The OU, the RCA and Political Issues of the Day: Please, Let’s Be Consistent

“The OU should stay out of politics!  They should stick to Kashrut!”  That was the call from many in the Jewish news media and on social media when the Orthodox Union honored Attorney General Jeff Sessions at its annual policy conference in Washington last week, at a time when reports of children being separated from their parents by immigration authorities began to emerge.  “How could the OU only care about its narrow interests of religious liberty to protect Jews by honoring Jeff Sessions, while they are remaining silent when children are being ripped away from their parents?  Shame on the OU!” In fact, this past week about 40 activists attended a ‘Moral Mincha’ on Monday outside OU headquarters, arguing that the OU sold its soul to be the court Jews of this administration.

“The RCA should stay out of politics!  How dare they take sides in a political fight!  My Rabbi should resign from the RCA!”  That was the call from many on social media when the RCA signed on to a letter expressing its strong opposition to the recently expanded “zero-tolerance” policy that includes separating children from their migrant parents when they cross the border.  “And why are they not protesting against those who are calling Trump Hitler by his actions?”

Should our lay and Rabbinical organizations play a political role when it seems like it’s a “no-win” situation?  In today’s day and age, anything that smacks of politics is condemned by one side or the other.  I’m sure that the OU leadership regrets the optics of the plaque given to Jeff Sessions at the particular time that this immigration issue exploded and hopefully they will be more sensitive to this issue in the future.  Nevertheless, I would argue that our orthodox organizations have a religious responsibility to advocate on behalf of our orthodox Jewish interests.  After all, the Torah states, “lo ta’amod al dam rei’echa,” that we have the halachic responsibility not to stand idly by when a friend is being harmed if we have the ability to save him.  The OU advocating to protect our religious liberty certainly is a fulfillment of this halachic mandate.

We also have a responsibility to share our Torah values with the world. After all, God’s mandate to Avraham was that he should command his children and his household after him to engage in righteousness and justice and Avraham understood that he had a responsibility to share those values with the broader world.  And we are the biological and spiritual descendants of Avraham Avinu.

When organizations like the RCA and the OU advocate politically, either for their own interests or for some greater good, then they will be criticized.  They will be criticized for speaking out, because even if the leadership of these organizations believes that a particular issue is non-partisan, some members of these organizations will disagree and they will do so vociferously.  Additionally, these organizations will be criticized by others for not speaking out when they think that it is warranted.  So many moral and ethical issues arise every day which these organizations could address, but they limit their letters and press releases to issues which become public and which they believe require moral clarity.  The OU and the RCA leadership both believe that the immigration issue is one that rises above politics and requires moral clarity, unlike perhaps claims comparing Trump to Hitler which is not a position that requires this kind of clarity. While there are extremist voices on both sides, most reasonable people do not truly believe that Trump and Hitler are morally equivalent.  Yes, these organizations will be criticized.  It’s the unfortunate price that they have to pay for their advocacy, but it’s a price that is ultimately worth it in order to advocate for our own religious interests and to share our values with the broader world.

I only hope that we are consistent.  Why is it that, for the most part, only Democrats complained that the OU should stick to Kashrut and stay out of politics when they honored Jeff Sessions?  Why is that, for the most part, only Republicans complained that the OU and the RCA should stay out of politics when they signed on to the letter criticizing the administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy?  If you complained about the OU being politically active while honoring Jeff Sessions then you should complain about the OU being politically active when signing on to the letter.  I believe that these organizations have a moral and halachic responsibility to advocate for our people and provide moral clarity even though it may get ugly at times.  But please, if you disagree, at the very least, be consistent.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.