Smiling at People: A Key to Israel’s Survival

John Buchanan, pastor of the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, is one of the good guys. His denomination was the first among those in the Protestant mainline to vote for divestment from Israel last August. Buchanan announced at the time that his own congregation would choose to invest in Israel, rather than divest from it – supporting projects in Israel that help the peace process. He was one of many, many Presbyterians who expressed displeasure with the misguided moves of their church’s leadership.

Nonetheless, Buchanan threw some cold water on the situation in a letter in last Wednesday’s New York Times. Those who criticized his church got it all wrong. Citing some Jewish claims in the press, he wrote, “What it is not is ‘a brilliantly organized political campaign to hurt Israel’ nor is it ‘functionally anti-Semitic.’”

I beg to differ.

A few weeks ago, I found myself with a colleague in Portland, Oregon, involved in a struggle against yet another mainline Protestant denomination, poised to pass a resolution inimical to Israel’s security. We came face to face with some of the engineers of that “organized political campaign,” and I am more convinced than ever that measures calling for divestment or for Israel to tear down its security fence are indeed “functionally anti-Semitic.” I will explain only briefly in this forum, because it is another point entirely that I wish to make.

We spoke formally and informally with church muckety-mucks, and with Jane and Joe Delegate. The difference between them was remarkable. The majority of non-leaders expressed indignation that their church was telling Israelis to resume being sitting ducks for suicide bombers – without even proposing an alternative defense. (The security fence has curtailed suicide bombing by 90%.) Leadership, on the other hand, was hostile and conniving. Why the difference? In large part, we learned, the difference was the machinations of a group of dedicated individuals wholly in the thrall of Palestinians, working through what each of the mainline denominations calls Global Ministries (GM). The head of the Mideast section of GM for the Presbyterians is an Egyptian, who has succeeded in teaming with the Sabeel Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem to introduce a Palestinian spin on all things relating to Israel – and more importantly, to mute all pro-Israel voices. His son just happens to sit in the same position for two other denominations, and has orchestrated anti-Israel measures for them. When speakers are sent by these churches to seminaries and to local congregations, it is only the Palestinian side that they hear. The orchestration is quite good. From the videos that delegates were shown, to the pictures on official websites – only one side of the story was available for anyone who wanted to learn more.

Why is it “functionally anti-semitic” to divest from Israel? (Those who use this term mean that the behavior is so over the top that it must be seen as anti-semitic, even if it is not a product of any animus to the Jewish people.) When you hold Jews to a different standard than you would use for any other people, you are functionally anti-semitic, no matter what your motivation. If you demand that Israel put her citizens in range of suicide bombers in order to spare Palestinians dislocation of their lives, you ask it to do what no other country would. When you focus so disproportionately on Israel, as if it were the cause of all evil in the world, and neglect for decades to take action in places like the Sudan, Tibet, North Korea – places where a strong unified church voice might actually do some good – you are being anti-semitic. (The World Council of Churches, the umbrella group for the mainline Protestants, has been hostile to Israel since ’47, and almost always silent in the face of oppression from leftist regimes and from Muslims. Sorry, Virginia. When it comes to the way the WCC treats the Jews, there is no Santa Claus.)

With all this working against us, why were we received so well by most of the rank and file? As best as we could tell, the single most important element that made pastors and laypeople disagree with their church leadership was positive interaction with Jews and Israel. Pastors who had traveled to Israel outside the officially organized denominational trips (which had them meet only Palestinians and far leftist Israelis) came back with at least a sense of balance.

More important, perhaps, was good feelings about Jews they had met. Most people we met admitted to being ill-informed about the issues. They did not want to hurt Jews, or their relationships with them. The more meaningful the contact with Jews they had, the more this was a factor.

One courageous person stood up to the leadership of his denomination at a meeting we attended. As they tried poking holes in his objections to an anti-Israel resolution, he held his ground forcefully and convincingly. I asked him what made him – a prof at the denomination’s own seminary – different from the others within church officialdom. He related that as a child, he was taken as part of an interfaith group to visit a Reform Temple. “I remember nothing of the substance of what went on. I can’t tell you a thing about the service. But I do remember the smiles, the warmth with which we were all received.”

The Orthodox world is not into ecumenical dialogue. There is no reason, however, why we cannot be into warmth. One of the most famous stories about Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l is the one I hate the most. The one about the nun, who asked for him after his passing, and was saddened to hear of his petirah. “I’ve lived in Monsey for decades. No one ever, ever says anything to me, not even hello. That older rabbi used to take walks in the morning, and we ran into each other regularly. He never failed to greet me and ask me how I am.”

It is a terrible story. What was remarkable about Rav Yaakov’s behavior? Is it that he followed a Gemara in Berachos, which instructs us to be the first to offer a greeting of all people, including non-Jews? Is that passage in the Gemara somehow volitional? Who made it so? Can we turn other parts of the Gemara into suggestions, rather than demands?

The story always hurt, but it hurts much more lately. I will not fault a good man like John Buchanan for not seeing the full picture from the inside. I cannot be so generous about our own. To counteract what the Palestinians and their lackeys have been up to, we must reclaim the territory right here in America that has been lost. We must find a way to reverse the process of misinformation that has insinuated itself into the heartland of America. We must be more conscious of what our neighbors are thinking. And we can do much of the work simply by greeting them with a smile.

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2 Responses

  1. ja says:

    “No one ever, ever says anything to me, not even hello.”

    I never heard this part of the story before. Are you sure it’s accurate? I’ve always thought this was another gadol story that relates something that a gadol did something we’d find unremarkable from a regular Joe; gedolim hagiographies specialize in these (so-and-so’s grandchildren visited with friends, and he gave candy to the friends too! and the like).

  2. Different River says:

    Well said. This should be disseminated widely.

    If being a decent human being is not reason enough to greet everyone with cheerful countenance, nor is the exhortations of our sages, then people should keep in mind that to refrain from doing to is to make antisemites.

    Every Jew who is publicly recognizable as a Jew — either by physical appearance (dress, kipah) or even a “Jewish” name — like it or not represents the Jewish people to every non-Jew with whom he or she comes into contact. Likewise, every Torah-observant Jew represents Torah in every interaction with non-observant Jews as well as

    Like it or not, we are all ambassadors, and it in incumbent upon all of us to behave in ways that bring credit to the Torah and the K’lal Yisrael.

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