Would The Real Jewish Moral Lead­ers Please Stand Up?

Forward Magazine - - OPINION - Jane Eis­ner Jane Eis­ner is the For­ward’s ed­i­tor-inchief. Con­tact her at eis­ner@for­ward. com

In this, our sea­son of so­cial dis­content and po­lit­i­cal dis­grace, I am look­ing for a prophet.

I am es­pe­cially look­ing for a prophet who will speak out as a Jew.

Not some­one who will speak out against anti-Semitism. We are for­tu­nate to have plenty of those al­ready.

Nor some­one who will de­cry e”orts to iso­late and de­mo­nize Is­rael. Plenty of those, too.

The United States is blessed these days with rab­bis who ser­mo­nize and gal­va­nize against in­jus­tice, racism, sex­ism, Is­lam­o­pho­bia. Not enough, true, but still, there are men and women who bravely speak truth from the pul­pit and carry that truth into the streets.

No, what I’m search­ing for are Jewish lead­ers with the courage to call out the eth­i­cal and moral rot em­a­nat­ing from our na­tion’s cap­i­tal and eat­ing away at the fab­ric of civic life the way an in­sid­i­ous fun­gus can threaten a mighty tree.

This isn’t a call to join the Re­sis­tance; the sub­ject here is not ad­min­is­tra­tive poli­cies (though many are im­moral) but the be­hav­ior of Jews in po­si­tions of enor­mous power and in­flu­ence.

So when Michael Co­hen, Pres­i­dent Trump’s one­time lawyer and con­sigliere, pleads guilty to eight crim­i­nal counts and im­pli­cates his for­mer boss in a fed­eral crime, where is the prophetic out­rage?

Here is a man em­body­ing the worst in Jewish stereo­types — the grasp­ing, bul­ly­ing fixer; the sleazy, con­niv­ing busi­ness­man; the grat­ing court Jew. He makes us cringe. He is an em­bar­rass­ment.

And so, de­spite the pedi­gree of his last name, we pre­tend he’s not re­ally one of us. But it doesn’t work that way. “We can’t have pride in a Jew’s suc­cess merely for the fact of their Jewish­ness with­out hav­ing to have shame in a Jew’s nas­ti­ness merely for the fact of their Jewish­ness,” Ir­win Kula, pres­i­dent of the Na­tional Jewish Cen­ter for Learn­ing and Lead­er­ship, told me. “Pride and shame are po­lar­i­ties, and there­fore you can’t have one with­out the other.

“So if we are go­ing to take pride in No­bel Prize win­ners who are Jewish in name only and are go­ing to at­tribute their bril­liance to some es­sen­tial­ized Jewish qual­ity — and send around lists to evoke that pride — then we will wind up hav­ing to be ashamed of a fixer-bully-crook who is Jewish in name only and at­tribute his nas­ti­ness to some es­sen­tial­ized Jewish qual­ity,” he added. “You see, we can’t have it both ways.”

Here’s what I don’t un­der­stand: Amer­i­can Jews say they be­lieve that their tra­di­tion is im­bued with eth­i­cal and moral val­ues, that their ex­pe­ri­ence as an op­pressed mi­nor­ity gives them a spe­cial sen­si­tiv­ity to wrong­do­ing and in­jus­tice.

The ex­treme po­lar­iza­tion o Amer­i­can dis­course makes it harder or prophetic voices to rise above the ray.

When the Pew Re­search Cen­ter sur­vey of Amer­i­can Jews asked what it means to be Jewish, the top two an­swers were re­mem­ber­ing the Holo­caust (›œ%) and lead­ing an eth­i­cal and moral life (‘%) Only ¢œ% of the re­spon­dents said it meant car­ing about Is­rael. Only % said ob­serv­ing Jewish law.

