Zionism is not the Issue
Last week I was in Manchester, England for the Big Tent for Israel (BTFI) gathering to combat delegitimization of Israel, which, according to a Reut Institute Report, has its hub of hubs in London. The initiator of the event was Rabbi Jonathan Guttentag, a chareidi rabbi from Manchester, with a well-deserved reputation of activism. For instance, while in Manchester, I visited the kollel of his Whitefield Congregation, the first such kollel in a United Synagogue shul, in which most of the membership is not shomer Shabbos.
From the beginning the BTFI was enmeshed in controversy. The mainstream organizations of British Jewry demonstrated that they were not interested in a major communal initiative being headed by a chareidi rav. Had he not chosen the name Big Tent for Israel or sought the financial support of the Board of Deputies of British Jewry or the Jewish Leadership Council, Rabbi Guttentag might have forestalled the attacks from that front. But that is now water over the dam.
In any event, the mainstream groups succeeded in wresting the selection of speakers from Rabbi Guttentag's hands. I was one of the sacrifices, as Reform elements within the Jewish Leadership Council objected to my participation on the grounds that I am an Orthodox rabbi (false). They demanded that a Reform clergyperson be included to offset any Orthodox rabbi, no matter how unversed in anything related to the delegitimization of Israel.
Rabbi Guttentag refused to accede to that demand. But as a consequence, neither he nor Rabbi Paysach Lerner of Young Israel, who travelled to Manchester for the event, spoke. Rabbi Guttentag was willing to make this concession because the purpose of the conference was to stimulate grassroots activism, and thus the success or failure of initiative will depend on what takes place in response to the conference. And that activity will be under the umbrella of Rabbi Guttentag's BFTI organization.
Though of less immediate impact than the meddling with BTFI from the secular Left, more upsetting for Rabbi Guttentag were the attacks on him from the religious Right. A columnist for the Jewish Tribune, who writes under the pseudonym "Ben Yitzchak," proclaimed the conference to be "not a place for a Yiddishe boy." (I answered him in that venue.) Rabbi Guttentag was the subject of patchkevillen in Manchester, and a spate of angry phone calls for days after the event.
In his second column on the subject, Ben Yitzchak rested his case on the fact that a number of the sponsoring organizations had Zionist in their titles. In my humble opinion, the venerable columnist is a general busy fighting the last war, if not the one before that. Zionism as a vibrant ideology has long since ceased to exist – certainly outside of Israel, and, I suspect, even within. At most the "Zionist" label signifies a certain level of identification with the Jewish people and support for the existence of the State of Israel.
Though most members of Zionist organizations -- leaving aside the specifically religious ones -- are not religious, their lack of religious observance has little to do with their Zionism and more to do with the fact that non-observance is the default position of most of world Jewry. Indeed I would venture that those who style themselves as "Zionists" are likely to be considerably more religiously observant than those who do not.
Defense of Israel's right to exist is one of the few means for Jews in chutz l'aretz to continue to identify as Jews. I met one barrister at the conference, for instance, who has contributed over a hundred thousand pounds ($160,000) of his time to pursuing administrative complaints against the biased reporting of the BBC. And from the ranks of those positively identified as Jews are most likely to come the next generation of ba'alei teshuva.
Thus it is a positive development – or so it seems to me -- if chareidi adults can join with other Jews on matters of common agreement. Chareidi participation in pro-Israel advocacy provides an excellent opportunity to refute the stereotype of chareidim as concerned only with their narrow interests and apathetic about the general welfare. A number of people suggested to me that the Jewish Leadership Council was so dead-set against my participation because an articulate refutation of the attacks of the European Left on Israel, by someone with a black kippah and tzitzis out, would also effectively debunk many of the common myths about chareidim. (I spent the rest of my week in England speaking on university campuses and in Jewish high schools for AishUK on the outright lies and delusional rhetoric that pervades the public discussion of Israel in Europe.)
