Leading Jewishly? No, just shamefully

Leading Jewishly? No, just shamefully

Leaders who lead by opinion polls are all too common (see my last column), but another kind of leadership is equally pervasive and just as pernicious: the leader who leads astray.

As the Torah puts it in this week’s parashah (Deuteronomy ‘5:16), "Everyone who deals dishonestly is abhorrent to the Lord your God." It follows that the leader who leads his or her people to deal dishonestly is abhorrent in God’s eyes, both because of his or her own behavior and because of the "trickle-down theory" of leadership. As the Midrash teaches, "Whatever the leaders do, the generation [being led] does. If the president [of the Sanhedrin] rules that a thing is permissible, the head of the court will say, ‘Will I prohibit, seeing that the president permitted?’ Then the judges say, ‘Will we prohibit, seeing that the head of the court permitted?’ And [finally], the rest of the generation [the people being led] say, ‘If the judges permitted, shall we say otherwise?’" (See Deuteronomy Rabbah ‘:19.)

It is especially sad, therefore, that we are witnessing two huge examples of leaders leading us astray — and in matters that are at the heart of who we are as a people.

The first is Israel’s decision to turn away refugees from the Darfur region of the Sudan. Regardless of whether they want the mantle, Israel’s leaders also are leaders of the Jewish people. They may want to think of themselves as "Israelis" and their state as being just like any other, but to the rest of the world, the words in Israel’s Declaration of Independence are the only ones that matter: Israel is first and foremost "a Jewish state in the Land of Israel."

As the declaration also notes, the fact that the state exists in the land is significant beyond the geographic. "The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people," it says. "Here their spiritual, religious, and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance, and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books."

For a Jewish state to turn its back on Jewish values that trace back to Father Abraham arguing with God over the fate of Sodom is unconscionable, yet that is what Israel has done by shutting the door on refugees from genocide.

The Torah — the "Book of Books," in the declaration’s own words — takes a dim view of such behavior, judging from this week’s parashah alone. Deuteronomy ‘3:16-17 states, "You shall not turn over to his master a slave who seeks refuge with you from his master. He shall live with you in any place he may choose among the settlements in your midst, wherever he pleases; you must not ill-treat him." Clearly, if the Torah protects the Dred Scotts of the world — people who seek asylum from economic oppression — it certainly protects those who seek asylum from almost certain death.

As its justification, Israel denies that these refugees — 1,’00 have come from the Sudan to Israel on foot in the last couple of years — are in any physical danger. They are merely "economic refugees," but then, so is the runaway slave to whom the Torah specifically grants safe haven.

Denial of a slightly different sort came last week from the leaders of the Anti-Defamation League as they sought to scuttle a congressional resolution officially recognizing the Armenian genocide. (While other groups, including the American Jewish Committee, are part of the effort, the ADL stands out because of its very public campaigns against intolerance.)

For those who are unaware of it (and that in itself is a sad commentary), beginning in 1915, the Ottoman Turks caused the deaths of as many as 1.5 million Armenians. Many died in outright massacres, others in forced marches that were euphemistically labeled mass deportations. Still others were left to die of exposure and starvation in the Arabian Desert, which the Ottomans then controlled.

A British report, published in The New York Times on Oct. 8, 1916, referred to what was going on as "an effort to exterminate a whole nation," labeling it a policy of mass murder "without precedent even in the blood-stained annals of the East."

In his memoirs, the U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Henry Morgenthau Sr., wrote that the "great massacres and persecutions of the past seem almost insignificant" in comparison.

Morgenthau, of course, could not have known then what was awaiting his own relatives and people in Europe. On the other hand, the man who orchestrated those deaths — Adolf Hitler — knew only too well what the Ottomans had done and he counted on the silence that followed. "Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?" he reportedly said in 1939.

We speak today of the annihilation of the Jews of Europe. We insist that country after country acknowledge the Shoah. We demand that the United Nations and its member states recognize and observe an annual Holocaust Remembrance Day — a demand the world body heeded in ‘005. Indirectly, at least, we pressure European countries and industry to confront their history, such as in the case of the Swiss bank accounts and the various slave labor cases of the last decade. Inherent in all this is a reckoning with the past.

Earlier this year, we also urged the United Nations to condemn all attempts at Holocaust denial. Among those leading that charge were Glen Lewy, the ADL’s national chairman, and Abe Foxman, its national director.

In a letter to delegates who were sitting on the fence before the successful U.N. vote, the two wrote, "It is a sad reality that the denial of the Holocaust is becoming increasingly common…. We urge you to support this important declaration by the international community reinforcing that it will never forget the Holocaust and rejecting those who seek to deny it. Furthermore, such a declaration is critical to ensuring that the world does not ignore current and future acts of genocide."

Hitler’s purported citing of the Armenian genocide ably proves that last point, but that is of no consequence to the ADL’s leaders. In April, the Los Angeles Times quoted Foxman as saying of the massacres, "The Jewish community shouldn’t be the arbiter of that history. And I don’t think the U.S. Congress should be the arbiter either."

Last week, Foxman went so far as to fire an ADL regional director who disagreed with this. That move sparked a storm of such fury that the ADL actually began to use the word "genocide" by midweek (in fact, the ADL has never denied "the massacres"), although it changed its position not a whit. It remains opposed to the United States taking official notice of "the massacres." Turkey, after all, is Israel’s closest Muslim ally and Israel’s needs must take precedence over the truth.

We are the People Israel. We are commanded to walk in God’s ways. If "everyone who deals dishonestly is abhorrent to the Lord your God," then genocide can never be denied and its victims can never be turned away.

And our leaders should be the first ones to say so; they should not be dragged kicking and screaming to do so, nor should they be teaching by example that inconvenient truths may be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency.

Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of the Conservative synagogue Temple Israel Community Center in Cliffside Park and an instructor in the UJA-Federation-sponsored Florence Melton Adult Mini-School of the Hebrew University. He is the editor of Judaism: A Journal of Jewish Life and Thought.