Standing Up To Ideological Bullies


Last week’s Between The Lines column, “Anatomy Of A Takedown,” about a rabbi whose decision to consider including a stop at the grave of Yasir Arafat on an interfaith mission to Israel next summer, prompted sharply differing reactions. Not so much about the decision itself, widely seen as ill-advised. Mostly it was about those who condemned the rabbi, calling for his resignation and vilifying him as an enemy of the Jewish people and supporter of terrorists, and those who decried the critics — most of whom had never met or spoken to the rabbi — for character assassination.

The fact that the rabbi acknowledged he made a mistake and canceled the prospect of stopping at Arafat’s grave was lost in the echo chamber of accusatory blogs that went viral, an eternal condemnation. For there is no forgiveness on the Internet, no chance to wipe one’s slate clean.

One of the precious gifts of Judaism is the very concept of teshuvah, of repenting for a wrongful act and being forgiven. We are now in the month of Elul, a time of reflection as we approach Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, those dramatic days when we ask for forgiveness from above for our misdeeds. But just as important to the concept of the High Holy Days is the obligation to ask forgiveness as well from those whom we hurt or offended here on earth, and to be forgiven.

That empathetic impulse seems all too rare these days in our own community when Jews who proclaim their loyalty to Clal Yisrael and the State of Israel are quick, if not eager, to marginalize those who express those commitments in different ways.

Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, is concerned that this behavior, which he describes as “witch hunts,” is having a chilling effect on rabbis and other Jewish leaders. “Our community is doing violence precisely to those people who are stepping forward to serve us, at a time in which our institutions most need their passion and commitment,” he wrote in a thoughtful response to The Jewish Week column. “More and more professionals are silencing their own views, risking their careers when they do speak out, or leaving their chosen professional fields in disgust.”

Kurtzer offers several suggestions to keep in mind in assessing the merits of “campaigns of accusation” against communal leaders. One is to acknowledge that “mistakes happen,” and often the best response is to settle the matter quietly, without “public shaming.”

Kurtzer calls for an effort to counter the small but vocal “industry” of those who fuel ideological campaigns and “capitalize on them to reshape the communal agenda.” Ideas and discussions that are legitimate within Israeli society, including the Knesset, he notes, are somehow viewed by small groups of hardliners here as “illegitimate and treasonous in American Jewish institutions.”

It is time for the moderate majority to step up and speak out, exemplifying the traditional Jewish values of tolerance, fairness and, if not love of one’s fellow Jews, at least giving them the benefit of the doubt.