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Politicization Is Eroding Judaism’s Moral and Spiritual Message

Allan C. Brownfeld
Fall 2002

The continuing politicization of American Judaism is in the process of eroding Judaism’s moral and spiritual message and making our religious and communal institutions into little more than pressure groups deeply engaged in one political enterprise or another, most often an attempt to influence U.S. policy in the Middle East in behalf of what is perceived as the best interests of the state of Israel.  

Such an enterprise trivializes Judaism’s contribution to the world and its ability to influence contemporary America’s spiritual and ethical life. It is as if Judaism were little more than an institutional defense of Jews, and whatever they might do, right or wrong, any place in the world.  

In his best-selling book, The Gifts of the Jews, Thomas Cahill explains how Judaism forever altered the way men and women, particularly in the West, experience the world. He notes that, “Without the Jews we would see the world through different eyes, hear with different ears, even feel with different feelings. And not only would our sensorium, the screen through which we receive the world, be different, we would think with a different mind, interpret all our experience differently, draw different conclusions from the things that befall us. And we would set a different course for our lives.”  

Unique Belief  

In Cahill’s view, “Because of their unique belief - monotheism - the Jews were able to give us the Great Whole, a unified universe that makes sense and that, because of its evident superiority as a worldview, completely overwhelms the warring and contradictory phenomena of polytheism. They gave us the Conscience of the West, the belief that this God who is One is not the God of outward show but the ‘still, small voice’ of conscience, the God of compassion, the God who ‘will be there,’ the God who cares about each of his creatures, especially the human beings he created ‘in his own image,’ and that he insists we do the same ... The Jews gave us the Outside and the Inside - our outlook and our inner life. We can hardly get up in the morning or cross the street without being Jewish. We dream Jewish dreams and hope Jewish hopes. Most of our best words, in fact - new adventure, surprise, unique, individual, person, vocation; time, history, future; freedom, progress, spirit; faith, hope, justice - are the gifts of the Jews.”  

As Thomas Cahill understands, Judaism expressed a vision not for Jews alone but for all of mankind: “Humanity’s most extravagant dreams are articulated by the Jewish prophets. In Isaiah’s vision, true faith is no longer confined to one nation, but ‘all the nations’ stream to the House of YHWH (Yahweh) ‘that he may teach us his ways’ and that we may learn to ‘beat (our) swords into plowshares.’ All who share this outrageous dream of universal brotherhood, peace and justice, who dream the dreams and see the visions of the great prophets, must bring themselves to contemplate the possibility that without God there is no justice.”  

In contemporary America, such a Jewish vision is rarely heard. Instead, we have seen a variety of narrow political enterprises become the hallmark of institutional Jewish life.  

Pardon for Rich  

Consider the militant campaign Jewish organizations embarked upon in behalf of a pardon for convicted felon Marc Rich, who in 1983 was charged with an illegal oil pricing scheme that amounted to what may be the biggest tax swindle in U.S. history - together with trading with Iran during the hostage crisis. Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), shortly after receiving a pledge of $100,000 from Rich, met in Paris with Avner Azulay, the head of the Marc Rich foundation, and Zvi Rafiah, an Israeli arms consultant, to discuss ways to resolve Rich’s legal problems. Foxman proposed Azulay recruit Rich’s ex-wife, Denise Rich, a major contributor to the Democratic Party, to the project.  

Foxman first met Rich in Zurich, Switzerland in the mid-1980s, shortly after the commodities trader had fled the U.S. Rich claimed he had been “targeted” by federal prosecutors because he was Jewish and that he was therefore a victim of “anti-Semitism,” a fanciful notion but, as it turned out, a successful effort to gain Jewish support. Foxman wrote a letter to President Clinton urging a pardon for Rich, as did U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council Chair Irving Greenberg, who wrote his letter on Holocaust Council stationery. Another letter came from Marlene Post, chair of Birthright Israel and former president of Hadassah. The effort succeeded in gaining Rich a pardon.  

Also jumping into the fray was the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which accused President Clinton of “scapegoating” Jews by pointing to the pressure placed upon him for the pardon. Marvin Begun, head of the New York Jewish Community Relations Council, told the New York Observer, “For Jewish leaders to blame President Clinton for their behavior is outrageous. If Clinton used poor judgment, that’s one thing - for them to apply pressure on him and then blame him for anti-Semitic behavior is a baffling twist of logic. The poor man was pressured to death.”  

Conference of Presidents  

The Conference of Presidents speaks in the name of 52 member-organizations, which range from Reform to Orthodox, liberal to conservative, and strongly dovish to strongly hawkish on the Middle East. Many, particularly in the media, present the positions of the Conference as representative of the thinking of American Jews.  

