I honestly can’t recall ever having read an opinion piece by an author I consider to be a brilliant, thoughtful, level-headed, spiritual person whom I enjoy
learning from and wondering: What the heck is going on with him?
In a mean-spirited commentary in the LA Jewish Journal, the renowned Rabbi, David Wolpe of Sinai Temple, LA elected to go ballistic over a letter sent to the members of the progressive Zionist organization J Street, by journalist and author Peter Beinart.
My first reaction after reading Rabbi Wolpe’s harsh comments was of course to read the Beinart letter which I myself had recently received. After reading the piece not once but twice, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was reading whatever it was that ignited Wolpe’s rage. The charges seemed outlandish for the scene of the crime.
No one but Rabbi Wolpe can tell us for sure why he felt compelled to pen such verbal assault. That said, this progressive Zionist feels compelled to defend Beinart and question some of David Wolpe’s charges.
Baby-boomers like Rabbi Wolpe and myself who were born in the shadow of Shoah, had parents and relatives who were survivors. It seemed as if everyone in the American Jewish community of the 1950‘s and 60‘s had lost relatives during the Holocaust. At the time, Israel was a fledgling nation under attack from a hostile Arab world that didn’t let a day go by without declaring their intent to destroy it. Israel made Diaspora Jewry proud. While we may not have been living within the borders of the new Jewish State, we all considered ourselves proud partners with our pioneering brothers and sisters in establishing an historic Jewish response to the Holocaust: A permanent Jewish homeland.
40 years ago, most Jews believed that Israel could do no wrong. Many of us subscribed to the belief that political and military challenges to the young Jewish State were actually offshoots of the Holocaust and history’s never-ending assault on the Jewish people.
But Israel is no longer a tiny, poor, struggling nation whose survival is in doubt. Militarily and economically, the Jewish State is a powerhouse among the nations of the world. Every successive American President since 1948 has committed America to protecting and defending Israel against her enemies.
Understandably, but regrettably, many Jews still subscribe to the idea that Israel can do no wrong. Many Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora believe that the determination of so many in the Arab world to destroy the Jewish State gives Israel a green-light to avoid making significant concessions in its efforts to work with the Palestinian people in creating a “two state solution.” Ongoing acts of terrorism against Israelis make many Jews inclined to be indifferent to the fact that for 45 years, Israel has subjected 2 million plus Palestinians to often harsh military occupation while it proudly declares itself the only democracy in the Middle East.
Some of us believe Israel can do better. Some of us don’t believe that the rights of a human being should be determined by his or her politics, heritage, faith, etc. American’s can proudly point to 8th Amendment to the Constitution that says that no person, regardless of their status (e.g. incarcerated criminals,) should be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. More than likely, the 8th Amendment was inspired by the Torah which teaches in Leviticus 19:34: “You must treat the stranger among you as your equal; remember, you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Many Jewish people including myself, are appalled and ashamed of the mistreatment of Palestinians living under military occupation. It’s not at all unusual to read about right-wing extremists in Israel who desecrate mosques, burn Palestinian farms and olive trees or advocate for the forced expulsion of Arabs from the land “that God gave to the Jewish people.”
How can anyone who truly appreciates the Torah’s demand that we recognize that all human beings are created in the Divine Image not be repulsed by Israeli politicians who promote policies that deny basic human rights of any group of people?
The Zionist organization “J Street” was created in recent years to give a voice to those of us who love Israel, believe in the rights and dignity of every human being and who are very circumspect of the Israeli government’s meager, chronically hesitant efforts to negotiate a final settlement with the Palestinian people.
Morals, ethics and commitment to justice are not values that should conveniently put on the shelf because the person you are dealing with is hostile to you. Yitzhak Rabin observed at the time of the signing of the Oslo accords that our humanity is not measured by how we treat our friends but by how we treat our enemies.
In reading Rabbi Wolpe’s remarks, one might assume that Peter Beinart had to have written something pretty intolerant and onerous. Did he promote hate for Israel? Hate for the Jewish people? Did he side with Arabs who want to destroy Israel? Did he advocate violence against anyone?
The Beinart letter includes none of those things. But from the very first sentence of Rabbi Wolpe’s verbal tantrum we get a clear sense of the very profound, personal rage that guided his pen:
“Announcing his new book in a hucksterish email to J street members, Peter Beinart details the truths vouchsafed to him and his fellow enlightened acolytes.”
That doesn’t sound to me a like the sentiments of an erudite, diplomatic, intellectually honest spiritual leader about to explain why he doesn’t share someone’s opinion. That’s just a full throttle, vindictive frontal assault on a person’s character.
Congregational Rabbis are in a tough position when it comes to expressing their views on sensitive political issues. No rabbi concerned with his/her tenure and ongoing relationships with congregants can afford to take unpopular or controversial political positions. Obviously though, where morality and ethics are concerned, we expect our rabbis to reference the teachings of Torah. But its clear that Rabbi Wolpe wasn’t promoting any Torah values here, he was just angrily dumping on someone who pissed him off.
While Rabbi Wolpe carefully tried to temper his venom with acknowledgments that Israel’s human rights record isn’t spotless, his suggestion that because Arab disdain for Israel remains so profound and Iran now threatens Israel with nuclear weapons, criticism of Israel is out-of-bounds. Is that so? That’s the kind of righteous indignation one might expect from a simplistic nationalist extremist who believes that tribal interests always circumvent: truth, facts, history, morality and the teaching of faith. Following Rabbi Wolpe’s reasoning, a parent can conveniently their child’s mis-behavior because “the other children” did it too, or did worse.
Rabbi Wolpe also challenges Beinart for expressing his views about Israel, the American Civil Rights movement and the inalienable human rights of people without appropriate nuance and humility. Isn’t angrily expressing indignation because you don’t find someone’s words to be nuanced and lacking humility a bit like a drug addicted husband complaining about his alcoholic wife’s drinking? And complaining about someone’s remarks as not including appropriate nuance and humility sounds more like a symptom of cognitive dissonance: How dare you challenge beliefs that sustain my emotional equilibrium!
Sorry Rabbi Wolpe, but beating up the messenger will not fix that problem.
Rabbi Wolpe is certainly entitled to have bad days like all of us do. I know that he has the spiritual and intellectual capacity to inform and inspire, I trust he has also has the emotional maturity to acknowledge and do teshuvah, penitence for a very uncalled for and inappropriate public tantrum.