This past weekend, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach set off a firestorm with his full-page ad in the New York Times accusing National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice of turning a blind eye to the Rwandan genocide when she was on President Bill Clinton’s national security team in the 1990s. (This was after Rice had criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for insisting on speaking to Congress against the White House’s wishes.) Thankfully, Jewish organizations from the right to the left united to condemn this ad.
By Monday, Boteach had apologized for casting Rice in a negative light. “Our disagreement with Ms. Rice is strictly over policy,” he said. “It was construed by some as a personal attack that is certainly and absolutely not its intent.”
Those who consider ourselves part of the Jewish community might ignore this ad — and one in several U.S. newspapers this past summer smearing the Palestinians for supposed embrace of child sacrifice — if Boteach did not crown himself “America’s rabbi.” But as the director of a national rabbinic organization, I worry that some people might believe that the Jewish community actually voted him into such a position. (For the record, no such position exists.)
While no individual legitimately holds the title of “America’s rabbi,” thousands of rabbis demonstrate moral leadership when it comes to difficult questions about Israel and its neighbors. Every day, my staff and I field calls from rabbis taking personal and professional risks to stand up for the rights of Jews and non-Jews.
Moral leadership does not come in the form of ad hominem attacks against anyone who disagrees with a sitting Israeli prime minister. Nor does moral leadership require adopting the “us or them” rhetoric that Netanyahu championed in his address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference and to Congress this week.
Rather, moral leadership means holding Israel to the highest standards of Jewish and human rights law, while also standing up against attacks on the Jewish people or on Israel’s right to exist.
I’ve seen moral leadership in the rabbis who speak honestly to their communities about the ways the military occupation of the Palestinians violates both Jewish and human rights law. These rabbis don’t shy away from hard truths about the theft of land to build settlements; about soldiers barging into homes in the middle of the night; and about the walls and restricted roads that block adults from getting to work, children from going to school and families from visiting one another.
These same rabbis stand up against the defamation of our own Jewish community. I’ve seen rabbis risk alliances with other progressive faith groups by objecting when criticism of Israel’s government slips into attacks on “Zionists” (which most Jews see as not-so-coded language for all of us), or when those purportedly on the left refuse to condemn rockets fired at homes in Tel Aviv.
Here are but a few of the rabbis who take real risks to be moral leaders:
This summer, Rabbi Eric Solomon of Beth Meyer Congregation in Raleigh, N.C., visited the family of Mohammad Abu Khieder, the teenager killed by Jewish terrorists in response to the murder of three Jewish teenagers. Solomon returned home to tell his community why he, as a rabbi, was compelled to visit this family in mourning. On another occasion, he was the first rabbi to speak about Israel at a liberal church with strong ties to the Palestinian cause. There, he spoke about his love for Israel and about his commitment to ending the occupation.
Last year, when New Hampshire was considering legislation that would have barred the consideration of “foreign law,” Rabbi Robin Nafshi of Temple Beth Jacob in Concord testified in the state legislature against this thinly veiled attack on Muslims, despite the objections of those who believe that fear of terrorism justifies defaming an entire religious community. Around the same time, she also conducted long dialogues with her United Church of Christ colleague to help him understand why a vote in favor of a limited boycott, divestment and sanction movement (BDS) would strike the Jewish community as an attack on Israel and Jews, explaining that the leadership of the BDS movement has used rhetoric that questions the existence of Jews in general.
Rabbi John Rosove of Temple Israel of Hollywood has taken his congregants on five trips to Israel over the past 12 years. “We don’t tour — we visit,” he explained to me. While never wavering in his public support for a two-state solution, he introduces his community to settlers and Palestinians, and models the Jewish commitment to hearing multiple viewpoints.
Rabbis Solomon, Nafshi, Rosove and so many of their colleagues are all America’s rabbis. These are the rabbis who take risks to speak up to protect the human rights of all people — Jews and non-Jews — because it is the right thing to do. These rabbis speak out of the depth of Jewish tradition, and out of a commitment to the dignity of every person, not out of partisan politics.
This week, the Jewish community celebrates the holiday of Purim, in which the brave Queen Esther risked her life to save her people from the machinations of Haman, the evil adviser to the Persian king. Some read this story as evidence of a zero-sum game between Jewish interests and the interests of non-Jewish communities. But, in fact, the first instance of moral leadership in the story involves Esther’s cousin, Mordechai, intervening to save the life of the non-Jewish king. In the end, this brave act benefits the Jewish people as well.
Rabbi Boteach may claim to be America’s rabbi. But America’s real rabbis are the ones who reject cowardly attacks and take the risk of standing up for the rights of all people. If we listen to these rabbis, we open the possibility of moving past an ugly zero-sum game and toward a peaceful solution.