Homerun or Strikeout: A Reply to Rabbi Shafran

Every columnist aspires to write — at least occasionally — something of such originality that he will be quickly distinguished from the common herd of scriveners. In that respect, “Our Not-So-Humble Opinions” by my erstwhile colleague and long-time friend Rabbi Avi Shafran, in which he attempts to defend the Middle East policies of the Obama administration, is a homerun.

The danger, however, of swinging for the fences is that one is more likely to strikeout. Sometimes the source of one’s originality lies in having said something so strikingly wrong that no one ever thought of it before. That, I will argue, is the case with Rabbi Shafran’s piece. Not that I expect to convince Avi, since I’m reasonably confident that he has read dozens of previous pieces of mine on this topic, without falling sway to the power of my arguments.

Indeed I suspect that I fall into the category of “intelligent and otherwise well-informed frum folks,” whom he considers somewhat deranged on the subject of the Obama administration’s policy to Israel. In that regard, I can only respond that at least I am in sync with the overwhelming majority of my fellow Israeli Jews, about 10% of whom view President Obama’s foreign policy as “pro-Israel” today, despite the great enthusiasm that greeted his election in Israel. My fellow Israelis and I could, admittedly, be wrong in our judgment, but I doubt it is because we are so much less well-informed than Rabbi Shafran. Since it is our lives on the line, we do try to keep reasonably up-to-date on shifts in American foreign policy.

Before explaining why I believe that Avi has suffered a rare strikeout, I should nevertheless say that I’m pleased that as a sometime spokesman for Agudath Israel of America he has written the piece he has. At the very least, he reminds us that in arguments concerning American foreign policy, it is important to maintain a civil tongue and confine oneself to arguments, while avoiding ad hominems. One can disagree without being disagreeable. In addition, it is important not to presume, to quote Barry Rubin of the BESA Center, that all “foolishness, misunderstanding, wishful thinking, and naivete” stems from malevolence. Conceptual errors are more common than evil intent, and often more dangerous. As the great French student of American society Talleyrand once wrote, “This is worse than a crime it is a blunder.”

It is also important that the current administration not view the Orthodox community, or any of its constituent parts, as irreconcilably opposed to it, or in the pocket of any political party. Any opposition on our part must be confined to policies, not to people or parties. In that regard, I would add, however, that it was unwise for Rabbi Shafran to even raise the suggestion that there are those in the Orthodox community whose opposition to President Obama stems from his middle name, doubts about his place of birth, or his “surplus of melanin,” even if to express the hope that that is not the case.

PRESIDENT OBAMA ENTERED OFFICE in thrall to a number of misconceptions about the Middle East. None of these misconceptions were terribly original with him, and most of them have long tainted American foreign policy in the region — the Clinton administration no less than that of President Obama. The first is what I have called the “liberal fallacy” — “the assumption,” in Barry Rubin’s words, “that everyone is basically alike in their thoughts, dreams, goals and world view.” Starting with that assumption, policymakers have no hope of understanding those with a different point of view. In particular, liberals will fail to comprehend the power of religious belief or to understand that there are those who take their religions far more seriously than they take their own. Thus American policymakers repeatedly fail to consider the possibility that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not just haggling over borders, but has far more to do with the fact that Israel’s very existence on land once under Islamic sovereignty is stain that must be removed, no matter how long it takes, in the eyes of most Arabs.

Those who believe that all people are basically alike and that their primary concern is securing a slightly bigger piece of the pie, will inevitably underestimate the difficulty of peacemaking. Upon entering office, the Obama administration pronounced the time ripe for achieving a Palestinian-Israeli peace treaty, without explaining what made it so. If anything, circumstances were far less auspicious than at Camp David in 2000. Then Palestinians were not yet divided between the Palestinian Authority-controlled West Bank and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat had far more stature in the Palestinian street than any current leader, and therefore a far better chance of selling a peace deal.

Obama had apparently given no thought to why Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas refused to even negotiate over the most generous offer the Palestinians are ever likely to receive, tendered by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008. Apparently he assumed that he could simply squeeze more concessions from Israel. And Abbas was content to let him try: he told the editorial board of the Washington Post in early 2009 that there was no point in negotiating with Israel; he preferred to wait for the United States to deliver Israel on a platter.

By January 2009, however, Israelis had internalized the lesson that territorial withdrawals only make them easier targets, after the failure of the Lebanese and Gaza withdrawals.

The second major fallacy with which the administration entered office was that the Arab-Israeli dispute is at the center of all that ails the Middle East. Few propositions are easier to refute. Most of the major bloodletting in the Middle East, starting with Iraq-Iran War, has had nothing to do with Israel. Had Israel never come into being, the rates of illiteracy, the subjugation of women, the lack of scientific or technological progress, the absence of democracy, and the religious fanaticism that goes with them, which characterizes the Middle East, would have been exactly the same as today.

The administration’s third misconception was that there is some fundamental connection between the Palestinian-Israeli peace process and Iran, and that only progress on the peace track would enable the United States to rally the Sunni Arab states to its banner in efforts to prevent Iran from going nuclear. To the extent that such a connection exists, it actually went the other way. Clipping Iran’s wings, and thus limiting its ability to sponsor terrorism against Israel from the North (Hizbullah) and South (Hamas), would only advance chances for peace.

