Politics and the decline of nuance combine to stalk the Orthodox arena

Politics and the decline of nuance combine to stalk the Orthodox arena

I have a distaste for the combination of politics and religion. It often has been toxic for the Jewish people.

Religion is about strategic values; politics is about tactics. Two people can share identical strategic values — love of Israel, for example, and hatred of anti-Semitism and racism — and disagree on tactics. How we promote our strategic values is a tactical question, and reasonable people can disagree.

Or so I thought. I have written about both the Obama and the Trump administrations on social media, mostly as relates to Israel but sometimes about the economy. These posts were intended for the couple of hundred people who follow me on Facebook, many of whom live in my community.

When I took a position against the Iran deal, I learned the power of compounding on social media. As Facebook friends of mine commented, this drew the attention of their Facebook friends as well. Because I worried that the Iran deal didn’t provide adequately for Israel’s security, I was identified as a right-wing extremist. When I observed that progressive tax rates were originally intended to redistribute wealth (look it up), I was called a right-wing ideologue.

That I am a right-of-center economic conservative and a centrist social liberal was too nuanced for those who read a short comment on Facebook and immediately painted me in broad strokes. While I wondered why anyone who doesn’t know me would care in the least what I think, I attributed the vitriol of the Facebook comments to the Democratic Party’s identity politics.

Fast forward to the present. When parents protested the Frisch School’s student group for Israel advocacy’s asking students to write letters thanking Mr. Trump for U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, I weighed in for the following reasons: I am a supporter of the Frisch School, having served for more than two decades as a trustee, chairman of its education committee, and vice president and member of the executive committee of its board. More importantly, five of my children graduated from Frisch, and a granddaughter has just begun. Some of the rabbinic faculty studied with me at Yeshiva University (I even recommended them to the school) and the current principal consults with me from time to time. Frisch is an important institution in our community, and I value it.

I observed in a Facebook post that recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was long overdue, and that it was a legitimate activity of Israel advocacy to find ways to support the eventual move of the U.S. embassy there as well. I have reservations about writing thank-you notes, and I will explain my opinion below. I don’t see the question as a moral or halachic one, and I didn’t oppose the program.

I gently commented, though, that in my view the timing was awful. The conversation in some circles in Teaneck and in many circles around the country and the world was the president’s alleged remarks about African countries. This came on the back of unfortunate misstatements after Charlottesville, a pardon for an avowed racist, and support for another in a senatorial race. Add to that the commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that weekend.

I observed that writing letters of thanks when many people are upset about purported racism is very poor timing. It advances the notion that Orthodox Jews are only concerned about what’s good for the Jews, and that this is a poor message to be sending to other people.

Included in that other people are many Jews, too — Jews of color. A number of them weighed in on Facebook about their concerns about the Orthodox community. An Orthodox Jew in Bergenfield wrote me that concerns about racism were “overhyped.” I observed that only the victims of racism have the right to make that comment. I made a similar comment to a gentile colleague who told me that Jewish concerns about anti-Semitism were “exaggerated.”

If we tell the rest of the world — and we do often — not to tell the victims of anti-Semitism that our fears are not real, then we should understand that Jews and other people of color do not want to hear the same from us.

An American oleh in Jerusalem commented that he knew all about me once he saw my concern about racism. I am obviously a left-leaning progressive. Before I could respond, everyone who follows me regularly shut him down with facts.

This past Shabbat, I was surprised to learn that someone who has attended shiurim I have given, who has always exchanged Shabbat and Yom Tov greetings with me, who has sat next to me in numerous minyanim, has lumped me in with self-hating Jews. Why? Because I think the timing of the letter-writing campaign to the president was unfortunate. He wondered how I ever came up with the idea that the expression of gratitude sometimes can be inappropriate.

It’s simple.

The Talmud observes that one of the reasons we do not recite a full Hallel on Pesach is that God recoils from His ministering angels singing praises when other creatures of His are dying. The other creatures are the Egyptian army, in pursuit of Am Yisrael. The Talmud didn’t think it inappropriate to postpone full hymns of praise in the face of the deaths of the Egyptians, Israel’s tyrannical slave-masters. When people in our country, including other Jews, are angry and concerned, we cannot do the same? It is such a difficult idea to understand?

The lack of nuance that characterized community discourse during the Obama administration actually has increased. I attribute this to the corrosive personality of the current president. When someone disagrees with him, he hits them hard. I do not think that letter writers to the Jewish Standard who know me think I am a leftist or a self-hating Jew. Shame on me? Shame on those who attack other people personally rather than address their positions.

So that I am not guilty of the same, let me note that the U.S. president is not a monarch. We live in a democracy. Mapping the biblical narrative onto contemporary politics should be done very cautiously. We don’t look for biblical or talmudic precedents. My example above was not a prooftext, only a demonstration of my logic.

As to thanking the president for something that is Israel’s right, I agree with another Jew who did not live in Teaneck.

Ambassador Yehuda Avner, z”l, records an exchange between Prime Minister Menachem Begin and U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski at Camp David. Mr. Begin asked that two sentences be deleted from the joint U.S.-Israeli statement to be issued at the end of the talks. “Please delete ‘The United States affirms Israel’s inherent right to exist.’” Brzezinski asked why. Mr. Begin answered, “Because the United States’ affirmation of Israel’s right to exist is not a favor, nor is it a negotiable concession. I shall not negotiate my existence with anybody and I need nobody’s affirmation of it.” Brzezinski was shocked. “But to the best of my knowledge every Israeli prime minister has asked for such a pledge.”

But Israel’s right to the land, and its right to declare its own capital, flow directly from the Hebrew Bible. Begin could not countenance viewing Israel’s rights as a favor. I view recognizing Israel’s right to declare its own capital in the same way.

I’m guessing, although I might be wrong, that Menachem Begin wouldn’t have been writing any thank-you notes to President Trump for something that was way overdue. Of one thing I am certain. Menachem Begin was not a self-hating Jew.

Rabbi Ozer Glickman, a long time resident of Teaneck, is a rosh yeshiva in Yeshiva University’s affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, where he teaches Talmud, Jewish law, and philosophy. He also has been an adjunct professor of law at YU’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and an adjunct professor of business at YU’s Sy Syms School of Business. In his secular life, he is a member of the senior advisory board of Oliver Wyman, a global management consulting firm, where he advises major financial institutions on risk and asset management.

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