A few years ago I was on the phone with a Jewish activist from Florida who was well-known for being a Democrat and a feminist. I was interested to hear what she had learned from decades of service in the Jewish community, so I asked her what she considered to be the most important Jewish issue of our time – and why. Without a moment’s hesitation, she replied, “Abortion rights. The freedom to choose is what Judaism is all about.” I thought that she had not understood my question, so I repeated it with an added emphasis on the word “Jewish.” She in turn repeated her answer more forcefully, leaving no doubt that she considered abortion to be a more important Jewish issue than the security of Israel, Jewish education, intermarriage, theological delegitimization of Israel and Judaism, increasing anti-Semitism in Europe and Latin America, etc. Whatever one’s views on abortion, her argument is almost impossible to defend. Her liberal views on moral issues had clearly distorted her understanding of the priorities of modern world Jewry, and I soon discovered that she was considered by many of her peers to be more of a political activist than a Jewish one.
I was reminded of this conversation while reading a recent ad placed in the Wall Street Journal and Forward newspapers by the progressive group Jewish Funds for Justice (JFSJ), which has been gunning for conservative TV and radio pundit Glenn Beck for a long time. Last July JFSJ had over 250 Christian and Jewish leaders sign an ad slamming Beck for his comparison of comments made by the group’s president to the warped logic used by Nazis to establish death camps. Shortly thereafter, JFSJ’s president and two other rabbis met with top Fox News executives to voice their displeasure with Beck’s on-air references to Nazis and the Holocaust. In January the group attempted to deliver a petition signed by 10,000 people demanding that Fox terminate Beck. The most recent ad shows the signatures of 400 rabbis affixed to a petition demanding that Beck be sanctioned for the inappropriate use of the Holocaust and references to Nazis to demonize his opponents, including Jewish Holocaust survivor George Soros. JFSJ’s homepage is dominated by a banner article entitled “Why Glenn Beck is Special” written by Mik Moore, the group’s “chief strategy officer.” At first glance, it looks like a liberal group obsessed with a conservative pundit has enlisted rabbis in yet another attempt to silence him.
Although the ad begins with the invocation “Dear Mr. Murdoch, We are rabbis of diverse political views,” the 20 or so signatories with whom I am acquainted are all rabbis who are affiliated with progressive causes. I suspect that some of the rabbis were motivated to sign as much by Beck’s politics as by his ill-considered statements. I wanted to hear from a signatory whose motives were pure, so I contacted Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. His answer was, as always, insightful and on target: “I was intending to sign a statement against abusing the Holocaust to condemn people with whose politics we differ. Left, center, and right, the abuse of Holocaust language cheapens the memory of the six million and makes real conversation (let alone learning from each other) impossible. What is clear is that people on the left like the petition because they dislike Beck, and people on the right condemned the petition because they support him. No one to date has responded to the core issue of abuse of the Shoah for political purposes. For that reason, I would not sign such a petition if asked today - it gets filtered through partisan political concerns rather than broad religious/ethical values. You are free to quote me on that.”
Since I write a religion blog, not a political one, my concern is not only whether Beck’s comments merit condemnation but also whether they are an appropriate target for the collective wrath of 400 rabbis. I have already condemned Beck’s irresponsible attacks on Soros’s Jewishness and actions during WWII, and agree with JFSJ and the rabbis that they are reprehensible. However, for the life of me I cannot understand why the signatories would invoke the considerable moral authority of the rabbinate on this issue, considering the source. Moreover, the text of the ad inexplicably (and carelessly) cites statements by Jewish leaders (e.g., Abe Foxman, Deborah Lipstadt) who in fact were less than enthusiastic about the ad. Mr. Foxman, a Holocaust survivor, expressed my sentiments exactly: “While we have said many times that Nazi comparisons are offensive and inappropriate when used for political attacks, in my view it is wrongheaded to single out only Fox News on this issue, when both liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, can share equal guilt in making trivializing comparisons to the Holocaust. Furthermore, the open letter signed by hundreds of rabbis is a trivialization in itself… at a time when Holocaust denial is rampant in much of the Arab world, where anti-Semitism remains a serious concern, and where the Iranian leader has openly declared his desire to ‘wipe Israel off the map,’ surely there are greater enemies and threats to the Jewish people than the pro-Israel stalwarts Rupert Murdoch, Roger Ailes and Glenn Beck.”
Both the respect I hold for the rabbinate and my desire to see the abuse of Holocaust imagery addressed in a more appropriate forum lead me to oppose the latest ad.
Rabbi Lori Schneide and I will make a joint presentation on the role of Israel and the Abrahamic Covenant in our respective faiths on Wednesday, February 9 @ 7:30 p.m. @ USC Hillel (3300 S. Hoover Street, Los Angeles)
Rabbi Arnold Rachlis, Dr. Armand Mauss, and Brett Holbrooke will conduct an LDS-Jewish dialogue at University Synagogue in Irvine on Friday, March 11 @ 8:00 p.m.