In fact, the Conference does not seem to represent even its own member organizations, much less the views of millions of American Jews who do not belong to these groups. This can be seen in the case of its current crusade of moving the U.S. toward war with Iraq.  

Late in August, members of the Conference were polled by telephone to assess their views on a proposed military invasion of Iraq. Even before asking member organizations their position, if any, on this subject, Mortimer Zuckerman, chairman of the Conference, had already started speaking out in behalf of war. In his capacity as editor of U.S. News and World Report, he wrote an editorial in the August 26/September 2 edition of the magazine entitled “No Time for Equivocation.”  

He writes that, “The imperative for pre-emption of Saddam lies at the juncture of the man’s character and the nature of his weaponry ... With determination, the objective of regime change in Iraq can be achieved ... Iraq is ready for change, and - who knows - such change could be a harbinger of better tidings throughout the region. After all, does the world really need the dictators of Syria, the angry ayatollahs of Iran and the murderers of the Palestine Liberation Organization and Hamas, and the Wahabbist fanatics of Saudi Arabia? Can’t we do better?”  

Calls for “Regime Change”  

Calling, in effect, for “regime change” throughout the Arab world, Zuckerman compares Saddam Hussein to Hitler, declaring that we “should not be constrained by concerns about a post-war strategy, what one commentator calls the ‘and then what?” thesis, namely, that the next stage after Saddam’s fall is too daunting. Nobody had a strategy for postwar Germany before Hitler was crushed. It was enough to say then, as it is now about Saddam, that removing him is far better than not.” The repression of Saddam’s regime, states Zuckerman, has not been “seen since Stalin.”  

Some member groups of the Presidents Conference have been critical of a Conference-sponsored news site that they said presents a one-sided picture of the continuing debate over the merits of an attack against Iraq by presenting a stream of pro-war articles with virtually no contrary voices. The site, critics said, seemingly puts the Conference on record on a crucial policy matter that had not yet been brought to the members for discussion.  

The professional head of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Hannah Rosenthal, criticized Zuckerman for his pro-war editorial, and Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of ARZA/World Union, the Reform Zionist body, also questioned Zuckerman’s actions.  

Role As Publisher  

Hirsch said Zuckerman had pledged before becoming chairman to avoid situations where his role as publisher would conflict with his chairmanship. Hirsch said the editorial was just such a situation: “Iraq is certainly one of those issues that apply to the principle Mort Zuckerman articulated.”  

In her criticism, Rosenthal referred to recent calls by some members of the Conference, including Reform leader Rabbi Eric Yoffie, to democratize its decision-making. She said: “At a time when the newspapers are questioning the consulting process of the conference, when we really don’t know what the consensus is on Iraq policy in this country and the Jewish community, the timing of the editorial is most unfortunate. I’m really surprised he would do that.”  

Rosenthal said the JCPA, which unites about a dozen national Jewish agencies along with 120 local Jewish community councils, has no official position on a war against Iraq.  

Some Jewish groups are clearly in the forefront of those promoting a pre-emptive war against Iraq. Particularly vocal is the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA). Writing in The Nation (Sept. 2, 2002), Jason Vest reports that, “On no issue is the JINSA hard line more evident than in its relentless campaign for war - not just against Iraq, but ‘total war,’ as Michael Ledeen, one of the most influential JINSAns in Washington, put it last year. For this crew, ‘regime change’ by any means necessary in Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority is an urgent imperative. Anyone who dissents - be it Colin Powell’s State Department, the CIA or career military officers - is committing heresy against articles of faith that effectively hold there is no difference between U.S. and Israeli national security interests, and that the only way to assure continued safety and prosperity for both countries is through hegemony in the Middle East ... For example, the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board - chaired by JINSA adviser and former Reagan Administration Defense Department official Richard Perle ... recently made news by listening to a briefing that cast Saudi Arabia as an enemy to be brought to heel through a number of potential mechanisms, many of which mirror JINSA’s recommendations....”  

Founded by Neo-Conservatives  

JINSA was founded in 1976, writes Vest, “by neoconservatives concerned that the U.S. might not be able to provide Israel with adequate military supplies in the event of another Arab-Israel war ... Over the past 25 years JINSA has gone from a loose-knit-proto-group to a $1.4 million-a-year operation with a formidable array of Washington power players on its rolls ... JINSA relishes denouncing virtually any type of contact between the U.S. Government and Syria and finding new ways to demonize the Palestinians. To give but one example ... According to JINSA, not only is Yasir Arafat in control of all violence in the occupied territories, but he orchestrates the violence solely to ‘protect Saddam ... Saddam is at the moment Arafat’s only real financial supporter ... Arafat has no incentive to stop the violence against Israel and allow the West to turn its attention to his mentor and paymaster.’”  

