'These Olympics are not kosher'

Two prominent NY rabbis are urging Jews to refrain from attending the upcoming Beijing Olympics.

Tibet activists 88 224 (photo credit: AP [file])
Tibet activists 88 224
(photo credit: AP [file])
Each of the rabbis interviewed here boasts a lengthy list of professional accomplishments in the American Jewish community and, although they are far past the usual retirement age, neither shows any sign of slowing down. In addition to his rabbinical ordination, Yitz Greenberg, 74, earned a PhD in history at Harvard, served as spiritual leader of the Riverdale (Bronx) Jewish Center in the late 1960s, and was founder and chairman of the Jewish Studies Department at the City College of New York. He founded and was president of CLAL, a Jewish leadership training institute, and later became president of the Jewish Life Network, mega-philanthropist Michael Steinhardt's foundation. Greenberg also served as director of the President's Commission on the Holocaust, chaired the US Holocaust Memorial Council and has authored books on Holocaust theology, Jewish-Christian dialogue and intra-Jewish dialogue. Haskel Lookstein, 76, notoriously energetic and busy, has been leader of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun and the Ramaz day school for more than half a century, building them into two of the most important Jewish institutions in New York City. He has also served as president of the New York Board of Rabbis, chairman of the Greater New York Conference on Soviet Jewry and president of the Synagogue Council of America, among other positions. The two men are close friends and longtime collaborators, and when they team up for a cause, they can pack quite a punch. In recent weeks, they have turned their attention to China and its role as host of the upcoming Olympics. You two have a long history together of raising controversial issues. Lookstein: True, although some of our early issues were pretty tame by today's standards. Thinking back to the days when we were both young rabbis in New York City in the 1960s, I remember once hearing that Yitz, in his shul, had started what was then a novel practice: having the congregation sing a brief song after a new father or some other celebrant was called to the Torah. That seemed like a good idea, so I introduced it at my synagogue, Kehilath Jeshurun, but some of our members opposed it because they thought it would be disorderly. In those days, there was a certain amount of resistance to some of the practices that today are a standard part of what we call Modern Orthodoxy. Greenberg: We really began working together closely in the Soviet Jewry protest movement. I was one of the founders of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, in 1964, and Haskel was one the few figures in the Jewish leadership who embraced activism even though he was also part of the establishment. We marched and picketed together, we sang and prayed together, and we worked on strategies for turning Soviet Jewry into a major public issue. Remember, in those days, activism was still a new concept to many American Jews. Your activism sometimes went beyond the bounds of the standard Jewish agenda. For example, in 1971 you were the only Orthodox rabbis to declare that non-union lettuce and grapes should be regarded as non-kosher and you urged Jews to boycott them. What is the basis in Judaism for that position? Greenberg: We were both students of the Rav, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. From him we learned the idea that Halacha is not just a list of ritual dos and don'ts, but a comprehensive worldview that applies to everything that happens around us. The Torah prohibits the exploitation of workers - so why shouldn't that apply to migrant farm workers picking lettuce or grapes? They were being mistreated, so it was natural for us to apply the principle of non-exploitation to their situation, too. It seemed obvious. But not everyone in my shul was enthusiastic about it. There were some who felt that Jewish involvement in liberal causes was never reciprocated - they felt the Jewish community had been burned when the New Left and black militants began spouting anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic rhetoric. On the other hand, the Orthodox college students with whom I worked in those days loved the idea of Jews boycotting non-union lettuce. Lookstein: The young couples in my congregation were also very enthusiastic about the lettuce boycott idea. In general, one can say that there are some people in the Jewish community who have gone to one extreme, embracing universalism to the point of ignoring Jewish concerns. And then there are others who have gone to the other extreme, cutting themselves off from the world. Yitz and I have always looked for that middle path, standing up for Jewish causes but also taking an interest in what goes on in the rest of the world. Over the past several weeks, you recruited rabbis and other Jewish leaders to sign a public statement criticizing the Chinese government and urging Jews to stay away from the Beijing Olympics. The statement, which was released on Holocaust Remembrance Day, cited Chinese repression in Tibet and China's support for the government of Sudan, but also referred to China's supply of missiles to Iran and Syria and its friendly relations with Hamas. Would you call this an example of taking on both Jewish and broader concerns? Greenberg: Yes. We have an obligation, as human beings, to speak out against the denial of self-rule to the Tibetans, and against China's support for the Sudanese regime, which is involved in the mass killings in Darfur. At the same time, as Jews, we have legitimate reason to be concerned about China giving missiles or other assistance to those who threaten Israel. You yourself have met the Dalai Lama. Did that influence your decision to criticize China? Greenberg: My wife, Blu, and I were part of a Jewish delegation that was invited to Dharamsala, in northern India, in 1990 to meet with the Dalai Lama. As someone living in exile from his homeland, he wanted to learn from us how Jews had managed to survive as a people despite our many centuries of exile from the Land of Israel. In the years since then, we have continued to stay in touch with him and have met on other occasions. Blu twice brought a group of Tibetan educators to the United States to show them how the Jewish community uses summer camps and day schools as ways of strengthening Jewish identity. But even if we never had any contact with the Tibetans personally, I would still say that Jews should protest the Tibet situation. But