Our self-im­age is care­fully crafted around this con­stel­la­tion of eth­i­cal and moral be­liefs, yet I don’t hear Jewish po­lit­i­cal lead­ers in Wash­ing­ton. D.C., speak­ing out when prom­i­nent Jewish men and women vi­o­late those be­liefs, some­times with im­punity. And, un­for­tu­nately, the few re­li­gious lead­ers who do so aren’t be­ing heard above the po­lit­i­cal din.

What am I look­ing for? Twenty years ago, the na­tion was also gripped by scan­dal in the Oval O‡ce. That time it was a Demo­crat, Pres­i­dent Clin­ton, who was caught in an en­tirely in­ap­pro­pri­ate sex­ual re­la­tion­ship with a White House in­tern and lied about it un­der oath. On Septem­ber œ of that year, a fel­low Demo­crat, Joe Lieber­man of Con­necti­cut, took to the Se­nate floor to con­demn the pres­i­dent’s be­hav­ior.

He spoke of his per­sonal dis­may over Clin­ton’s ac­tions, but also of “a larger, graver sense of loss for our coun­try, a reck­on­ing of the dam­age that the pres­i­dent’s con­duct has done to the proud legacy of his pres­i­dency and, ul­ti­mately, an ac­count­ing of the im­pact of his ac­tions on our democ­racy and its moral foun­da­tions.”

Lieber­man was an ob­ser­vant Jew who was known to walk miles to the Capitol on Shab­bat to cast an im­por­tant vote, who had wor­ried aloud about the coars­en­ing of pub­lic cul­ture by an en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try that he be­lieved had weak­ened com­mon val­ues. So his words car­ried enor­mous weight. There was a con­sis­tent moral au­thor­ity be­hind them.

Do we have a Joe Lieber­man in Congress to­day?

Or a Gabrielle Gi£ords? In ¤¥ , the then-Demo­cratic Con­gress­woman was nearly as­sas­si­nated by a gun­man in a shoot­ing spree that left many dead and in­jured, and left her body and brain dam­aged for life. Once a sup­porter of gun rights in her home state of Ari­zona, her brush with death trans­formed her into an ar­dent ad­vo­cate for sen­si­ble gun con­trol.

Who else is putting her life on the line against the most pow­er­ful, dan­ger­ous lobby in the coun­try?

In , Elie Wiesel was in the White House to re­ceive the Con­gres­sional Gold Medal of Achieve­ment, the na­tion’s high­est civil­ian honor. Still, he did not flinch in crit­i­ciz­ing Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan and im­plor­ing him to can­cel a visit to a Ger­man ceme­tery where Nazi SS o‡cers were buried.

“That place, Mr. Pres­i­dent, is not your place,” Wiesel said, stand­ing right next to Rea­gan. “Your place is with the vic­tims of the SS.”

Do we have an Elie Wiesel will­ing to say that in the White House to­day?

Twenty years ear­lier, in ‘, Rabbi Abra­ham Joshua Heschel locked arms with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights lead­ers as they marched from Selma to Mont­gomery, Alabama. “In a free so­ci­ety, some are guilty and all are re­spon­si­ble,” Heschel would go on to say when the two men, at great risk, spoke out against the Viet­nam War.

Where is our Abra­ham Joshua Heschel to­day?

The ex­treme po­lar­iza­tion char­ac­ter­iz­ing con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can dis­course makes it that much harder for prophetic voices, es­pe­cially re­li­gious ones, to rise above the fray and ac­tu­ally be heard. “If Heschel were alive to­day, I have no doubt that parts of the Jewish right would re­gard him as de­spi­ca­ble,” said Shai Held, au­thor of “Abra­ham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Tran­scen­dence.” “He was not a hero to many peo­ple of his time.”

Prophets rarely are. But they have a clear vi­sion that in ret­ro­spect seems clair­voy­ant, and the con­vic­tion to say the things that, once said, seem ob­vi­ous. That is why they are so re­sisted, and yet, in the end, so right.

Who is fill­ing that role to­day?

Lieber­man’s words car­ried enor­mous weight. There was a con­sis­tent moral au­thor­ity be­hind them.

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