One of JINSA’s directors and contributors is Irving Moscowitz, the California bingo magnate, who also sends millions of dollars a year to far-right Israeli settler groups like Ateret Cohanim and has also funded the construction of settlements, having bought land for development in key Arab areas around Jerusalem. Moscowitz helped to finance the 1996 opening of a tunnel under the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, which resulted in seventy deaths due to rioting.  

In the case of the Presidents Conference, critics of its “Daily Alert” website of selected daily news links that is also sent as an e-mail, of the nearly 20 articles discussing a military strike from August 14-20, only one raises concerns about stepping into battle. The vast majority either call for attacks or detail the dangers posed by Saddam.  

Only One View  

“The Daily Alert is flawed,” said Mark Rosenblum, political director of Americans for Peace Now. “It does not cover multiple perspectives on the issue ...” Ammiel Hirsch faulted the Conference for not linking articles to the site by those who broke ranks with President Bush over Iraq, including a much-discussed Wall Street Journal article by the national security adviser to the first President Bush, Brent Scowcroft. “That article should’ve been there,” Hirsch said. “There is merit to the observation that there is an imbalance and a worldview subtly emphasized.”  

While the leaders of the Presidents Conference, JINSA and some other groups may be promoting war with Iraq, there is no evidence that they speak for anyone but themselves. The widely read Jewish newspaper The Forward (Aug. 23, 2002) declared: “An American attack isn’t necessarily wise. It could splinter Iraq, vastly strengthen Iran and cripple Turkey. Worse, it could bring a catastrophic attack on Israel, leaving thousands dead and inviting an Israeli reply that might spell nuclear winter. Would that make the world a better place?”  

The Forward points out that, “War hawks point to Munich 1938, when the free world faced a tyrant and blinked. But Hitler was explicitly bent on conquering the world and eradicating entire populations, and as head of a great industrial power he had the means to do so. Saddam is more like Stalin circa 1946, a corrupt thug terrorizing the cowed population of a backward nation. After defeating Hitler, the West looked east and properly decided Stalin was best contained, not crushed. That was the approach the Clinton administration took in 1993 with its ‘dual containment’ policy - albeit inadequately enforced - toward Iraq and Iran. If there’s now a cause for abandoning patience and risking world cataclysm, we’re waiting to hear it. So is the rest of the world, beginning with our European allies and moderate Arab states. They have at least as much at stake as we do in stabilizing the Middle East and avoiding nuclear armageddon.”  

No “Jewish” View of Policy  

It is clear that there is no such thing as a “Jewish” view of U.S. policy with regard to Iraq, nor should there be. The point here is not whether the U.S. should embark upon a pre-emptive strike against Iraq or whether Saddam Hussein is a threat to us and his neighbors. There is wide agreement that Saddam is a brutal dictator and that his possession of weapons of mass destruction makes him increasingly dangerous. There is also much disagreement about the best way to respond to this danger. But this is not a “Jewish” question but concerns international relations, foreign and military policy. Why should the Presidents Conference be speaking in the name of its member organizations and, by implication, in the name of American Jews on a subject which is outside of its legitimate sphere and, beyond this, a subject upon which most of its member organizations have taken no position?  

This, however, is hardly unusual. The Presidents Conference repeatedly speaks in the name of American Jews on a variety of issues - almost all political - for which it has no mandate to do so.  

Early in July, for example, the Conference issued a statement justifying the Israeli police closure of the office of Sari Nusseibeh, the Palestinian Authority’s representative in Jerusalem and president of Al Quds University. The closure, ordered by Internal Security Minister Uzi Landau, a leader of the right wing within the Likud Party, stirred a storm of protest from the Israeli center and left.  

The statement by the Conference, titled “Facts About Nusseibeh Belie Image,” was issued by chairman Mortimer Zuckerman and executive vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein.  

Right-Wing Elements  

Several liberal groups complained that the 52-member Conference has effectively aligned itself with the most right-wing elements of the Israeli cabinet by challenging the moderate reputation of Nusseibeh, who recently organized a petition against suicide bombings and has called for Palestinians to renounce the right of return to Israel. Leaders of other member groups, including the Anti-Defamation League and Arza/World Union, criticized Conference leaders for failing to secure a consensus before issuing the statement.  