are the Olympics the appropriate venue for such protests? The International Olympic Committee argues that one should not mix politics with sports. Rabbi Lookstein, you are known to be a passionate sports fan - how do you respond to that argument? Lookstein: I agree that you should not mix politics with sports. But what we're talking about here is not politics, but an urgent moral crisis. We're talking about the Chinese government propping up Sudanese leaders who are sponsoring atrocities. We're talking about the Chinese giving missiles to Iran and Syria that could be aimed at Tel Aviv. The International Olympic Committee can't stick its head in the sand and pretend that Beijing is an ordinary, reasonable government. It was a terrible mistake for the committee to award the Olympics to China. The result is that the Chinese will try to use the games as a way to improve their public image and gain legitimacy in the eyes of the Western world. That's what Nazi Germany tried to do in 1936 - to make itself look good and hide its cruel policies. Greenberg: We are not identifying China today as Nazi Germany. One has to be very careful with such analogies, so as not to cheapen what the Nazis did nor exaggerate what is happening today. We are comparing China to the various governments which, in the 1940s, were the bystanders. Some of those bystanders simply didn't lift a finger when the Jews were being persecuted. Others facilitated or enabled the mass murder in some way. And still others actively collaborated with the killers. There is a range of bystander behavior. What we know from the Holocaust is that the behavior of the bystanders plays a crucial role in determining what happens to the victims. During the Holocaust, the Jewish survival rate in Denmark was 95%, while in Eastern Europe the Jewish death rate was over 90%. That's because in Denmark, decent people stood in solidarity with the intended victims. The whole society refused to allow Jews to be segregated and destroyed. In countries where the bystanders did not stand up, Jews were isolated and murdered. Precisely because the Chinese are in a crucial bystander role, they have to be penalized, embarrassed, and forced to reconsider their policies, because what they do will have a direct effect on whether people live or die, whether in Darfur or Tibet, and maybe in Israel too. Of course, we are not absolving the rest of the international community from their obligations. If other countries had imposed serious sanctions on Sudan, the Darfur genocide could have been stopped long ago. Likewise, strong sanctions are needed to stop Iran's nuclear ambitions. In the 1930s, the Roosevelt administration opposed any boycott of the Olympics in Nazi Germany, because it was interested in having cordial relations with Hitler. What lesson should the Bush administration learn from that experience? Lookstein: The administration says it is working behind the scenes to pressure the Chinese on some of these issues. They say they are using quiet diplomacy. Yitz and I are not against quiet diplomacy. There's a time and a place for it. But as a tactic in this particular situation, it's not working. The Chinese are not responding. If, after months of quiet diplomacy, they still don't hesitate to send in their troops and ruthlessly suppress Tibetan monks, it shows that quiet diplomacy is not having the desired effect. We hope that the Bush administration will recognize that more needs to be done. It's pretty clear by now that more aggressive and public pressure by the United States is needed to move the Chinese. What about American Jews? Rabbi Lookstein, you are the author of a book called Were We Our Brothers Keepers?, which was the first study of how American Jews responded to news of the Holocaust. You found that many Jewish leaders went about "business as usual" instead of focusing on the plight of the the Jews in Europe. Is that the case today, as well? Lookstein: The American Jewish community today is a far cry from the more fearful and cautious community of the 1940s. My father, Rabbi Joseph Lookstein, used to say that Jews in those years walked around like question marks, bent over and nervous about attracting attention. By contrast, the Jews of our generation, who fought for Soviet Jewry and vigorously support Israel, are more like exclamation points. Still, there is always more that can and should be done. We hope that our effort with regard to China will help galvanize the community. Greenberg: Holocaust museums and institutions have a particular obligation to help the public understand how to apply the lessons of the 1940s to today's problems. As the Torah teaches us, we remember what happened to us in ancient times not just for the sake of remembering, but for the sake of learning from it and understanding how to apply it today. As chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, I tried to strengthen and expand the Holocaust Museum's Committee on Conscience, as it is called. The committee was included in the original legislation that established the museum. To the museum's credit, it has taken a more active role in recent years, especially with regard to Darfur. At the same time, of course, it is important for Holocaust institutions to be careful in their terminology. It has to be clear that genocide is not the same as the Holocaust, and war crimes are not necessarily the same as genocide. Institutions must be careful not to universalize the Holocaust, or create sweeping categories that would dilute the extremity of what the Holocaust represents. Your Holocaust Remembrance Day statement, criticizing the Chinese, was signed by nearly 200 rabbis and other Jewish leaders. Looking at the list of signatories, one is immediately struck by the fact that there is such a wide cross-section of prominent figures from the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist camps. Both of you have made the quest for intra-Jewish unity one of the constant themes in your speeches and writings over the years. Does your success in recruiting this kind of across-the-board support constitute a significant step towards Jewish unity? Greenberg: It's wonderful that leading rabbis from every branch of Judaism are willing to set aside their differences and come together on an issue of overriding importance. Whether it will translate into a more cooperative spirit on other issues remains to be seen. But the main thing is that right now, it may help people who need our help. We all have seen what kind of damage Jewish disunity can do. Now hopefully we'll see the kind of positive impact that Jewish unity can have.