Albert D. Chernin Justice Award Acceptance Speech
I am very grateful for this award. I knew Al Chernin just a little bit, but enough to know the impact he made on our community and the inspiration he provided. And, of course, I am honored to be in the company of so many distinguished past recipients, including Al Vorspan and David Saperstein from my own movement.
The JCPA is a very important organization. Part and parcel of a Jewish communal structure that is often cautious on matters of public policy, it has been the voice of conscience, activism, and justice.
And it has made a difference.
Consider how far we have come in the last 50 years. A half century ago, most Americans were still not accorded full citizenship in their own country. Blacks lived under a system of virtual apartheid, subject to terrifying violence whenever whites chose to subject them to it. Women were relegated to a handful of professions and a subordinate role in all things. Gays and lesbians were forced into a bitter, shadow existence in which they, too, could be abused at will. But in the intervening years everything has changed. Freedom has been secured for these Americans – not completely, by any means, and not without ugly scenes, unseemly conflict, and real struggle. But in large part, their freedom has been won; it has been won by educating, advocating, and lobbying our politicians, and by mobilizing the essential idealism and optimism of the American people.
And the JCPA was an important part of the coalition that made these things happen. Doing the seemingly impossible work of building consensus in our endlessly diverse and contentious community, working with organizations that sometimes could barely arrive at positions of their own, let alone embrace the positions of others, the JCPA never gave in to cynicism, hand-wringing, or despair. Its message has been: Jews care for our own, help our neighbors, and speak out whenever bigotry and injustice strike. And when the community will was weak, it inspired us and kept us on the moral offensive. And I would like to take special note of the role played by the Council’s current director, Rabbi Steve Gutow, who leads this organization with such extraordinary devotion and integrity; and by Dr. Connie Giles, the JCPA President, who has served so many of the Jewish community’s major organization with love and devotion.
The JCPA has also been wise enough to step back, from time to time, and to take a second look at its traditional positions. At this plenum, the question of public funding for private schools is on the agenda. I believe that when governments give money, they impose their will, and government coercion is especially dangerous to religious institutions. Nonetheless, the constitutional dimensions of this matter are complex and the practical stakes are high. Looking at it now is the right thing; let us see where it takes us.
An interesting question that we face from time to time is whether or not the activism of the JCPA reflects the values and the desires of the American Jewish community.
That question has been answered many times, and last month it was answered again in a study of American Jews done by the Public Religion Research Institute. When asked which qualities are most important to their Jewish identity, 46% cited a commitment to social equality—a number higher by far than any other factor cited. American Jews care about justice; they do not want a survivalist Judaism. It is not enough for them to look inward and care only about their own souls.
That is the good news. And now, the bad news. That same survey said that only 17% of American Jews saw religious observance as important to their Jewish identity.
This is a disaster. A disaster for Judaism and the Jewish people, and a disaster for the work that we do.
I am not a social activist who happens to be a Jew; I am a Jew who is a social activist because of my reading of the Jewish tradition.
On the one hand, that reading tells me that there is no such thing as a Judaism that is only prayer and study, and that Judaism without ethics is a contradiction in terms. To separate out ethics, including social ethics, from our Jewish lives is to make Judaism an irrelevance and Torah an object of contempt. Judaism does not retreat from the world.
“The Jew is a responsible being,” Rabbi Soloveitchik wrote, “he is responsible for society. Abraham’s prayer to God was related to total strangers—the people of Sodom. The Jew must share in the destiny of his people and be concerned with the destiny of mankind.”
But at the same time, Jewish activism cannot be sustained without Torah study, ritual observance, and Shabbat. Our passion for justice does not flow from ethnic identity, or general do-goodism, or nostalgic ideas of the Jewish past. It flows from a rich religious life and from the mandates of our religious tradition. When our religious commitments fade, our passion for justice fades with it—if not in the first generation then surely in the second.