Rabbi Guttentag shared with me some of the vituperative letters sent to him. The thrust was that the existence of Israel has only served to create anti-Semitism around the world. Again, this strikes me as fighting old battles. Whatever one's opinion of the creation of the State of Israel, it exists. The only way it could cease to exist, prior to the coming of Mashiach, would be a bloodbath involving the slaughter of millions of Jews, religious and non-religious alike, and the destruction of the world's leading citadels of Torah.
The most imminent threat to the six million or so Jews in Israel is, of course, a nuclear Iran. But the efforts to turn Israel into a pariah state, like South Africa under apartheid, are also designed to render Israel's existence non-viable and to ensure that the world would remain indifferent to Israel's destruction.
True, most of the anti-Semitism in the world today focuses on Israel. But in the absence of Israel, what the pre-eminent historian of anti-Semitism Robert Wistrich calls "the longest hatred" would find new means of expression. Chazal identify hatred of Jews with the giving of Torah itself. And one of the most remarkable aspects of anti-Semitism has been its protean nature and ability to take ever new forms, whether pagan, Christian, Nazi, or today's poisonous mix of left-wing and Muslim hatred.
In any case, the close association between the delegitimization of Israel and anti-Semitism today is just another reason that combating the former is a chareidi issue too. To the extent that Jewish students on campuses are subjected to a drumbeat of propaganda portraying Israelis as the new Nazis, and Israel as a genocidal, apartheid regime, they will be tempted to flee any identification as Jews – particularly if that identity is already weak. In their efforts to demonstrate that they are not one of those ethno-centric, racist Jews, who are alleged to believe that only Jewish blood matters and that of all others is to be spilled cheaply, they will be even more likely to assimilate entirely and inter-marry.
I certainly would not have advocated emptying Manchester's yeshivos and kollelim to attend the BFTI – nor did anyone. Nor do I have any criticism of anyone chose to learn instead of attending. But for chareidi adults who possess the skill set and inclination to join effectively in combating the delegitimization of Israel, there were powerful reasons to participate. And if a prominent chareidi rabbi, like Rabbi Guttentag, could spearhead the effort, more power to him.
Every American kid hears about George Washington and the cherry tree. Little George's enraged father demanded to know who had cut down his prized cherry tree. To which George responded, "I cannot tell a lie. It was I." Though the story is almost certainly apocryphal, the pedagogic lesson is an important one.
Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler in Michtav M'Eliyahu emphasizes that the exercise of our free will (bechira) is the means by which we define ourselves. We are, above all, choosing beings. Thus, writes Rabbi Dessler, any mitzvah that we do only because our parents taught us to act in a certain way, or as a result of coercion of any type, confers no merit on us.
Taking responsibility for our choices – just like the young George Washington of Parson Weems' tale -- is a crucial aspect of coming to understand ourselves as choosing beings. That's why as parents it is crucial that we do not let our children evade responsibility for their actions with all manner of excuses and finger-pointing at others. Without developing the habit of taking responsibility, there is little hope for growth in middos. Only when one recognizes his or her responsibility, can one begin to think about changing oneself in any meaningful fashion.
Last week, I gave a talk on a Jewish view of happiness to a group of mostly non-observant Jewish singles in London. My driver from the talk to London's Euston Station, a 35-year-old Israeli just beginning to explore Judaism in depth, offered me his own take on the subject. He told me that he had recently discovered the key to happiness is taking responsibility for what happens to him. For instance, when someone sold him a lemon of a used car, rather than blaming the seller, he accepted responsibility. "I know a lot about cars, and I should have discovered the defect," he told me.
Sure things happen to all of us that are beyond our control. And sometimes others do influence us in negative ways, even if we ultimately make the bad decision. But if we cultivate feelings of victimhood, and treat our lives as something happens to us, rather than as something that we make happen, then we have no chance of becoming growing, striving beings. And without that, any sense of well-being is impossible.
I ended the ride to Euston Station by telling my driver he should have given the talk instead of me.