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June 4, 2010

A response to Dennis Prager

http://www.jewishjournal.com/opinion/article/a_response_to_dennis_prager_20100604

Thanks to Dennis Prager for selecting my recent article to illustrate what’s wrong with the Left. It’s great being used as a straw Jew, so Mr. Prager can knock me down.

I was asked by the editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency to write a short rebuttal to a column by Binyamin Korn, a leader of a new (and tiny) group called “Jews for Palin.”  Mine was a concise 600-word opinion piece, much shorter than a policy memo or even a sermon. Despite this, Mr. Prager was quick to use my piece to stereotype progressives and paint them all with the same brush, hardly the reflection of an open or nuanced mind.

Mr. Prager claims, for example, that leftists make statements “ “that only fellow leftists believe, and they believe these assertions largely because of antipathy to conservatives, not because there is validating evidence.”  To illustrate his point, he says that I provide “no validating evidence” for my criticisms of the Bush Administration about what I called its “monstrous deficit spending,” “breakdown of diplomacy,” and “disdain for science and civil liberties.”  This was a short essay in response to an attack on President Obama, not an article in an academic journal about President Bush, but if Mr. Prager would like me to supply him with documentation for my statements, I’d be happy to oblige. 

But there are some things – like the fact that the sun sets in the west – that shouldn’t require footnotes because they are so well known. 

Fact:  President Bush inherited a surplus budget from President Clinton and proceeded to wreck it with two unfunded wars and massive tax cuts for the super wealthy.  President Obama has had to spend so much in order to try and fix this mess, an economic disaster of epic proportions. 

Fact:  The Bush Doctrine alienated most of the world, save for a few European countries who joined in the terrible decision to invade Iraq, and even they mostly gave up in the end.  Withdrawing from major international treaties, ignoring global climate change at a time when the whole world was prepared to work together to save our planet, and most painfully, wasting the good will the world had for us after 9/11 to work together to combat the true sources of terrorism, namely Osama Bin Laden – these are clear evidence of Bush’s failure as a diplomat. 

President Obama cannot correct the entire mess he inherited after Bush’s eight years of serious disdain for international law and American civil liberties.  Did Mr. Prager agree with sanctioning torture, warrantless wiretapping, rolling back environmental regulations, bringing Wall Street and the world economy to the brink of collapse and other highlights of the eight years of “rightist” thinking and policy? 

Prager assumes that progressives only talk to and listen to each other, filtering out ideas they don’t agree with.  He asserts, for example, that because I’m on the left, I don’t listen to his show.  In fact, I do listen to his show and other right-wing talk shows, but, more importantly, I read lots of conservative and middle-of-the-road publications so I can be fully aware of the public debate on important issues. Ironically, Mr. Prager’s show, like his writings, is hardly fair and balanced. He is part of the conservative echo chamber that dismisses ideas that don’t conform to the Right’s views.  Just because Prager isn’t a shouter like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck doesn’t mean that his show is any more ecumenical.  The great rabbis like Hillel and Shammai often disagreed, but were still able to eat together and find joy when their children married each other.  I find little of this mutual respect and tolerance for opposing views on Mr. Prager’s show or those of other right-wing broadcasters.

Instead, Mr. Prager tends to see the world in very black and white terms, a common myopia of the far right.  I recognize that the world of politics and culture is diverse and that nobody has a monopoly on the truth. When it comes to world affairs,  there is more than one narrative, not just that of the Republican Party or even of the United States in general. Others have good ideas and legitimate grievances. 

I consider myself a disciple of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Dr. Martin Luther King, two men who called us to live lives of love, compassion, grace and peace, but who also engaged in the real world of politics and policy, emulating the prophets who spoke truth to power.  Like these two great thinkers and men of action, I believe in diplomacy over warfare.  Does Prager think that Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel’s views were “make believe,” a phrase he applies to the entire progressive worldview? 

War should always be a last resort, and I admit that I am somewhat ambivalent about even that choice.  Addressing the root causes of social injustice such as poverty, hunger, and fear, is usually a more effective weapon for combating evil than a gun or a missile. 

The Torah calls on us to challenge greed, bigotry, oppression, and the abuse of power.  More times than any other command in the Torah, we are told to care for the stranger and orphan, the widow and the downtrodden. That is the philosophy I try to live by. It isn’t left or right. It is just the right thing to do. Mr. Prager and I apparently read the same Torah, but we understand its teachings differently.

Finally, let me correct one of Mr. Prager’s factual errors that reflecthis sloppy thinking. Referring to me, Prager wrote that,  “for the rabbi of almost any Reform temple to write a leftist column or to give a leftist sermon is as courageous as an Orthodox rabbi sermonizing on keeping kosher.  But in the make-believe world of the left, giving a leftist sermon to a largely left-wing congregation is courageous.” 

It would have been easy for Mr. Prager to find out – simply by Googling my name or that of my synagogue – that the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center ( www.pjtc.net) is affiliated with the Conservative movement and that I was ordained at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary.  I serve a very diverse and mixed congregation of almost 500 families, where there is much debate and discussion about all kinds of issues, religious and secular.  I’d even welcome Mr. Prager to visit our synagogue, as he lives in the neighboring town, and see for himself – a bit of empirical research that he didn’t bother to do when attacking me and my congregation.


Dennis Prager Responds:

As Rabbi Grater did not actually respond to my column, I can only request that readers read or reread what I wrote.

I will simply add a few points.

In my column I noted that Rabbi Grater makes assertions without providing evidence. In his response to my piece, he did this again. For example, he writes: “I believe in diplomacy over warfare.” Without examples, the statement is meaningless. When? Where? Not a word. With Hitler in 1939? With Iran today? With Islamic terrorism? (Or does the rabbi not use that term just as the Obama administration no longer uses it?)

Rabbi Grater writes, “Mr. Prager was quick to use my piece to stereotype progressives and paint them all with the same brush.” I think we have a case of projection here. Rabbi Grater writes that seeing “the world in very black-and-white terms [is] a common myopia of the far right.” Isn’t that a stereotype (for which, again, no example is offered)?

I will end this brief response by noting what I consider the saddest and most objectionable thing Rabbi Grater wrote: “War should always be a last resort, and I admit that I am somewhat ambivalent about even that choice.”

Every moral person believes war should be a last resort and longs for a world in which “nations shall not learn war anymore.” But for a rabbi to write that he is ambivalent about war even as a last resort is a bad sign for Judaism. Judaism has never countenanced pacifism. As every yeshiva student learns, “Whoever comes to kill you, arise earlier and kill him” (Talmud). Judaism hates evil — “Those who love God must hate evil” (Psalms), and the greatest evils are usually ended by war, almost never by diplomacy. The Nazi death camps were liberated by soldiers who kill, not by peace activists, let alone pacifists.

Diplomacy to stop evil? Please. This is another example of the make-believe world of the left I described. Diplomacy did nothing for 2 million Cambodians, the Congolese (6 million killed in the last 10 years while the world’s diplomats were busy condemning Israel), the Tutsis in Rwanda, the North Koreans, the 75 million Chinese under Mao, the 30 to 40 million under Stalin, or the tens of millions slaughtered by the Nazis (in large measure because of European “ambivalence” about war).

Finally, identifying a Conservative synagogue as Reform is not “sloppy thinking,” it is mistake. It is sloppy thinking to call a factual mistake “sloppy thinking.” I regret the error. For the record, I have been an active member of a Reform synagogue for 20 years. And I am happy to accept Rabbi Grater’s invitation to visit his Conservative synagogue. I promise to sit quietly in the back.

Read Dennis Prager’s column on Rabbi Grater here

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