mind as open as my eyes.
I wound up in a somewhat contentious argument with a friend of mine that opened my eyes to a challenge that Jews face, particularly in the United States. It is not a new dilemma, but it is clear to me in a way I did not understand before.
For many years I have taught that Jews were not just a religion, we were also a civilization, a people, a community. For almost as many years, I have heard my friends and acquaintances who profess other faiths or no faith at all insist that their own faith or philosophy was the same—not just an internal landscape, but a mandate to live life in a particular way.
Ah, I would respond, channeling Rabbi Harold Kushner’s insight, but your community is the result of your faith. Our faith is the result of our community. And I would point to the Bible: we were a people, the Children of Israel, with a national history before we arrived at Mt. Sinai and were given a reason to believe and behave. Moreover, our analogs among the others in the Bible were Edomites, Arameans, Philistines, Egyptians – people defined by territory, not by creed.
I can’t deny we have built an infrastructure of religion that is as complicated and ornate as any cathedral or illuminated Qur’an. And our rallying cry is not (really) “the People Israel lives!” It is “Hear, o Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” (If you are counting, God gets three mentions to Israel’s one.) And, perhaps most important, if you want citizenship in this people, which is indeed open to persons of any origin, then you must enter through the doors of faith. You cannot be naturalized into our people any other way.
So far, I haven’t written anything that was not said more persuasively and at greater length by the incomparable Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. And this brief essay is supposed to be about politics, not about being a rabbi. So on to the politics.
My contentious argument began when my friend referred to the State of Israel as theocratic. He insisted that a Jewish state inherently disabled non-Jews from being full participants, in the same way that the Islamic Republic of Iran or the Islamic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia made anyone who was not a Muslim an automatic second-class citizen.
I objected strenuously. He was understanding the descriptor “Jewish” as a religion. I was certain that it is a nationality. “The term ‘Jewish state’ is much closer to ‘Irish’ than ‘Muslim,’” I said.
My friend is really smart, but this line of argument did not penetrate. And the more I thought about it, the more I understood. Especially in the United States – maybe almost exclusively in the United States (okay, Napoleon’s France, too) – Jews have embraced the notion that they could be just like everyone else by compartmentalizing Jewishness into Judaism and treating it like a faith. Never mind that an enormous percentage of Jews in America do not practice that faith and a substantial number who practice the faith do not believe in its strictures.
We want it both ways. When it comes to civil liberties and religious freedom, we claim our Jewishness as a faith. But when it comes to our political concerns, especially about Israel, then it is peoplehood (ethnicity, national heritage, cultural identification) that we claim.
But whereas we can make these transitions back and forth between meanings, the rest of America is at a loss. We sound like Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland: When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.
The result is an escalation of resentments and the exchange of accusations of anti-semitism and religious chauvinism between Jews and non-Jews on the political left.
Then there is the corollary problem on the political/religious right. People of deep “traditional” faith who support Israel out of a religious commitment have an expectation that God will play a role in the conduct of Middle East statecraft and foreign affairs that is mostly absent from American Jewish (and Israeli) activists. When Jewish activists cultivate that support without disclaiming its rationale, an eventual breach is inevitable.
Finally, there are those for whom the fear of persistent anti-semitism demands that they find t, even where it does not exist. For them, the people who object to a Jewish state they do not understand are necessarily Jew-haters. In turn, those critics of Israel come to resent being called by a bigotry they do not believe they practice – a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I am not a believer in blaming the victim. Jews are not responsible for anti-semitism and an Israel that is neither progressive nor religious enough is not responsible for the expectations of its American observers. But these perceptions are indeed a Jewish problem. The confusion of meanings is something we Jews must address, and our own ambivalence about how to understand “Jewish” is a good place to start. Until those of us who are Jews in America can explain things to ourselves, we can’t presume that anyone else will understand them to our satisfaction.