Israel’s opposition leader, Meretz Party head Yossi Sarad, complained that the Conference’s web site contained an anti-Nusseibeh quote that was falsely attributed to him. Sarid said that, “Nusseibeh is a personal friend of mine. He is the most moderate, courageous leader in the Palestinian camp. I’m furious and provoked by the Presidents Conference. They didn’t ask me about it.”  

A dispute also arose over Hoenlein’s claim that during a July 12 meeting with conference leaders, Israeli cabinet minister Matan Vilnai “justified” the closure of Nusseibeh’s offices. Several people who asked not to be identified said that during the meeting Vilnai, a former Israeli deputy chief of staff, did not justify the closure but, in fact, criticized it.  

Ignoring Moderate Record  

The Labor Zionist Alliance, the National Committee for Labor Israel, and Americans for Peace Now all strongly criticized Conference leaders for what they described as an attempt to discredit Nusseibeh. A letter from the Labor Zionist alliance and Americans for Peace Now accuses the Conference of ignoring Nusseibeh’s moderate record, thereby serving “the factional interests of the most extreme elements of Israel’s cabinet.”  

Jerry Goodman, executive director of the National Committee for Labor Israel, stated: “There are some elements among Israeli leadership who really don’t want to see a viable Palestinian state. I think the closure of the office is merely one example of that mode of thinking.”  

Lewis Roth, executive director of Americans for Peace Now, said that the office’s closure and the Conference statement are both “a desperate attempt by people on the far right in Israel and the U.S. to undercut any attempt or possibility of Israel and Palestinians getting back to the negotiating table by attempting to discredit someone who is perhaps the most moderate of all Palestinian leaders.”  

In the end, the White House criticized Israel’s closing of the Palestinian office, calling it a “troubling event” that “does not contribute” to peace or the Palestinian reforms the president has called for. Israel finally reached a face-saving compromise with Nusseibeh to allow him to reopen his office.  

Calls for Elimination  

Theodore Mann, a former chairman of the Presidents Conference, now calls for its elimination: “... it needs to be abolished. Since its beginning the Presidents Conference has resisted the adoption of bylaws and a fixed process by which the chairman is nominated. For that matter, it has eschewed most attributes which reflect a democratic structure ... Where there is no consensus among Jewish organizations, there is no need for the Presidents Conference.”  

In the case of the Hillel Foundation, whose mission is to promote Judaism on the nation’s college campuses, what is being promoted at the present time is political activism in behalf of the Israeli government.  

At Hillel’s annual student leader assembly held in Honesdale, Pennsylvania in August, those attending, according to The Forward (Aug. 30, 2002) “received pointers from campus Jewish professionals on how most effectively to stand up for Israel ... This summer, Hillel partnered with prominent philanthropists to send 400 students to Israel on a five-day ‘Israel Advocacy Mission.’ Eighty students participated in a three-week advocacy seminar at Tel Aviv University ... Hillel has added five new staff positions at its international center in Washington, D.C. to deal with Israel-related issues. It also created a new ‘Campus Israel Affairs Department.’”  

Seth Brysk, executive director of a Hillel that serves several campuses in San Francisco, says: “We’ve spent a lot of time this summer preparing students, particularly leaders of various student groups, with leadership training seminars, intensive discussion meetings and working with other partner agencies. We’ve sent students on Israel trips, trips organized by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other advocacy groups. It’s really been important for them to keep it on their minds.”  

Israel-Advocacy Programs  

According to The Jerusalem Report (Sept. 9, 2002), “Jewish organizations that work with students have retooled their Israel-advocacy programs over the last year and allocated more resources to them. Hillel, for example, is sending Israel-advocacy interns to 40 campuses to help existing staff, while also holding intensive leadership training programs over the summer, sending some students to Israel for seminars. The most significant change from last year ... is the creation of the Israel on Campus Coalition, a group which is bringing together some 20 national Jewish organizations to coordinate their Israel propaganda and education efforts.”  

Sadly, Jewish outreach programs on campus have become “propaganda and education efforts” concerning Middle East politics rather than the promotion of Judaism with its moral, ethical and spiritual insights.  

How many Jewish students who are searching for religion will simply be driven away by efforts to make them into propagandists for this or that Israeli policy of the moment? Daniela Gerson, editor of New Voices, a national Jewish student magazine, says she is hearing from many students that they are simply tired of the Israel-related debate on campus. “They are feeling alienated by the issue because they can’t relate and they are exhausted about hearing about the debate. There’s a lot of Middle East fatigue. They are tired of getting e-mails that fill their mailboxes about it every day. They just want to opt out.”  

