No Holds Barred: What? Me, insecure?

Jews often seek non-Jewish legitimacy, which is why, I believe passionately that Jewish pride is more important than Jewish observance.

December 14, 2010 10:46
An American Jew.

American Jewry 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)

On a fresh crop of newly released Richard Nixon tapes, the president, who disliked Jews but helped rescue Israel during the Yom Kippur War, says of his senior Jewish advisers Henry Kissinger, William Safire and others that they shared a common Jewish inferiority complex, and worked hard to compensate.

“What it is, is it’s the insecurity,” Nixon said. “It’s the latent insecurity. Most Jewish people are insecure, and that’s why they have to prove things.”

Wow, I wonder where he got that idea. Could it have been from Kissinger’s own words on the tapes? After a meeting with Golda Meir in the Oval Office, during which she raised the issue of trapped Soviet Jews, Kissinger turned to Nixon and said: “The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy. And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”

One shudders at these words of the first Jewish secretary of state, bending over backward to show he bears no special kinship with his people.

While the Kennedys unapologetically championed the rights of a free Ireland, with Teddy Kennedy being instrumental in bringing Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein to the US, Kissinger is adamant that even another holocaust would not be an American concern.

But as King Solomon said, there is nothing new under the sun. It’s simply not news that Jews often seek non-Jewish legitimacy. Which is why, even as an Orthodox Jew, I believe passionately that Jewish pride is more important than Jewish observance. Jewish self-esteem is the body within which the soul of Jewish observance must reside.

At Oxford, one student who had become religious balked at wearing a yarmulke around his friends. I told him: “I don’t care if you drive on the Sabbath or eat sweet-and-sour pork. Just do so with a yarmulke.”

He thought I’d lost my mind. “A yarmulke is not more important than the Sabbath. And second, there is no way I’m going to drive on the Sabbath or eat a cheeseburger at McDonald’s with a yarmulke on.”

“Aha,” I said, “So now, when you proudly affirm a Jewish identity, you feel uncomfortable acting in a manner that contradicts your Jewish commitments.”

I THOUGHT of this story recently in an incident with the American Jewish University (formerly, the University of Judaism) in Los Angeles after my organization, This World: The Values Network, approached the AJU to ask if they would partner with us on a West Coast version of my debate with Christopher Hitchens, the worldrenowned atheist who is battling esophageal cancer, on “Is there an Afterlife?” The AJU responded with an offer to have their Whizen Center host the event and pay me as a speaker, bringing in Rabbi David Wolpe and author Sam Harris to make it a four-person debate.

They made it clear, however that they had a very limited budget and could therefore offer just a small stipend, to which I readily assented given my normal practice of accommodating important organizations with limited funds. I later discovered, however, that the tiny budget seemed to apply only to the religion, rather than the atheist side of the debate, a matter I raised with Dr. Robert Wexler and Mr. Gady Levy, who run the esteemed speaker program.

I shared with them the point of principle that, while there may have been a misunderstanding here, the community ought to try and treat its own with the same respect it treats others. We are currently in discussions to fix the matter so that this important debate can be staged for the Los Angeles Jewish community.

Hitchens and Harris are outstanding speakers, and deserve appropriate compensation. But surely the contribution of two rabbis and authors who draw large paying crowds should likewise be valued. Having now discovered that the tiny budget pertained only to the rabbinic side of the debate, I asked AJU to withdraw from our event.

THE STORY of Jewish insecurity and not valuing our own is as old as Jewish history.

Seventeen years ago I met prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and asked him to lecture for our L’Chaim student organization at Oxford, which, at 5,000 members was second in size only to the Oxford Union. I told Rabin that we had already hosted Shimon Peres, Binyamin Netanyahu and Yitzhak Shamir, and would be honored to have him. He asked: “Who will be hosting me? The university or the Jewish students?” I explained that it would be a joint event between us and the Oxford Union. But he pressed again for clarification. Would it be the Jewish students who were inviting him or the mainstream students? Rabin was chief of General Staff during the Six Day War, the man who oversaw Israel’s greatest military victory, and to whom Jews the world over remain forever indebted. But even this tough-as-nails sabra struggled, as do we all, with the seductive nature of non-Jewish legitimacy.

Mikhail Gorbachev, Stephen Hawking, Michael Jackson, Australian prime minister Bob Hawke, UN secretary-general Javier Perez de Cuellar and countless other non-Jewish luminaries all proudly addressed students from our rostrum.

Rabin ended up graciously accepting our invitation, but was forced to turn around after arriving in Britain due to a terrible bombing in Tel Aviv. The lecture was later delivered by his son Yuval, who gave one of the proudest speeches about being Jewish that I have ever heard.

I sometimes see the same trend in my own children.

A prouder, less insecure generation of Jews is replacing us. They walk with yarmulkes held high and tzitzit waving. They fight for Israel on campus, even when marginalized for doing so.

They are the living fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy (4:6) that the day will come when the hearts of the parents are returned through their children.

The writer is founder of This World: The Values Network, which brings together international speakers to debate values-based issues. He will soon publish Honoring the Child Spirit: Rabbi Shmuley and Michael Jackson in Conversation about What Parents Can Learn from Their Children.

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