And speaking personally, I have always found that the work of tikkun olam, for all its rewards, can be lonely and discouraging work. Only by absorbing the light of the Shabbat candles, only by studying and worshipping with a strong, dynamic community of Jews, can I immunize myself against the cynicism and alienation that surround me. Only in this way can I find the strength to maintain the passion for justice at the heart of our tradition.
Therefore, as Jewish social activists, it seems to me that we respond to the survey results with both satisfaction and alarm. And we assert that tikkun olam requires an ability to pray as well as prophetic zeal. And that ethical action must be wedded to piety and mitzvot, and piety and mitzvoth must be wedded to ethical action.
I would like to conclude with a few thoughts about three issues that have been of particular concern to me in my social justice work.
The first is relations between American Jews and American Muslims. I am encouraged by the study that I mentioned, which demonstrated that Jews in America are more positive than other groups in their view of Muslims. And I am grateful for the good work done by the JCPA in this area.
Nonetheless, I remain troubled by many things. Some prominent politicians have found it politically opportune to peddle divisive anti-Muslim bigotry. And some Americans, including American Jews, have said the most extraordinary things about their Muslim neighbors: that they live apart, have laws of their own, do not integrate well, hate Jews, are prone to violence. When the URJ invited Professor Ingrid Mattson to its Biennial convention, some members of my movement sent me material taken from the internet professing to demonstrate that Dr. Mattson was implicated in terrorism. If Ingrid Mattson is a terrorist, then we are all terrorists.
In the early part of the 20th century, most American Jews were hardworking immigrants and members of the working and lower-middle classes. At the same time, there were Jewish socialists, communists, anarchists, and not a few gangsters and common criminals. Efforts were made to brand all Jews as radicals based on the actions and beliefs of a relative few. We in the Jewish community resisted these efforts, and in fact were outraged by them. Let me be clear: we will condemn Muslim extremism in America, and everywhere else, and fight it with all our might, but we will not permit others to do to American Muslims what was done to us.
Our task, therefore, is to say that we will not declare war, even in our hearts, on another religion; it is to distinguish between mainstream Islam and radical Islam, and between the mainstream here and the extremists on the fringe; and it is to stand with the forces of inclusion and to oppose the forces of intolerance in this land.
The second issue of special concern to me right now is the growing jeopardy of the American middle class. When I look at the history of the Jews in America, what I see is that we are not consistently right or left, Democrats or Republicans. Our most enduring allegiance is to the middle class, because we know that a thriving middle class means stability for us and for others.
And what worries me now is the decline of a stable and secure middle class over the last 30 years or so.
This is due in some measure to cultural disarray, including high divorce rates and a debased public culture, and in some measure to economic inequality and growing gaps between rich and poor.
We Jews know what happens in these situations. Protest movements, such as the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, appear. Frustration rises over the inability of most people to get ahead. And then demagogues appear to turn people against one another. And what demagogues do is scapegoat immigrants, foreigners, minorities, unions, the poor, the rich, and – always, always – the Jews. We saw this in the 1890s with the Populist movement and in the 1930s with Father Coughlin.
I am not here to put policy positions on the table. What I will say is that as a religious Jew, I support the principle of personal responsibility, particularly when it says, “We will help you, but you must do your share.” At the same time, whenever I study Torah, what I find there is that the poor are not generally a problem to the rich; it is the rich who are usually a problem to the poor. And with the American middle class in deep distress, this is not a good time to be craven to the economically powerful and vicious toward the economically weak; this is not a good time to suggest, without a touch of irony, that we redistribute wealth upward.
And so what is our task now as Jews? It is to pursue domestic policies that promote national unity and social solidarity. And it is to join with others in lifting our sights and summoning our hearts to justice, decency, and a better America.
My final point has to do with Israel.
When it comes to Israel, I believe in an assertive approach: We need to proclaim that there must be an Israel, because without Israel, we are a truncated, incomplete people. Our love for Israel must be declared in unconditional and unmistakable tones.
I also believe that there is much to be thankful for right now when it comes to Israel. Three years ago, every Israeli diplomat that I met would urge me to speak out on the danger of Iran. Today, due to effective Israeli diplomacy and aggressive American Jewish advocacy, the subject of Iran is at the center of America’s foreign policy agenda.
