When Jonathan Arkush, vice-president of the Board of Deputies, challenged me to a public debate, I immediately accepted (we thought it would happen at this year’s Limmud, then logistics got in the way but I look forward to airing this critical dialogue soon).
He and I recently trashed each other (respectfully) on the internet over whether Anglo-Jewry in general, and the rabbis in particular, are doing enough to combat the tsunami of Israel-bashing that has become de rigueur in the UK.
What I most disagree with is Arkush’s belief that it is the job of the Israeli ambassador to the UK, rather than the Chief Rabbi, to stand up for Israel.
The fight for Israel is the great Jewish battle of our time. The Jewish state is now the focal point for the fight for Jewish survival. It is the locus for all the irrational hatred felt for Jewry.
In defending Israel, we defend the future of our people and Jewish life itself. To fail to stand up for Israel is to suffer a privation of Jewish pride. It is the a priori demonstration of Jewish spinelessness and embarrassment.
Can a rabbi have any higher responsibility than defending Jewish souls? Does a Rabbi have any more important duty than rebutting the slander that Jews are murderers who live with corrupt values?
Those who believe that it is only lay leaders who are responsible for responding to George Galloway, only Israeli MKs to Jack Straw, and only Middle East experts to Stephen Hawking make the mistake of believing that Judaism is only of the heavens and not of the earth.
Rabbis should not dirty their hands by getting into a ring with those who malign us. Leave that to the professional diplomats and the lay warriors. Rabbis should be non-controversial and promote peace.
A rabbi’s objective is not to get his congregants into heaven but to help them create a more righteous earth. How can we ask students to live openly Jewish lives when they’re afraid to wear kippot on campus? How can we ask Jewish women to proudly wear Magen Davids to work when they fear experiencing prejudice as defenders of “Zionist oppression of the Palestinians”.
Saying that rabbis should not be at the vanguard of fighting antisemitism and the defamation of the Jewish state is an invitation for rabbis to become communal mediocrities and spiritually irrelevant.
The very first story of the very first rabbi was Moses witnessing a Jew being beaten by an Egyptian. He did not wait for the Board of Deputies to file a complaint with Pharaoh. He intervened and never worried that he would be unpopular in Egyptian society for standing up for his people.
Last May, Rabbi Sacks watched in silence as a colleague from Cambridge, who just happened to be the most famous scientist alive, departed from the scientific method and condemned Israel against all the facts. Did no one in the Chief Rabbi’s office think to themselves that inaction would destroy the morale of thousands of Jewish students on campus who are desperately yearning for inspiration to stand up and support Israel against a well-co-ordinated onslaught? Rabbis are not detached academics. They get out in front and lead.
Martin Luther King, Jr was the greatest American of the 20th century because he restored America to its founding ideals. He was a mesmerising speaker, but did not choose to sermonise on PBS. He was a talented writer, but did not seek primarily to publish books.
Rather, he brought about change by leading marches, in the face of fire hoses and attack dogs, against the injustice of segregation and Jim Crow. And though he paid with his life, it is today written of him what was said in ancient times of Joseph. On a slab of marble in front of Lorraine Hotel room 306, where he was murdered, it reads, “Behold here cometh the dreamer. Come let us slay him. And let us see what shall become of his dreams.”