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August 28, 2017 10:51 am

Are Rabbis Right to Skip Trump Phone Call?

avatar by Jonathan S. Tobin / JNS.org

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President Donald Trump during a press conference, speaking about the Charlottesville neo-Nazi protest. Photo: Screenshot.

JNS.org – There probably has never been an easier path to consensus for the three major non-Orthodox rabbinic associations.

The decision of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (Reform), the Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative) and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Assembly to boycott the annual High Holiday conference call with Donald Trump probably was completely unsurprising. Joined by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the political arm of the Reform movement, the groups said that they could not continue with the yearly tradition because of what they termed President Donald Trump’s “lack of moral leadership.”

The rabbis had good reasons to criticize the president for what he said about the outrage in Charlottesville, Virginia. But the curious thing about their boycott is that they gave up the chance to directly question Trump on the subject, and to give him a piece of their minds in the form of a Torah lesson. Though we know that Trump cannot tolerate criticism and might have stormed off the call, the rabbis would have been given license to explain to the president why his words were so wrong and hurtful.

The call would have given the rabbis a rare chance to do exactly what so many religious figures like to talk about, but rarely actually do: speak truth to power. If they are half the teachers that most of them like to think they are, perhaps one of their questions might have gotten through to Trump and planted a seed that might have eventually borne fruit in some future crisis — when their wisdom might have made the difference between doing the right thing and, well, being Donald Trump.

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Wouldn’t that have been worth it? You might think so, but the rabbis disagreed. And the reason for their decision says more about contemporary American Jewry than it does about Trump.

I happen to agree with the statement issued by the groups with respect to the president’s failure on Charlottesville. Trump’s decision to speak of those who came to Charlottesville to vent antisemitism and racism — and ultimately for one of them to commit murder — as being on the same moral plane as those who protested their presence was deplorable. There were no “very fine people” among those taking part in a torchlight parade while shouting antisemitic slogans. While there is no reason to believe that the president is an antisemite, his refusal to speak with moral clarity on this issue did encourage the neo-Nazis, KKK members and alt-right groups that were there.

But the boycott won’t help him see the light or, as the rabbinic associations condescendingly preached, point him toward repentance for his misdeeds that Jews believe is our obligation during the High Holidays next month.

What, then, was their purpose? Politics.

The boycott reassures their overwhelmingly liberal congregations that they won’t be contaminated by contact with Trump. But the symbolism of the boycott is primarily one that alerts the world to something painfully obvious: that much of the organized non-Orthodox Jewish community has enlisted in the “resistance” to Trump and wants everyone to know it.

Even if you agree that Trump is a terrible and even unfit president, for rabbinic groups to place him in what amounts to the Orthodox custom of cherem (shunning) is to assert that their synagogues are part of a political movement. It is nothing less than a declaration of war on a sitting president who, for all of his faults, is also a strong friend of Israel and still has the chance to play an important role in defending the security of the Jewish people.

Perhaps what Trump said is worse than the sins of all previous presidents, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s indifference to the fate of the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust or Barack Obama’s appeasement of Iran. While some defend both FDR and Obama on the merits, the truth is that many Jews did not openly oppose them because partisan political allegiances took precedence over principle.

Liberal Jews will forgive a liberal Democrat for just about anything, though to be fair, it appears many Trump supporters feel the same way about their man. While I believe that Trump deserves the most severe criticism for Charlottesville and much else, boycotting him in this manner is primarily a political statement, not a moral or religious one.

The rabbis had a chance to teach us all a lesson by engaging with Trump in a civil manner and teaching, rather than engaging in virtue signaling. Instead, all they have done is remind us that too many of them conceive of Judaism as a partisan faith.

Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of JNS.org and a contributing writer for National Review. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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  • Joseph Feld

    There seems to be a belief among liberal and progressive Rabbis that only the extreme Right can be held to account. On American college campuses it is the extreme Left wh are waging a campaign against Israel and Jews. Both extremes are dangerous and violent — and President Trump merely pointed this out.

  • Human Man

    I don’t want to re-read the lie that President Trump was referring to the anti-Semitic horde as “very fine people”. That’s what we put up with in the mainstream media. I don’t want to see it in the Algemeiner. Jonathan Tobin may be a “name”, but he does not enhance your publication, but makes you like so many others. I think the Algemeiner needs to rethink this for the future. I am very surprised and very turned off as a heretofore very supportive reader.

    As for the Rabbis, and I restrained myself from putting quotes, they are liberal fools; unfortunately the Jewish people in diaspora are again cursed with the very worst type of leadership.

  • ricardo

    It is strange that these Rabbis talk about forgiveness and some are even willing to forgive people that committed heinous acts against Jews in the past like Arafat, but when it comes to politics they cannot forgive words from the President of the United States that they perceived as hurtful.

    In my humble point of view, the only difference between American Nazis&KKK vs Antifa&BLM is that the former had a horrible past while I truly fear for the future in the case of the latter. They are all fascist thugs that express their opinion by violence, and repress any opinions of others, and the President was right to comdemn all of them.

  • Lane

    What does the Torah teach about respecting government leaders? Notice all 3 offshoot Jewish movements mentioned, are in decline.