And not only that: Israel’s vibrant, contentious democracy continues to inspire and amaze.
Last summer, in the midst of the Arab Spring and international turmoil, approximately 10% of Israel’s population took to the streets to address issues of inequality and injustice. Waving banners that proclaimed “ha-am doreish tzedek chevrati” (“the people demand social justice”), the young protestors were determined to recapture what they saw as the more egalitarian and idealistic country that had existed in the early days of the state. And Israel’s rightwing Prime Minister responded by, among other things, raising taxes on corporations and upper income individuals and taking action to limit the power of monopolies over Israel’s economy.
And not only that. Following a Supreme Court decision, a broad coalition of rightwing parties, leftwing parties, Russian Jews, and Orthodox Jews in the national religious camp has promised to end the exemption of virtually all Israeli Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews from military service. The result will likely be not conscription but some form of national service that will mean the burdens of Israeli citizenship will, finally, be equitably shared.
I find all of this to be extraordinary, not to mention a cause for pride and thanksgiving.
Now, there is no reason for me to discuss Israeli-Palestinians negotiations or the lack therefore; everyone in this room is familiar with these matters, and we heard from Ambassador Oren yesterday.
But what I will mention is a new and distressing phenomenon that is a concern to us—and that is, that for the first time in over 30 years of involvement in national Jewish leadership, I am finding that congregational rabbis are telling me that they will not talk about Israel because they fear the nasty, confrontational, divisive responses of those in their synagogues who disagree with them. I have heard this from rabbis of all streams, and I have heard similar comments from Federation and communal leaders.
I speak as someone who is more conservative on Middle Eastern politics than he once was, and who believes strongly in red lines. There are certain topics that raise a red flag in synagogue or communal settings, and certain speakers who should never be invited. I would not welcome a pro-BDS speaker to a Jewish communal setting; I would not tolerate the presence of anyone who excused or equivocated about acts of terror; I have no desire to hear from those who do not accept Israel as a Jewish state—that is, who advocate the mass return of Palestinians to Israel as part of a potential peace agreement.
But I certainly do not feel the need for speakers who are part of the family to agree with me. And when rabbis who fall well within the range of acceptable opinion are intimidated into silence, I feel that it is a disaster for Israel and for us.
In this realm, as in so many others, we should follow the lead of our young people. Peter Beinart debated Rabbi David Gordis in front of a packed house at the Columbia University Hillel last week; not long before, he had debated Barry Shrage at the Harvard Hillel. I understand from press reports that these were serious, substantive, civil discussions, enlightening and productive for all concerned. I have some real issues with Mr. Beinart, which I have publicly expressed; nonetheless, he remains part of the family. I also have my issues with J Street, which I have not been at all shy about articulating, but J Street remains part of the family as well.
If I have in any way been unclear, let me state my position once again. When it comes to Zionism, I am a hawk. I believe that Jewish life cannot be sustained without Israel at its core; that the Torah that spells out for us a way of life and a religious destiny binds us to a land; and that any distancing from Israel for any reason whatsoever is Jewishly unacceptable. It flies in the face of everything that we know about Jewish commitment, Jewish thought, and Jewish history.
But in the difficult days that lie ahead, we honor that commitment by encouraging our religious leaders to teach us and to speak their minds. And we honor it by opening our doors and our hearts to thoughtful and respectable points of view that may be very different from our own.
I would like to once again thank the JCPA for this award. It means a great deal to me.
And I thank the social activists in this room for all that you have done.
You remind us that despite the difficult economic conditions of our day and the deep divisions in our society, the great majority of American Jews, like the great mass of Americans, have not yet given up on “We, the People.”
You remind us that justice is inseparable from our religious mission, and that the experience of God cannot be divorced from ethics.
You remind us that Judaism teaches us to redeem the world through loving kindness.
And you remind us that our task as Jews and Americans is to help heal the soul of America, this great country in which we live.
Thank you very much.