Our community is ailing, and its primary symptom is the toxic shock resulting from the ongoing vilifying of the best of our leaders with accusations of insufficient loyalty to the Jewish people, based on crude interpretations of their politics. In the latest such outbreak, described by The Jewish Week’s Gary Rosenblatt, my friend and colleague Rabbi Neil Blumofe — a great rabbi, leader, and lover of Zion — was brutally smeared and defamed due to a perfidious interpretation of how he built the itinerary for a congregational trip to Israel.
This story is hardly an isolated flare-up. I hear all the time from rabbis, day school leaders, Hillel directors, and board members of Jewish institutions about campaigns of character assassination at the hands of individuals or small groups disgruntled either with educational programs they are hosting that pertain to Israel, or assumptions about their politics.
There is no serious way to produce communal “consensus” on Israel, nor is it necessarily desirable. But neither is it the case that these political differences should translate into the vitriol that inevitably accompanies them, much less the frequent and toxic personalization of political difference that is making leadership a miserable activity for Jewish professionals.
Our community is doing violence precisely to those people who are stepping forward to serve us, at a time in which our institutions most need their passion and commitment. More and more professionals are silencing their own views, risking their careers when they do speak out, or leaving their chosen professional fields in disgust.
More often than not, the perpetrators of these attacks are small in number but loud in volume. The silent majority in Jewish life must make a concerted effort in rhetoric and action to retrieve our institutions and the legitimacy of our leaders from this hijacking.
To that end, I want to propose a checklist of considerations that stakeholders should take into consideration when starting or evaluating campaigns of accusation against an otherwise meritorious leader on the basis of identity politics. My hope is that if these considerations are kept close at hand, our institutions will better be able to distinguish between moments that constitute real cause for concern, such as when leaders are out on an issue with an unsustainable gap between their own beliefs and that of their constituency, and when the community is being held hostage by a contrived rhetorical campaign inconsistent with its values.
First: Institutions, like corporations, are not people. This has two consequences: the first is that sometimes an institution can do something (host an event, invite a speaker, put on a program) that might be considered problematic, but should not automatically allow for attacks on the individuals who lead these institutions.
The line between individual leadership and institutional responsibility is murky, but disqualifying the legitimacy of a synagogue trip based on a rabbi’s professional affiliations is a sloppy business of guilt by association that does not account for the program’s educational value, or the leader’s capacity to distinguish between personal political beliefs and how such an educational program was designed.
We must be better character witnesses on behalf of our rabbis and leaders than the public discourse evaluating their political beliefs currently allows. Their reputations, built carefully and with dignity over time, should alone put to rest the attacks against them; in fact those attacks should have been implicitly discredited. We are too fast to judge. This is a collapse into a McCarthyism that will render all good Jewish leaders at risk of being unjustly undone.
Second, mistakes happen. Sometimes institutions invite speakers they shouldn’t, or fail to do their homework, or schedule a stop on a tour they could do without. We all know in our personal and professional lives that the best way to correct a mistake — especially when, based on character-witnessing, we trust the intentions of those making the error — is quietly, if firmly.
The difference between a leader who deliberately, diffidently, and defensively exhibits intransigence on a politically explosive issue, and a leader who accidentally veers into dangerous terrain, is enormous. Most issues can be corrected more effectively, and without collateral damage, through private intervention, rather than public shaming.
It also possible for a leader to make an error, to be called out on it, and then to apologize. In other words, there are opportunities for public rebuke that can invite a real, not a defensive response. This too can turn the public square into a place that is real and substantive, rather than dangerous and frivolous.
Rabbi Blumofe has expressed his regret for the decision to have his synagogue stop at Arafat’s grave, as well as for the circulating widely of a complicated itinerary that — taken out of context — was misrepresented as the manifestation of an insidious agenda. One could well imagine an aggrieved congregant who trusted Rabbi Blumofe’s character taking issue with some of the trip’s content, express the grievance, and then bring about a positive change. Once the grievance is translated into the public sphere, however, even the capacity to bring about change on the issue begins to decline.
The most scandalous line in the Blumofe story was the quote attributed to Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, who indicated that he might have been the recipient of misinformation about Rabbi Blumofe and the specifics of the story. Nevertheless, the campaign against the rabbi happened — ostensibly, on the deeply problematic assumption that when someone tells you about smoke, there must be fire. Does no one actually do research? The consequences for all of us from the sirens, panic, and misappropriation of communal resources, are traumatic.
Third, and related, it is time to acknowledge that there is an industry of people fueling these stories and capitalizing on them to reshape the communal agenda. It is tempting to read the Blumofe story as an isolated case of a rabbi out on a ledge in his local community, struggling to maintain consensus. Such a reading would be inaccurate, especially upon seeing the familiar names of other individuals from around the country who traffic in this kind of controversy as it materializes in the story.
Our failure to treat this as an industry — and to create a counter campaign of credibility and support for rabbis and Jewish leaders to express nuanced viewpoints — means that individuals are left alone to battle massive ideological forces as though they are local problems, when in fact their local opponents are being resourced and reinforced as pawns in a larger national cultural battle.
It is as though one side is trying to win their local congressional election, and the other side is engaging in a massive redistricting project. A short-term win can still be accompanied by a long-term loss. Treating each of these flare-ups as a local concern will enable the industry to devastate the landscape of Jewish life, as is already under way.
Fourth, rabbis operate in a marketplace, and they know it better than anyone else. They are aware that people may quit their synagogues over something as simple as a sermon with which they disagree; as a result, many rabbis try to speak, teach, and lead in ways that are as inclusive and inviting as possible. And then, if you don’t like what they have to say, you can leave.
Years ago I walked out of a synagogue to which I belonged (not my current shul), because I felt that the rabbi’s remarks were immoral, and I felt implicated in his ideas by sitting in the pews. I also felt that the remarks were too consistent with a pattern to constitute an isolated incident, and that the gap between me and the underlying values of the institution was too significant to be closed through any attempted intervention. So I did what Jews have done for millennia, and hope will continue to do: I went to a different synagogue. Every individual has a standard to evaluate whether they can continue to be part of a community, which should also intersect with a responsibility — where possible — to try to make change respectfully from within before the urgency of leaving. But the standard by which a rabbi or synagogue should be vilified publicly, and through concerted campaigns, on the basis of its policies, programs, or the individual’s beliefs should be different than the standard by which we as individuals decide to make our own choices.
Finally, as I have said before and will keep repeating: It is a great folly of American Judaism that ideas and beliefs that constitute legitimate participation within Israeli political discourse can be considered illegitimate and treasonous in American Jewish institutions. There is greater freedom of expression and ideology in Israel’s Knesset than in the mainstream American synagogue pulpit.
This gap — brought about by American Jews relating to Israel more as proxy identity than a real identity, and by replacing patriotism with paternalism — is discrediting the sincerity of what it means to be pro-Israel in America, and is narrowing the possibility for American Jews to be in meaningful relationship to Israel precisely at a time when such channels should be widened.
Our rabbis and our professional leaders are the people most willing and brave to stand in the breach of the most difficult questions of identity and affiliation for American Jews, between the people and the values of the Jewish tradition of which Israel is an important one. We are making their jobs and lives impossible. This is shortsightedness borne out of misplaced fear for Israel’s future.
We have work to do to cultivate a communal ethic that inclines us to slow processes in responding to perceived political problems rather than leaping on each controversy. On this issue, the confidence of our professionals and spiritual leaders to continue doing their holy work hangs in the balance. Let’s not risk the worse alternative for Jewish life — when our talent decides that working on our behalf is just not worth it.