American Jewry faces many crises. Jewish education is increasing in cost while often losing relevance, appeal, and popularity. In the Orthodox world, an obsession with petty, pedantic ritualism often obscures larger compelling ethical concerns while tolerating an untrammeled materialism. Among the non-Orthodox, the lures of leisure blot out a commitment to community, tradition, modesty, Jewish learning and Jewish living. Every year thousands of Jews drift away from Judaism, apathetic, lazy, bored. Beyond the Jewish world’s dwindling synagogues, dying organizations, declining schools, and decaying communities, Israel is enduring a vicious assault so systematic that many Jews internalize it, assuming Israel must be guilty of at least some of the many crimes people attribute to it. But, never fear. Amid this trouble, 400 American rabbis united, and spent $100,000 taking their stand – against Fox News and Glenn Beck, while defending George Soros. I don’t get it. There are so many pressing issues for 400 rabbis “of diverse political views” to tackle. There are so many fabulous ways to spend those anonymously donated non-transparent one hundred thousand holy dollars – because every charity dollar is sacred. Moral leadership requires courage. Yet too many rabbis today seem afraid of their congregants. It is easier to bash Fox News than question congregants’ cushy lifestyles, their lazy worldviews, their phoned-in often phony Judaism. It is safer to target Glenn Beck’s obnoxious references to the Holocaust than to challenge congregants to change their lives, recalibrate their values, redefine and revive their Jewish commitments. Predictably, 400 Rabbis taking out a $100,000 ad in the Wall Street Journal to defend George Soros against Glenn Beck’s ranting fed more rants on MSNBC and elsewhere. In fairness, many of the signing rabbis were sincere, even if it looked like they sought cheap notoriety hitting an easy target. Seeing that two of my closest rabbinical friends were listed at the top, I asked them why they signed the ad, which the Jewish Funds for Justice addressed to Rupert Murdoch and placed in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere. Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, the President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, is offended by Glenn Beck’s constant, sloppy, histrionic invoking of the Holocaust, to demonize those he dislikes, including the controversial financier George Soros. “It is worth paying attention to the way people use language around the Shoah- that’s a lesson I took from my classes with Professor Elie Wiesel years ago at Boston University,” Rabbi Ehrenkrantz explained. “The Shoah is already poorly understood. And it’s even more difficult for the Holocaust to have meaning in people’s minds if the language surrounding it is cheapened.”Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, Vice President of the American Jewish University, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, also reacted to Beck’s polarizing demagoguery. “What I intended to sign was a strong statement that abusing the Holocaust to impugn politics with which one disagrees cheapens the memory of the Shoah and makes real conversation across the aisle impossible. It is abused on the left and on the right and it must stop,” Rabbi Artson noted. “Hence, I signed. I would have signed a similar statement against impugning President Bush or any other public servant. Differ with the policies, but references to the Shoah are destructive to the democratic process.”I share my friends’ distaste for Holocaust-fueled histrionics. But they and their 398 colleagues missed repeated opportunities to denounce the sloppy invoking of the Holocaust when George W. Bush was president. George Soros himself did to George Bush what Glenn Beck does to George Soros. Saying he believed the White House was guided by a "supremacist ideology," Soros said in late 2003: "When I hear Bush say, ''You''re either with us or against us,'' it reminds me of the Germans... My experiences under Nazi and Soviet rule have sensitized me." Moreover, too many of Soros’s fellow anti-Zionists frequently deploy the offensive, inaccurate Nazi analogy to bash Israel.Yet with most American Jews often placing their liberalism before their Judaism, it does not take much courage for their rabbis to take on Fox News. Liberal rabbis attacking Glenn Beck is like stand-up comics mocking the bald guy in the front row. The laughs are cheap, easy, predictable but forgettable. Moreover – and I say the same thing about Israel’s National Religious camp – theologians should beware confusing the clear lines of faith and morality with the messy compromises of politics and governance.When drafting a call for civility regarding Israel, defining blue and white lines to affirm and red lines not to cross (www.restoringsanity.info), I learned the Zen of such declarations. If too bland, they lack punch; if too biased, they backfire. In these polarized times, finger-pointing in one direction when championing centrism is like Sarah Palin’s daughter Bristol preaching abstinence while pregnant.Predictably, the ad fueled the flames of partisanship. Rabbi Artson reported that the responses he received to his signing “skewed along political lines... conservatives deplored the signing as hypocrisy and liberals celebrated it as courage.” He asks: “Is there no one left who thinks, across the board, that using Nazi labeling is illegitimate whether it comes from left, center, or right? Is there a way to say that and for people across the spectrum to chastise their own when that line is crossed?”This is where the rabbis’ collective wisdom failed them. In today’s polarized community, big tent civility must be nurtured, cultivated, taught. An ad with 400 rabbis complaining about loudmouths from both sides of the spectrum sloppily invoking the Holocaust would have worked; this ad, singling out only one manifestation of the broader problem politicizes complaints about the Holocaust. An ad with 400 rabbis calling for a more respectful tone in politics, acknowledging abuses from both sides of the spectrum, would have worked; this one-sided ad risks reducing a call for civility to a partisan battering ram - which we certainly don’t need.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow. He is the author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” and, most recently, “Ronald Reagan: A Very Short Introduction.”