A liberal rabbi’s wake-up call for liberal Jews

In a typically politically liberal Reform synagogue in America, this one in a suburb of San Diego, the typically politically liberal rabbi’s Rosh Hashanah sermon should be a wake-up call to other Jews who are typically liberal.

The Jewish Federations of North America sent out an email calling on all rabbis to incorporate into their High Holiday sermons how “Israel faces a relentless assault on its legitimacy as a Jewish and democratic state,” to “engage” their congregations to understand “the aims, goals and strategies of those seeking to delegitimize Israel” and to give “methods to stand up against delegitimization.” The emphasis in the email was on BDS campaigns.

Rabbi David Frank of Temple Solel, a man who I know carefully and who agonizingly analyzes issues, decided to not only bring this message to his congregation but to explain a deeper truth.

For almost 2,000 years, Jews throughout the world followed a defensive policy to avoid bringing attention to themselves, and found ways, even humiliating, against overwhelming forces, to survive. With the establishment of the State of Israel, and its successes, Jews around the world could point to and take pride in a nation built upon Jewish democracy that is able and willing to protect Jews. In the United States, Jews have risen to great power relative to our small percentage in the population, and no longer had to hide being Jewish or avoid standing up for other Jews and for Israel.

Rabbi Frank repeatedly emphasized that “with great power comes great responsibility.” He dwelt upon two pressing issues: Iran’s pending nuclear weapons capability and American colleges’ fecklessness in confronting anti-Israel and anti-Semitic memes on campus. With the power to affect the outcomes of these challenges, Rabbi Frank urged the congregation not to face away. Rabbi Frank put forth that these are existential challenges, in one case to the existence of Israel and in the other to Jews’ freedom to enjoy an education and after to take a place of pride in America. In other words, Jews can make the difficult choices and sacrifices to protect and preserve our place in the world, or return to the almost 2,000 years of being shamed and disregarded, even hunted and slaughtered.

Of course, this is not just a Jewish issue. The fate of Israel and how it is dealt with by those in authority in the US, as the fate of Jewish students and how it is dealt with by those in authority in US colleges, both immediately reflect upon whether the deep principles of democracy and freedom are just to become hollow words. If US leaders fail to stand up forthrightly to these challenges, they will also fail to defend all Americans from existential challenges that would degenerate our way of life.

The arguments by now are familiar over whether, when and how to stall or destroy Iran’s capabilities to build nuclear weapons. What is central is that Israel has both less time and luxury to wait than does the US. It is not a matter of putting Israel’s interests before those of the US. It is a matter of whether the US will permit Israel’s existence to be on the chopping block and the rest of the Middle East to accommodate Iran. Thus, the US interest is as immediate and pressing as Israel’s. The US is a great power and with that comes great responsibility.

But, unlike when Jews had no power, today we do. Yes, there may be harsh sacrifices to be made but, as R. Frank says:

“whatever action or inaction Israel decides upon, the survival of the Jewish people is at the heart of the decision, and reluctance to ever again surrender control of Jewish destiny, at the center of Israel’s consciousness.”

R. Frank then turned to home:

“Our college campuses have become a hostile place for many Jewish and pro-Israel students….Where we do have a problem is whenfree speech crosses the line and becomes hate speech….But, we don’t have to be silent. With great power comes great responsibility!”

For those watching closely, the violent behavior, vicious caricatures, vile street-theater, and vituperative speech by pro-Palestinian students and faculty at many US college campuses approximates that of the predecessor anti-Semitic movements that slaughtered many millions of Jews and non-Jews. Most, however, are not watching closely, or just can’t bring themselves to believe that this is happening right here in modern America, or turn away rather than endanger their own comforts.

California’s two public college systems are at the forefront of this threat to Jewish and pro-Israel students and faculty, which directly impacts their present and future. Parents and taxpayers have the duty to demand that the University of California and California State University campuses immediately meet their present legal obligations and take quick action to prevent further outrageous threats to academic freedom by ideological thugs who would raise it falsely as a shield of impunity.

Mark Yudof, a practicing Jew, is president of the University of California. Yudof is also a constitutional scholar. When the report (analyzed here) on Jewish students was written by his appointees to an advisory council on campus climate, the National Education Chair of ADL and the California President of the NAACP, President Yudof found himself on the spot. The report details the climate of intimidation and fear forced upon Jewish and pro-Israel students and faculty and recommends the exploration of reasonable guidelines, “to clearly define hate speech in its guidelines, and seek opportunities to develop policies that give campus administrators authority to prohibit such activities on campus. The Team recognizes that changes to UC hate speech policies may result in legal challenge, but offer that UC accept the challenge.” President Yudof immediately rejected the challenge: “I believe our current policies may go as far as they can, given constitutional limitations.”

Then, the unanimous California State Assembly supported the report. Caught between the uproar from the leftist-Palestinian coalition on campuses, and his own absolutist interpretation of the First Amendment, versus the political power of the state, President Yudoff punted, or I would say punked.

President Yudoff wrote to the Assembly (PDF) that he required his discretion of the constitutional limits of “intolerance and bias, including anti-Semitic activity”. Rabbi Frank comments: “when it comes to standing up for our Jewish youth on college campuses, we cannot stay underground”, and continues, “The days of trying to blend in and not make waves are over….we can’t tolerate hate-speech in the guise of free speech….With great power comes great responsibility.” Many petitions are circulating among the Jewish community, for example this one from StandWithUs.

The constitutional issue is not as black-and-white as President Yudof purports; indeed, in many respects it is a red herring. For one thing, the US Supreme Court has held repeatedly that insulting words directly spoken to another person are “fighting words” that are excluded from Free Speech protections. For another, colleges have considerable discretion over discriminatory and defamatory speech and actions aimed at another person or group. For another, the colleges do have the authority to enforce their existing prohibitions of faculty using college webpages for political purposes. There are many other such powers within the colleges’ authority to deal with rampant anti-Semitism. The campus climate report’s recommendation — which the state Assembly endorsed — that the European Union’s definition of anti-Semitism be the guide is sound, but even there President Yudof does not explicitly commit.

As with Iran, as with our campuses, as with our lives, Rabbi Frank observes, “Torah and survival are our two imperatives.” They are inseparable. Ruminations over fine points of Torah are valuable, even when made in comforts or distance from events, and as valuable are the decisions we must make for the practicalities of survival.

About the Author
Bruce Kesler has penned op-eds for major newspapers, including The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, San Diego Union-Tribune, and Washington Examiner, for prestigious blogs such as The New Criterion and Minding The Campus, and his blog postings are often picked up by other top blogs