Finding the Jewish Billy Graham, the Israeli Martin Luther King
The Jewish people can be characterized as a noble and distinguished nation who have excelled in nearly every area but sports and messaging. We can cite but a handful of Jews who have won an Olympic medal, caught a touchdown pass in the Super Bowl, or hit a home run in the World Series. And we can cite even fewer who have succeeded in countering the prevailing notion of the Jews as Christ-killing political subversives who have cynically sucked the economic life out of the nations that have been gracious enough to host them.
The failure at sports is forgivable. If the Jews do not hoist the Vince Lombardi trophy their peoplehood might yet survive. The failure at PR, however, is fatal. The catalogue of accusations that have been hurled against the Jews without a proper riposte boggles the imagination and has led to mounds of dead Jews.
Two thousand years ago we were accused of murdering the creator’s son. A thousand years later we were drinking the blood of all Christian sons. A few hundred years and we were now poisoning the wells of Europe. And in modern times we are bombing innocent Palestinian children, cutting down their olive gardens, and evicting them from their homes.
My recent Congressional race was against an opponent who had signed a letter accusing Israel of collective punishment against the Palestinians in Gaza. Many pro-Israel groups said they would support him nonetheless because words did not matter so much as actions and Bill Pascrell had repeatedly voted to support Israel aid. The same is now being said of Chuck Hagel whose accusations against the Jews run the gamut from intimidation to “keeping Palestinians caged up like animals.” But he is kosher because he voted for American military aid to Israel. The rest is but commentary.
But of what use are American helicopter gunships that were given to Israel as a result of these votes if they cannot even be deployed because of the delegitimization that resulted from harmful words hurled by lawmakers? You can have the strongest army on earth. But if it can’t be used because a CNN camera is trained on it amid false accusations of atrocities over legitimate defense then that military force may as well not exist.
What I’m really saying is that PR is nearly the whole ball game and we Jews have lost the battle not just in modern times with Israel but throughout a long and tragic history. A nation charged with being a light unto the nations has singularly failed to communicate the humanity of its character, the generosity of its lifestyle, and the holiness of its ways.
In mid-century America evangelical Christianity was seen as extreme, fundamentalist, unsophisticated, and backward. Evangelicals believed in a faith-filled revival but the results were dismal. Then, a great charismatic spokesman arose in the son of a dairy farmer named Billy Graham. The focus on communication, messaging, and mass-market public relations turned the tide. Today, an astonishing one out of every five Americans calls themselves a born-again Christian.
Charismatic spokesmen likewise turned the tide of the civil rights movement. In 1955 black men and women were required to move to the back of the bus in many cities of the South, including Birmingham, Alabama. A black child kicking a soccer ball in the oppressive summer heat of Selma could not drink water from a white fountain. Rising to the occasion to protest this humiliating injustice, Martin Luther King, Jr., all of 25 years old, found the words to combat the monstrous prejudice and convince the masses to march. His stirring words haunt us still today. “There comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression. There comes a time, my friends, when people get tired of being plunged across the abyss of humiliation, where they experience the bleakness of nagging despair.”
But one searches in vein for the Jewish Billy Graham or the Jewish Martin Luther King. Where are the great spokesmen of our people to teach the world of Jewish charity, Jewish education, and Jewish values? Why are we not training a generation of media and press Ambassadors to expose and reverse the fraudulent accusations against Israel that are daily occurrences at the UN, the BBC, and the Arab press?
A few years ago I was to meet the Jewish head of a national television network. The producer who had arranged the meeting with a view toward the executive buying into my idea for a TV show said to me, “The man you are meeting is very influential and very secular. He’s going to be weary of you as a Rabbi so whatever you do, don’t mention anything religious.”
I had my marching orders and was fully prepared to focus the conversation exclusively on my TV show idea. But as soon as I walked in the executive said to me, “Do you watch Joel Osteen? I watch him every Sunday morning. I think he’s terrific. Do you think we can make a commercial venture out of a religious show like that?”
Here was one of America’s most influential members of the media, a Jew, telling me that every Sunday morning he watched a charismatic evangelical preacher who talked mostly about life lessons derived from the Hebrew Bible. Yet America had not produced a single rabbi successful in doing the same.
It is for this reason that I firmly believe that American Jewry’s foremost priority is the creation of an institute, modeled on, say, Oxford’s Rhodes scholarship, that will bring together the most talented, charismatic, and articulate Jewish men and women from around the world and train them to be spokespeople for our nation so that Jewish light can illuminate the dark spaces of human ignorance.
Over the next few months I will be endeavoring, with God’s blessing, to bring about an institution with this focus.
It may still be a while before a Jew wins the 100 meter dash in an Olympic stadium. But we can still prevail in the longer race to have Jewish wisdom and values positively affect the much more vital arena of life.
Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” has just published his newest best-seller, “The Fed-up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.