Rabbinic blacklists, UNESCO insults and outraged Zionists, oh my!

Rather than saying to the Chief Rabbinate, “How dare you, I’m running away offended,” I say: “How dare you, you’re wrong.”

The rabbis of the Council of the Chief Rabbinate (photo credit: CHIEF RABBINATE)
The rabbis of the Council of the Chief Rabbinate
(photo credit: CHIEF RABBINATE)
Zionists who love to feel oppressed are having a grand time this week. Within Israel, the anti-Zionist Chief Rabbinate, which seems committed to making Judaism look as medieval as possible, stands accused of blacklisting 160 Diaspora rabbis. Meanwhile, UNESCO, whose mission of “building peace in the minds of men and women,” excludes Jews, Zionists and reasonable people, and stands accused of denying Jews’ ties to Hebron.
Indeed, blacklisting these Diaspora rabbis is as logical as deeming gefilte fish unkosher because of its European origins, while denying the Jewish ties to Hebron is like denying Arab ties to Jerusalem – validity does not require exclusivity. But, fellow Zionists, democrats, truth-tellers, keep your blood-pressure monitors boxed. Each story is more subtle – slightly less outrageous, though nevertheless offensive.
It’s easy for me to take this Big Bad Rabbinate’s blacklist story personally. One targeted rabbi, Rabbi Adam Scheier, is a friend and Troy family spiritual mentor. In 2010, he wrote the official letter for our aliya, immigration, confirming our Jewish status. We all felt a little silly. Both my wife and I were born to two Jewish parents with long Jewish pedigrees. Her father was in forced labor during the Holocaust in Romania and served as an Israeli soldier in 1948. One of my paternal great-grandfathers was a Tolner Hassid and my maternal line includes a grandfather, great-grandfather and possibly great-great grandfather who were “baal koreis,” Torah readers in Stavisk, Poland, then Brooklyn and Queens. That we – while living our own rich, deep Jewish lives – had to get a letter from a rabbi who was younger than us, whom we had known for only a few years, felt ridiculous.
Yet we understood Israel’s necessary blurring of synagogue and state – within limits. We were making aliya under the Law of Return granting Jews automatic citizenship. The state needs objective processes for assessing claims to be Jewish. Local rabbis are logical authorities.
With that background, the temptation to flaunt my Jewish credentials further, along with Rabbi Scheier’s, and mock the chief rabbinate for rejecting us both, will be resisted here. I also reject the typical modern Jewish reaction, saying: “you see, some Jewish authority rejected me, therefore I and my hurt feelings are abandoning Judaism.”
How about a subtler approach? Accepting Birthright’s message – we belong, this wonderful heritage is ours – I approach this controversy as an indignant owner, not a picky consumer. Rather than saying to the Chief Rabbinate, “How dare you, I’m running away offended,” I say: “How dare you, you’re wrong.”
But I also read beyond the headlines. The newspapers say the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau claimed he was “astonished to discover this list,” and called it “unthinkable.” And the list detailed names of rabbis whose affirmation of Jewish-status letters had been rejected recently. The Chief Rabbinate’s “Marriage and Conversion Department” could have rejected the letters for many reasons beyond the rabbi’s credentials.
Obviously, a deeper truth lies beyond these particular facts. The Chief Rabbinate needs reforming – and it should start by firing the clerk, apologizing to each rabbi, and inviting them all to a Jewish unity summit in Jerusalem. Every Israeli should stop voting for any party which will accept an anti-Zionist chief rabbinate – or anti-Zionists clerks working there. Every Diaspora Jew should stop funding political parties and organizations that facilitate these absurd power plays by rabbis who reject Israel’s fundamental values. And while no officials are questioning my citizenship because of my rabbi, the Chief Rabbinate is unfairly doubting him and, most disturbing, blocking others it should be welcoming as converts, as immigrants. We should encourage more people to become Jewish and move to Israel – not discourage them with idiotic obstacles.
Similarly, I offer some subtlety regarding UNESCO, as much as I enjoy bashing that bunch of bigots too. UNESCO recognized Hebron/Al-Khalil Old Town as an “endangered” “World Heritage” site. The speeches were incendiary and insulting. The more reasonable citation that passed acknowledged “the tomb of the Patriarchs” as a “site of pilgrimage for the three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.”
The main problem arose when UNESCO defined Hebron as being in “Palestine.” That’s more silly than offensive. It reflects the UN’s farcical, playacting approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They make pronouncements, rely on symbols, embrace the Palestinian narrative, feed Palestinians’ maximalist delusions, rather than advancing peace in the Middle East. If UNESCO truly were “building peace in the minds of” Palestinian “men and women,” it would encourage recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, while discouraging terrorism and the culture celebrating murderers as “martyrs.” Instead, its fake Palestinian “state” fuels the stalemate – this impotent political entity with a president who outlasts his tenure, a political culture that dodges responsibility, an economy forever on the dole, but with no doubt a beautiful certificate declaring “Hebron, Palestine,” a World Heritage site.
I am not comparing the evils of the Palestinian addiction to terrorism and negationism or the wickedness of the UN’s enabling those crimes with the Chief Rabbinate’s petty power plays. I am, however, wary, of our own readiness in both situations to read the hysterical headlines, ignore the fine print, and head straight to our particular trauma zones. Progress will come, on both these very different fronts, when everyone injects more complexity, ambiguity and thus some flexibility and empathy into our approaches, seeking to solve problems rather than simply build walls, repudiate others – or feel oppressed.
The writer is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s. His forthcoming book, The Zionist Ideas, which updates Arthur Hertzberg’s classic work, will be published by The Jewish Publication Society in Spring 2018. He is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University. Follow on Twitter @GilTroy.