At a briefing for Jewish leaders (and honorary Jews) in Los Angeles held earlier this week, the Israeli Consul General led a spirited discussion of recent events with an audience of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, secular, religious, gay, straight, Republican, Democratic, Persian, Ashkenazi, and Sephardic Jews. Only one issue can unite these communities within a community. By way of example, I saw very few non-Orthodox Jews at the memorial service held in Los Angeles for the Chabad rabbi and his wife who were gunned down in Mumbai, India. Straight Jews at the service for the gay Israeli teens shot to death in Tel Aviv were few and far between. However, Jews from all walks of life will attend the massive pro-Israel rally scheduled for this Sunday at 2:00 p.m. The largest gathering of Jews in the city since 2006 should be a sight to see, and I know several Mormons who will be there.
As inspiring as the rally is sure to be, it is useful to think about what to do after the event’s glow has faded. How can Jews make their case to the world? What if anything can be learned from the Mormon community about promoting one’s values? Different approaches taken by prominent Jews on two continents have helped to frame my thinking on this subject.
During a meeting with a Jewish leader in Amsterdam, I asked him what he thought of Geerd Wilders, the controversial pro-Israel Dutch politician. “We could listen to him speak all day—on Israel,” replied my host. “The Jewish community in Holland is genuinely grateful to a prominent politician who openly speaks of his love for Jews and Israel.” However, Mr. Wilders’ extreme anti-Islam statements (he has called for a ban on the Koran, the “Islamic Mein Kampf”) and intolerance of Muslim beliefs and practices are hurting Jews more than most people realize. In an egalitarian society like Holland’s, a politician who promotes the closing of Islamic schools and the banning of halal ritual slaughter does so with the knowledge that Jewish schools and kosher slaughter will disappear as well. My Dutch friend pointed to positive relations between the Jewish community and the Muslim mayor of Rotterdam, the country’s second-largest city, and claimed that Muslim and Jewish leaders were actively working together to preserve their schools and religious practices. Relations between the two communities are not perfect, he said, but Islamophobia is not the solution.
I’d like to bring him to LA to speak. I can think of several speakers (all non-Jews) who have made careers out of publicly denouncing Islam at every turn in order to cash checks from Jewish patrons (though it must be emphasized that the overwhelming majority of Jews do not support their efforts). I’ve sat through many of their speeches and read some of their books, but have yet to see how the Jewish cause can be made by criticizing the faith of 1.5 billion people. Case in point: while working at the Israeli Consulate, I was asked to organize a meeting of a dozen prominent pastors and two Mormon representatives with several consulate officials. Although we had a full agenda of interfaith items to discuss, we never made it to item #1. The pastors spent thirty minutes denouncing Mohammed, Islam, and Muslims in very un-Christian ways. The Israeli consuls reminded the pastors that many Israeli citizens are Muslims, while I tried in vain to remind everyone that we had an agenda to follow. However, nothing could dissuade the pastors from slamming Islam, and the visibly frustrated consul general was forced to call an early end to the useless meeting. The two Mormon representatives could not believe what they had heard, and the senior leader pulled me aside afterwards to ask how Jewish-Christian relations could be strengthened by denouncing another religion. All I could do was apologize for wasting his time and reiterate that the views expressed were not those of the consulate or its staff. Everyone who can read a newspaper recognizes that the Bin Laden brand of radical Islam needs to be defeated. Do we really need to pay speakers, sponsor conferences, and fund organizations to repeat this refrain? Seems like a colossal waste of money to me.
Where the money should be directed was made clear this week. A rabbi who oversees a large Introduction to Judaism program told a synagogue audience that whenever students considering conversion ask him to make the case for Judaism, he always declines. With all due respect, I believe that he is wrong not to do so. The world would be a better place if there were more Jews in it. I love to see media figures like Michael Medved and Dennis Prager promote Jewish values. More synagogues are actively looking for ways to promote Judaism to unaffiliated non-Jews and interfaith couples. Prominent rabbis like Joseph Telushkin and Harold Schulweis are leading advocates for promoting Jewish values to the world. In the case of Rabbi Schulweis, his values led to the creation of Jewish World Watch, which has cared for thousands of refugees in Darfur and the Congo. Rabbi Schulweis doesn’t help these people just because he is a kind man; he helps them because he is a kind Jewish man. If the promotion of Judaism and Jewish values to non-Jews received as much funding as the anti-jihadist/Wahhabist/radical Islam crowd, we would see miracles happen. As a former Mormon missionary who currently serves on a church public affairs council, I have seen how effective this approach can be. If you define your values clearly, articulate them in the public square, and share them with all who will listen, good people will rally to your cause. Fourteen million Mormons in 176 countries can testify to this, and I travel at my expense around the world to remind them of the history and theology we share with Jews. In this week’s Torah portion we read of the ancient Canaanites who knew this about the Israelites: “they have heard that thou Lord art among this people, that thou Lord art seen face to face, and that thy cloud standeth over them, and that thou goest before them, by day time in a pillar of a cloud, and in a pillar of fire by night” (Numbers 14:14). If only the inhabitants of this and other lands could hear modern-day Israelites proclaim similar tidings on a regular basis. Shabbat shalom.