Celebrate Israel, don’t demonize Obama
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Celebrate Israel, don’t demonize Obama

Rabbi emeritus, Temple Avodat Shalom, River Edge, Reform

In response to Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s April 9 column, “Obama and the deafening silence of American Jewry,” I requested and was granted the opportunity to respond. Rather than engaging in a point-by-point debate with Rabbi Boteach’s accusations and demonization of President Obama and Rep. Steve Rothman, I would like to use this space to draw a few historical comparisons.

Guest columnSixty–two years ago this month I was born into an American Jewish community anxiously awaiting the birth of a Jewish state and deeply divided over what impact that state would have upon themselves and the world. As we prepare to celebrate Israel’s 62nd birthday next week, we can all recite a shehecheyanu that we have lived to see an Israel that is a strong, viable, modern nation-state. Yet as in the anxiety of 1948, American Jews find ourselves divided over the path by which we can help Israel to attain political and military security. In 1948, as the fate of Israel’s creation hung in the balance, a vocal minority of American Jews saw America’s president as being secretly pro-Arab. Some of those opposing the policy of the American government demonized President Truman.

“A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel,” by Allis and Ronald Radosh, is a recently published scholarly work describing Harry Truman’s decision-making process leading to American support for the founding of the State of Israel. The authors document the fact that the political pressure on Truman from both the American Jewish community and the pro-Arab interests who dominated the State and Defense departments was enormous. The authors make clear that the thrust of the autobiographical accounts by both Truman and Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president, was fundamentally accurate. This historical work, based upon archival material, reveals that Truman’s fundamental support for the creation of a Jewish state and the immigration of Jews living in Displaced Persons camps to Palestine never wavered. However, the authors reveal that the president’s responsibility to listen to all sides and weigh the interests of American allies, including Saudi Arabia and Great Britain, led some of the most vocal voices in American Jewry to accuse Truman of being an anti-Semite. Moreover, Jews who were supporting Truman and lobbying him privately rather than publicly were looked upon by the more militant segments of American Jewish life as self-hating Jews.

“A Safe Haven” was an important book for me to read at this particular time in American–Israel relations. The most militant Zionist critic of Truman ‘s Mideast policies was a Reform rabbi from my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver. History reveals that while Silver’s strong pro-Israel voice played an important role in the halls of the United Nations and the court of public opinion, his personal and at times vicious attacks upon Truman served to only to anger the president and give support to those of Truman’s advisers who were against statehood for the Jewish people.

Last week, attacks similar to those made by Rabbi Silver on President Truman were made by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach on President Obama in The Jewish Standard. I respect Rabbi Boteach’s right to differ with me or my friend Congressman Rothman on the substance of any issue in Jewish life. What I reject is the classification of either of us as anything but proud Americans and proud Jews who in the spirit of Justice Louis Brandeis proclaim publicly that our support for a secure Israel is integral to our American patriotism.

Barack Obama was elected to be president of the United States. I voted for him for many reasons, including my belief that he would maintain the strong bipartisan support for Israel that has been a cornerstone of American foreign policy since Harry Truman. While the disagreements between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have caused a public outcry, relations between America and Israel have been much worse in years past. American-Israel relations were also been strained in the 1956 Suez Crisis during the Eisenhower administration, the “Rogers plan” of President Nixon in 1969, the infamous rebuke of Israel by Secretary of State James Baker during the George H.W. Bush administration, as well as during the tension surrounding the Begin-Carter-Sadat summits.

Since the attacks made by Rabbi Silver upon President Truman in 1948 until the verbal assault of Rabbi Boteach upon President Obama in last week’s Standard, no responsible American Jewish leader has demonized a sitting president and questioned his attitude toward Jews and Judaism as Rabbi Boteach did. Sovereign nations, even allies, will not always agree on every issue. In democratic countries all citizens are not forced to agree with every policy of their government. Therefore it’s not that Rabbi Silver was critical of President Truman or that Rabbi Boteach disagrees with President Obama or Congressman Rothman that bothers me – but rather that they demonize the president.

At Shavuot services next month we will hear the chanting of the Ten Commandments. The ninth of these statements reads: “You [singular] shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Its application here is simple and direct. It is a sin for any of us to slander or to defame others. Terms such as racist or anti-Semite must be carefully used and never abused. Disagreement with the policies of an American president regarding Israel does not give one the right to classify President Obama or President Truman as an anti-Semite or anti-Israel. It’s time for us all in Jewish life and in American life to turn from calling each other names and call upon the One whom we refer to as the Name with gratitude on this Yom Ha’Atzmaut that we live in a time when there is a free, independent State of Israel and a United States of America where we Jews can freely exercise our religious practices and speak our minds.

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