Obama and AIPAC: What British Jews and the Next Chief Rabbi Can Learn
I just watched the President of the United States give a defensive speech about his policies vis-à-vis Israel to the 2012 AIPAC policy conference. Even The New York Times headline of the speech emphasized the President’s defensiveness: “On Defense, Obama Speaks to US Backers of Israel.” How does the American Jewish community get the most powerful man on earth to backtrack on pressuring Israel? By unashamedly asserting Jewish pride, organizing politically, supporting candidates that support Israel, and by making it clear to President Obama that zigzagging on the Jewish state and especially on Iran’s nuclear capability will lose him significant political and financial support.
Contrast this with Anglo-Jewry which, while well organized and highly charitable, are subject on a near weekly basis to a scandalous outburst of Anti-Semitism from some official figure but often respond with caution rather than strength. Last week is was Liberal Democrat Peer Jenny Tonge who publicly predicted that Israel will self-destruct. “It will not go on for ever… Israel will lose support and then they will reap what they have sown.” She added, “One day, the United States of America will get sick of giving £70 billion [$112 billion] a year to Israel to support what I call America’s aircraft carrier in the Middle East – that is Israel. One day, the American people are going to say to the Israel lobby in the USA: enough is enough.”
Tonge had already suggested in February, 2010, that Israel set up an inquiry if it wants to refute allegations that its medical teams in Haiti “harvested” organs of earthquake victims, leading to her sacking as the Liberal Democrat health spokesperson. Of course, we in the United States would find it incredulous that a Jew-hater of such magnitude could ever assume any post in modern government at all. But in Britain these days anything is possible. Which is why the next British Chief Rabbi risks being the last unless the office is reconfigured to address enormous challenges that fester.
Lord Sacks is widely regarded as Judaism’s most eloquent English exponent. But there are two ways to be a Rabbi, like Abraham or like Jacob. Abraham is aloof from the cares of the world, focusing on disseminating the knowledge of heaven instead. He earned the name ‘Hebrew,’ meaning one who is set apart. Lord Sacks has largely pursued this path, defining his chief Rabbinate with masterful oratory and writings but rarely confronting anti-Semitism, believing he will be more effective by remaining above the fray. Jacob, however, got into the arena with Esau and Laban, ensuring that these wicked men not emerge triumphant. In so doing he received ferocious criticism for his actions. Many saw it as being beneath his dignity. They accused him of being manipulative. But we are named after him rather than Abraham. Israel means he who wrestles with G-d and with man, arising victorious. It is those who evidence moral courage by confronting evil, however many naysayers they earn, that carry the mantle of leadership, and this is especially true in times of crisis.
It is time for the next occupant of the seat of the Chief Rabbi to wrestle with the tsunami of Jew-hatred that has erupted on the British Isle. Lord Sacks’ successor will have to forego an Ambassadorial role that is above the fray in favor of accessibility and engagement if he is to reverse the community’s declining numbers and influence. He must be earthy and responsive, using the vastness of the new social media landscape to create a Judaism that is participatory and inviting while not being afraid to boldly confront Jewry’s growing antagonists.
Britain is today the front line of the West’s anti-Israel demonization and anti-Jewish bias, with the community feeling under siege by glaring prejudices in politics and the press. Not long ago, while sitting in Jerusalem with Dan Shapiro, America’s outstanding new Ambassador to Israel, I commented that it would be unthinkable that he would be attacked by a member of Congress for being Jewish, and therefore potentially disloyal, as was Britain’s Jewish Ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould by MP Paul Flynn. An American court dictating to the Jewish community how it ought to define its own membership is likewise unthinkable.
Then there is the more salient point of a community that has lost half its number in 60 years and numbering just 4% of American Jewry being so deeply divided between orthodox and reform when unity in the face of external threats is so vital and urgent.
The next Chief Rabbi must therefore strategically confront and engage the growing tide of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiment in the media – especially the BBC – and inspire young Jews with the power of Judaism to courageously win arguments in the marketplace of ideas. He must empower Jewish students by making available Israel’s most eloquent spokespeople from around the world on speaking tours of Britain’s campuses and raise money to train students in pro-Israel activism, like AIPAC does here in the US.
Next up is Jewish unity and agreeing to address any reform congregation that will have him, making the case for greater understanding between orthodox and reform in areas of common concern, from social-welfare projects for Jews in need, to bolstering educational forums like Limmud, to resolving vexing Jewish identity issues by making a persuasive case for greater mutual adherence to time-honored Jewish law, so that the community does not fragment into two.
Reshaping the Beth Din to reflect the modern-orthodox convictions of the United Synagogue is key to its relevance, from conversion standards that are Halakhic yet reasonable, to empowering women to teach and serve on Shule boards, making their contribution as vital as a man’s. Rejuvenating Synagogue life must be further accomplished through the transformation of Shules from weekly places of prayer into vibrant communal centers with renowned speakers and debates, the Chief Rabbi using his worldwide contacts to regularly bring leading personalities to tour Anglo-Jewry’s far-reaching communities.
With only 35% of Britons believing in God and 43% saying they have no religion there exists a unique opportunity for the next Chief Rabbi to use Jewish values to mold Britain into a more spiritual nation, in-turn inspiring Jewish youth with the universal appeal of Jewish ideas. At Oxford our L’Chaim Society educated thousands of non-Jews who today count themselves as committed friends of the Jewish people, with many in positions of high power and influence. People are desperate for guidance and the next Chief Rabbi should use the mass media to impart Jewish wisdom on raising children, creating passionate marriages, curbing materialism, and achieving happiness and contentment.
A strong Anglo-Jewish community is vital to world Jewry and pivotal if we are to hold on to Europe against a growing tide of anti-Israel sentiment. It is also of vital interest to me personally, even as I remain committed to bringing Jewish values specifically to the American political and cultural arena. The UK is where I arrived at 22, spent 11 years of my life, and became a man. It is where six of my nine children were born. It is where the Jewish community’s generosity afforded me the opportunity to influence a great world University. From close or afar it will always have a special place in my heart.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, whom Newsweek calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” was the London Times Preacher of the Year and is the recipient of the American Jewish Press Association’s Highest Award for Excellence in Commentary. His new bestseller Kosher Jesus has just been published to wide interest. He is currently mulling a run for Congress from New Jersey’s Ninth Congressional District. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley and his website www.shmuleyforcongress.com.