Even the most sacred religious services have been politicized. During Rosh Hashanah services at the Reform Washington Hebrew Congregation, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Danny Ayalon, was the speaker, urging the congregation to speak out in behalf of Israel. At Yom Kippur services at Washington’s Conservative Adas Israel Congregation, he presented the same political message.  

Confusing Religion and Politics  
By persistently confusing religion, nationalism and international politics, American Jewish organizations are failing to meet the spiritual needs of those who view Judaism as a religion relevant to their lives and focused upon God rather than upon the state of Israel. They are, beyond this, engaged in a form of idolatry, making a particular state, in effect, the object of their devotion.  

In his book, Judaism, Human Values and the Jewish State, Hebrew University Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz argues that Judaism is above all a religion dedicated to God, not to any particular geographical area, and those who have confused Judaism and the policies of the State of Israel are guilty of a kind of idolatry.  

He writes: “As for the ‘religious’ arguments for the annexation of the territories - these are only an expression, subconsciously or perhaps even overtly hypocritical, of the transformation of the Jewish religion into a camouflage for Israeli nationalism. Counterfeit religion identifies national interests with the service of God and imputes to the state - which is only an instrument serving human needs - supreme value from a religious standpoint ... The idea that a specific country or location have an intrinsic ‘holiness’ is an indubitably idolatrous idea.”  

Leibowitz argues that, “Nationalism and patriotism as such are not religious values. The prophets of Israel in the period of the first commonwealth and the Jewish sages in the period of the second commonwealth were, for the most part, ‘traitor’s from the perspective of secular nationalism and patriotism. The rabbis who argue today that we should keep the territories for ‘religious reasons’ are not carrying on the tradition of Elijah and the prophets of God but rather of the 850 prophets of Baal and Asherah ‘who ate at the table of Jezebel.’”  

Other Jewish Voices  

Increasingly, Jewish voices are being heard which challenge the “Israel, right or wrong” posture of the conference of Presidents and other Jewish groups. Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s chief rabbi, recently told The Guardian of London that some things happening in Israel at the present time made him “feel very uncomfortable as a Jew.” In particular, he said, he was “profoundly shocked” by a photograph of smiling Israeli soldiers posing with the corpse of a Palestinian. Rabbi Sacks revealed that after Israel gained control of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, he was “convinced that Israel had to give back all the newly gained land for the sake of peace.”  

Rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun states: “I find it particularly disturbing when American Jewry tries to argue that somehow the murders of Palestinian civilians by Israelis are morally justifiable because ‘Israel does not target civilians,’ whereas Hamas does. Instead of recognizing that there can never be any moral equivalence because every single life is ultimately and uniquely precious, so every life lost to violence is a tragedy, we are told that somehow some lives are more important and valuable than others. Well, that seems to me a betrayal of everything I stand for as a rabbi and as a Jew - and Tikkun won’t play along with this tribalist ethic.”  

Henry Siegman, an ordained rabbi and once a leader in the American Jewish Congress, says that, “American Jewish organizations confuse support for the State of Israel and its people with an uncritical endorsement of the actions of Israeli governments, even when these governments do things that in an American context these organizations would never tolerate. It was inconceivable that a Jewish leader in America 20 or 30 years ago would be silent if a political party in the Israeli government called for the transfer of Palestinians - in other words, ethnic cleansing. Today, there are at least three such parties, but there has not been a word of criticism from American Jewish organizations.”  

“Surrogate Religion”  

In Siegman’s view, many Jews have made Israel into a “surrogate religion.” He notes that, “The support of Israel fills a spiritual vacuum. If you do not support the government of Israel then your Jewishness, not your political judgment, is in question.”  

There is a silent Jewish majority which is not represented by the established organizations which speak in their name. To the question, “Who speaks for American Jews?” one certain answer is that those who claim to do so may be farthest from expressing the real views and values of American Jews, the majority of whom seem to favor positions which are at variance with those promoted in their name.  

Judaism, the leaders of these organizations seem to forget, is a religion of universal values - not a political enterprise. The Jewish idea of God and of morals and ethics represents one of the great advances in human history. Other monotheistic religions - Christianity and Islam - emerged from Jewish roots. To transform Judaism into a political pressure group is to empty it of its larger meaning.  

The greatest threat to Judaism at the present time may be from the very groups and self-proclaimed “leaders” who persist in narrowing and trivializing it to the degree that idealistic men and women will look elsewhere for their moral grounding and their spiritual needs.

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