Last week I responded to former Pink Floyd front man Roger Waters’ abhorrent statements comparing Israel to Nazi Germany. My dispute with Waters was picked up by several media outlets, especially my accusation that any man who can compare victims to their murderers is bereft of decency, heart, and soul.
Waters responded to me, via an interview with The Guardian: “If Rabbi Boteach can make a case for the Israel government’s policies, I look forward to hearing it.” As soon as I read that I challenged Waters to a public debate. And since he claims that Israel’s evil is “so crushingly obvious,” surely he should avail himself of the opportunity to win an easy debate. I await his response.
I anticipated my response to Waters to be but one of many condemning his remarks, particularly among Rabbis and Jewish leaders. And while representatives of The Simon Wiesenthal Center, The Holocaust Educational Trust, and the Community Security Trust in Britain did issue robust statements of condemnation, the fact is that vitriolic, hate-filled statements such as Waters’ require a far more united and unflinching retort from the Jewish community as a whole.
The fight for Israel is the great Jewish battle of our time. The Jewish state is now the focal point for the fight for Jewish survival. It is the locus for all the irrational hatred felt for Jewry and in defending Israel we defend the future of our people and Jewish life itself. To fail to stand up for Israel is to suffer a privation of Jewish pride. It is the priori demonstration of Jewish spinelessness and embarrassment.
I have heard many Rabbis tell me that they don’t wish to dirty their hands by getting involved in political matters. Let lay leaders defend Israel. To them I offer the message of this week’s Torah reading, Shemot, where we discover the quintessential quality of Moses’ leadership. Moses might have been just another uppity Egyptian Aristocrat until the day he chanced upon an Israelite slave being beaten. The Bible relates, “And he looked this way and that way and saw there was no man. Then he smote the Egyptian.” When Moses saw there was none but him to address this moral outrage, he sacrificed his cushy position in Egyptian society and acted to fight injustice. At that moment he became instantly unpopular in Egyptian society but he also become an audacious leader. It should be noted that the great liberator and lawgiver could not give a public speech. He was a stutterer whose mouthpiece was his brother Aaron. But then, real leadership does not involve having the best mouth but rather the most courageous heart. Real leadership is not found in our immortal soul but in our moral courage.
Does a Rabbi have any higher responsibility than defending Jewish life? Is there any greater concentration of Jewish life today than in Israel? Does a Rabbi have any more important duty that rebutting the God-awful slander that Jews in the Middle East are murderers who live with corrupt values?
Emma Thompson is currently starring in the film Saving Mr. Banks about Walt Disney’s attempts to secure the rights to Mary Poppins from author P.L. Travers. In 2012 Thomson and three dozen other artists joined the BDS movement by publishing a letter protesting an Israeli theater group’s participation in last year’s Shakespeare festival in England: “We notice with dismay and regret that Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London has invited Israel’s National Theatre, Habima, to perform The Merchant of Venice in its Globe to Globe festival this coming May.”
Yet, the six-week long festival also hosted China’s National Theater, but their participation was met without protest from Thompson and the other artists, even though China regularly jails innocent political dissidents like Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Laureate, and his wife, Liu Xia, who has been under house arrest for three years and has been held incommunicado even though she has never even been charged.
Are Rabbis then to quote Shakespeare in their Synagogues but never fight against Israelis being banned at the bard’s festivals?
Those who believe that Rabbis should be non-controversial and promote peace and harmony and never fight anti-Semitic bigots are guilty of cowardice. Indeed, this sentiment is more Christian than Jewish. Judaism lives not in the celestial spheres but on terra firma. A rabbi’s objective is not to get his congregants into heaven but to assist them in creating a more righteous earth. How can we ask University students to stand up for Israel during Apartheid week if Rabbis wont’ stand up even in their own congregations?
Saying that Rabbis should not be at the vanguard of fighting anti-Semitism is an invitation for spiritual irrelevance, moral timidity, and ethical retreat.
This past weekend I attended the memorial service in Atlanta for Cary Booker, father of my friend of 22 years, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, one of the finest friends of the American Jewish community and my study partner in Torah. I try never to visit Atlanta without visiting the gravesite of Martin Luther King, Jr. the greatest American of the 20th century and the man who restored this nation to its founding ideals of all men being created equal. What made King a great spiritual leader was not the fact that he was a mesmerizing speaker. Less so was it the fact that he was a talented writer. Rather, what made King the most influential pastor in America was his fight for his people, his fearlessness in standing up to tyranny, his bravery in confronting the evil of segregation and racial hatred and ultimately bringing it to its knees. King’s dream of racial equality was not realized through his soaring rhetoric but through his daring marches, leading children in the face of fire hoses and attack dogs, being bludgeoned by racist cops and corrupt officials. And though he paid with his life, of him it is today written what was said in ancient times of Joseph. On a slab of marble in front of Lorraine Hotel room 306, where he was murdered, the monument so beautifully reads, “Behold here cometh the dreamer. Come let us slay him. And let us see what shall become of his dreams.”
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom Newsweek and The Washington Post call “the most famous rabbi in America,” was the London Times Preacher of the Year at the Millennium. He will shortly publish Kosher Lust: Love is Not the Answer. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.