  • Joseph Feld

    There seems to be one major difference between the RCA/Agudath Israel and the Reform and Conservative Rabbinates. The Orthodox Rabbinates ask the Gedolei HaDor for Daas Torah, while the Non-Orthodox seem to be guided by short-term politics. FDR, Truman, Nixon, Obama all had a certain amount of negative feelings about Jews, but we have worked with them and shown the greatest respect for the Office of the President. I recall during the fight for Soviet Jewry to leave the USSR the Gedolei HaDor told us to fight Rusia as a human rights issue and to leave out Judaism because it would lead to repercusions against Soviet Jewry. During Vietnam we Orthodox university students were advised to keep out of any direct attack on the US President out of respect for the Office. On the eve of the Six Day War the Gedolei HaDor brought out entire yeshivahs — Rabbinical colleges — to Washington to ask the President and the Government to speak up for Israel at a time of grave danger. We worked closely with Protestant and Catholic religious leaders as well as the entire spectrum of Jewish groups. We need the good will of the President more than he needs our support. Refusing to speak to him is not the way forward.

  • JJ

    Why do you continue to propagate lies? The “very fine people” were NOT the vile torch bearing neo-Nazis and Klansmen, they were the other people who prefer not to see America’s History and monuments whitewashed and destroyed. AND why can’t you call Antifa for what they are? Violent thugs. When Hamas fights Fatah does that make one of them our friend? Just because Antifa is against neo-Nazis and Klansmen, doesn’t mean they are friends to Jews. The enemy of my enemy is NOT my friend. There was violence on BOTH sides. Ignoring that FACT doesn’t make the world a safer place, it emboldens the violent radical left…who dislike Jews and Israel just like their far-right counterparts.

  • Pinchas Baram

    i hope Orthodox Jewish groups, also the ZOA, JWV, etc., don’t imitate the stupid, partisan lefty Jews in Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative circles, and do call Trump prior to Rosh HaShana and wish him well and speak rationally to him.

  • pinko77

    Well, stating that Trump is strong on Israel has not been proven. We already know that having Ivanka and Jared as the Court Jews has had no effect on his attitude towards the Jewish People. And Bibi is no help. His failure to even offer an olive branch to the Pluralistic movements is as much beneath contempt as Trump’s outrageous statements. Bibi had to run to Putin because the US has agreed to let Russia control the Syrian situation. So, yes, it would be preferable if the rabbis spoke truth to power. But Trump appears to be close-minded, somehow believing that he alone knows what is best. Sometimes, there comes a time to say that you can’t play ball. Maybe the rabbis should try to straighten out David Duke. I think not.

    • Joseph Feld

      Bibi has continued building the pluralistic area of the Kotel even after the Knesset rejected the wider plan for three fully equal areas. Bibi heads a coalition government and if the two religious parties leave the coalition the government will collapse and require new elections.That’s how the parliamentary system works. The issue has also gone to the Supreme Court, but the Court may rule that Jewish worship comes under the Chief Rabbinate and not the civil high court.

  • B Goldstein

    The fact that they did not shun Obama, the real antisemite and racist, shows their own lack of moral standing. Self-righteous hypocrites all.

  • The Silver Kat

    So incredibly hypocritical are these people that it defies description. To claim a moral highground when their movements have essentially dismissed traditional Judaisim is patently ludicrous.

  • Hasifleur

    Wonderful way to solve a problem: refuse to engage in dialogue, that’ll show’em! I’m so proud of you, rabbis.

  • Emes13

    Rabbis Rebuke Rabbis for Dissing Trump

    Baltimore, MD, August 28, 2017 — The Coalition for Jewish Values, a public policy institute representing hundreds of Orthodox Rabbis, today rebuked Jewish clergy who publicly announced their refusal to participate in an annual conference call with the President preceding the Jewish High Holy Days. Rabbis from four liberal Jewish organizations said last Wednesday they would not hold the annual call with the president, claiming that his response to racist violence in Charlottesville was “lacking in moral leadership and empathy.”

    The CJV noted that the Union for Reform Judaism was recently identified as the most consistently liberal American religious denomination in a survey of the party registration of religious leaders — and suggested that Reform and associated clergy were judging Presidents by a double standard. Rabbi Aryeh Spero, a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the CJV, dismissed the Rabbis’ statement as “left-wing politics masquerading as rabbinics.”

    “For eight years,” his colleague Rabbi Dov Fischer explained, “these rabbis raced to participate in New Years’ phone calls with a President who worked vigorously against Israel, snubbed and shamed its democratically elected leader, and who called Jewish homes in the Jewish homeland ‘illegal.’ They have not suddenly found their consciences. Is liberalism more important to them than Judaism?”

    The CJV also challenged the claim of liberal Jewish leaders to represent Jewish rabbinic opinion. “Despite their arrogated prominence,” said Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer, also a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the CJV, “the liberal denominations now represent a minority of Jewish clergy. The great majority of American rabbis revere Jewish tradition, including our responsibility to show respect for government officials and to work amicably with them for the physical and moral betterment of all.”

    “President Trump has proven himself a great friend of Israel and the Jewish People,” he concluded. “Any rabbi should be honored to receive High Holy Day greetings from the leader of the free world, especially when we owe him thanks for the many things he has done on our behalf.”

    The Coalition for Jewish Values (CJV), directed by prominent rabbinic leaders and representing hundreds of rabbis across North America, articulates an authentic Jewish perspective on current events, and promotes Jewish values through writing and teaching derived from traditional Jewish thought.

  • Reb_Yaakov

    The problem is not with liberals. The problem is being either a liberal or a conservative person of Jewish ancestry instead of being a Jew.

    Judaism is not a political movement, but it does caution us about our relationship with rulers:
    Pirkei Avot, chapter two, mishna three.

    • Joseph Feld

      And many of our Traditional Synagogues say a Prayer for The President in the USA or H M The Queen in the UK. Is this consistent with refusing to speak to the President when he invites us to speak to him during these awesome Days of Judgment ? If we expect the President to stand by Israel in Israel’s hour of need we have to keep the channels open.