I am not, as a rule, bothered by people who disagree with me, either publicly or privately. Were I to be, I would not have lasted for thirty-three-plus years in the pulpit rabbinate, and certainly not in the same synagogue. Almost by definition, rabbis who take strong positions on the issues of the day, be they moral/ethical or political, related to their own synagogues or to the world at large, will generate disagreement from those who look to them for guidance but see the situation differently. That is entirely the way it should be.
A rabbi who shies away from taking a stand on an important issue that he/she feels strongly about is not living up to the job definition of being a “religious leader.” And a congregant/reader who feels obliged to agree just because someone whom he/she respects is sharing an opinion is abdicating an important piece of his/her sense of self.
The issue that I am addressing here is not the right to disagree. It is, rather, how one chooses to disagree.
During this past week, I have followed a number of the online threads relating to the piece I wrote last week, strongly criticizing Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu for accepting an invitation to address a joint session of Congress on the issue of stronger sanctions against Iran. A number of my colleagues shared the article on Facebook, others re-tweeted it, and their doing so, in turn, generated some very passionate debates online.
I was not at all surprised, or bothered, by the fact that there were people who thought I was in error. Particularly when it comes to Israel, feelings in the Jewish community run strong and deep on even relatively inconsequential matters. So it should come as no surprise that, with regard to the prospect of a nuclear Iran and how to avoid that coming to pass, people would feel strongly.
But what I fail to understand, and find myself increasingly troubled by, is the degree to which discussions about Israel so quickly deteriorate into vitriolic disputation, and, perhaps most troubling of all, the insinuation that somehow, because one doesn’t hold to the hardest, most right-wing line when it comes to matters relating to Israel’s security, one somehow loves Israel less.
Regarding the harsh nature of some of the comments I saw … I’ve been called lots of things in my life, but ‘a reliable apologist for Hussein Obama, regularly recruited by the National Jewish Democratic Council … follow(ing) upon a good tradition in America dating from FDR of Jewish rabbis fronting for anti-Semitic presidents” is not something I recall hearing. Nor did anyone ever close a comment about me by saying “May his name be erased.” Of course, the person who offered these words did not sign his/her name …
Where does anger like this come from? I suspect that the Internet gives some people a feeling that all rules of social appropriateness are suspended in cyberspace. The fact that one can mouth off from the privacy of one’s home, in the middle of the night, with no one else around, eliminates the sense of shame that might otherwise accompany an offensive rant like that. Believe me when I say that my feelings were not hurt by what this person wrote. But what did hurt was my sense that something very precious had been lost, both from a Jewish and a general societal sense: a kind of twenty-first century iteration of lashon harah, malicious slander. Like the song says, “Haters gonna hate.” Decency in public discourse is going the way of the dinosaur.
But of course, people spewing hate on the Internet is hardly a “Jewish problem” alone. From cyber-bullying to ISIS videos, the Internet is fertile ground for all kinds of hatred, and Jewish values on what constitutes a proper exchange of ideas don’t always carry the day.
And as for the “who loves Israel more/better” issue, I am no less pained.
God knows that there is ample reason to be skeptical about the possibility any time soon of any kind of meaningful peace process, either with the Palestinians or with the Arab world as a whole, and there is even more reason to doubt the intent of Iran to make serious concessions on the issue of its nuclear development. Yes, all of this is true. The situation for European Jewry is bleak, the campuses in America are threatening, and the world looks like an angry place to us right now. All of this is true.
The operative question is how to respond to these multiple, asymmetrical threats. Do we consciously move to harden every position that we have, assuming that we have little to lose and it matters not at all whom we might offend in the process, or are we and, more importantly, Israel, challenged to think outside of the proverbial box and display some diplomatic agility? Yes, “Never Again” is not an empty slogan. But how are we to honor its charge to us?
Some of the people with whom I am closest, friends and family whom I love and respect, differ with me profoundly on how to answer these questions. I don’t for a moment question their right to do so, nor do I profess to be free of any ambivalence in the positions I stake out. But sincere and deeply felt differences such as these, instead of being constructive and potentially instructive, become debilitating and dangerous to Israel when voices other than the most strident are drowned out by accusations of being a “front for anti-Semitic Presidents.” That kind of talk serves no one in the Jewish community. And it doesn’t serve Israel either.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.