The administration’s linkage might have initially constituted only a mistake. But as the first batch of recently released WikiLeaks documents demonstrates, the administration was soon hearing from all the Sunni states that the United States should act to stop the Iranian nuclear program. Iran was of far greater concern to them than Israel — for only the former entertains ambitions to be a regional hegemon. Even though the administration knew that its major Arab allies saw no linkage between the “peace process” and stopping the Iranian threat, it continued to insist that such linkage exists and used that linkage to justify continued pressure on Israel for further concessions.

BEYOND THE CONCEPTUAL WEAKNESSES of the Obama administration’s approach to the Middle East, are the concrete policy changes under President Obama that have harmed Israel. Early on, the administration denied that it was bound by the April 14 2004 letter of President George W. Bush — a letter that was carefully negotiated as part of the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip — in which Bush acknowledged that in light of new realities on the ground since 1967, Israel could not be expected to withdraw from the major settlement blocks built since then. By denying any binding effect to previous presidential undertakings, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton taught Israeli leaders that they should not put too much faith in American promises — certainly not as a basis for current concessions.

Moreover, the Obama administration has made crystal-clear to a greater degree than any previous administration that it views even new neighborhoods of Jerusalem built since 1967 as “settlements.” It has repeatedly insisted that Israeli settlement freezes should apply to Jerusalem, just like Judea and Samaria, and has treated the 1949 armistice lines — i.e., Abba Eban’s “Auschwitz borders” — as the fundamental baseline for a future Palestinian state. By placing such an emphasis on Israeli “settlements,” the Obama administration has only ended up forcing the Palestinians to take a more hard-line position than previously. Prior to President Obama, no Palestinian leader had made cessation of settlement building a pre-condition for negotiations.

From the beginning of the new administration, almost all demands and pressure have been on Israel. When this complaint was raised at a July 14 2009 meeting between President Obama and leaders of 14 major Jewish organizations, the former responded, “For the past eight years, Israel had a friend in the United States and did not make peace.” The clear implications of that statement are: (1) that Israel bears the primary onus for the failure to achieve peace; and (2) that the Obama administration does not intend to be the same kind of “friend.”

Indeed, the Palestinians have continued to receive a pass from the United States. Hundreds of millions of dollars in new aid have been forthcoming, without any conditions. Incitement in the official Palestinian media and textbooks has never been emphasized by the president or secretary of state in any major public address on Middle East peace. Yet the continued existence of such incitement and the ongoing promotion of the cult of martyrdom, seventeen years after Oslo, demonstrate how far the Palestinian people are from being prepared to accept Israel in any borders.

In a clear break with all past American administrations, the Obama administration joined with 188 other signatories to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, to pass a resolution urging Israel to sign the treaty and open its nuclear facilities to international inspection. Doing so would destroy Israel’s longstanding policy of maintaining nuclear ambiguity. The resolution also furthers the process of delegitimization of Israel by placing it in defiance of an unanimous international resolution, while giving Iran’s nuclear program an important talking point: Iran’s evasion of international inspections makes it no worse than Israel.

At times America’s stance to Israel has veered close to outright hostility, as in the manufactured crisis during and after Vice-President Joseph Biden’s March visit, over a local planning commission’s preliminary approval of new homes adjacent to an existent Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem. Secretary of State Clinton let it be known, through State Department spokesman Phillip Crowley, that in her almost hour-long dressing down of Prime Minister Netanyahu she had termed the action an “insult to the United States,” injurious to “American interests,” and as sending a “deeply negative signal about Israel’s approach to the bilateral relationship.” President Obama went further, suggesting that America was paying a price in blood in Iraq and Afghanistan because of the failure to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians — a failure for which the principal onus fell, as always, on Israel. On his next visit to Washington D.C., Prime Minister Netanyahu was subjected to humiliation rituals visited on no other head of state: He was left sitting downstairs while the president ate dinner with his family and no photograph was taken of him with the president.

The appointment (subsequently withdrawn) of Chas Freeman to head the National Intelligence Council was another slap in the face to Israel. A former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Freeman has earned much of his livelihood since then promoting the Saudi monarchy’s views in the United States. His record of extreme hostility to Israel was far too long to have escaped the notice of those who mooted his nomination.

While American policy towards Iran is in no way determined by Israel’s concerns, the consequences of that policy will likely be felt in the first instance by Israel. President Obama entered office determined to engage Iran. A case can certainly be made that a period of engagement was necessary in order to win support for biting sanctions against Iran. Yet by continually extending his deadlines, when the Iranians slapped away American overtures, the president conveyed to the Iranians a message of weakness. Never was that weakness more evident than when he failed to exploit a genuine chink in the regime’s armor in the form of widespread demonstrations after the stolen presidential elections of 2009. The prolonged period of engagement not only gave the Iranians valuable time to proceed with their enrichment efforts, it also convinced them that they have little to fear from the United States.

RABBI SHAFRAN ADDRESSES neither the faulty conceptual bases of President Obama’s Middle East policy or the failures of execution. Rather he contents himself with citing a few positive actions towards Israel over the last two years: (1) the allocation of $205 million for an Israeli anti-missile defense system (incidentally, omitted from the temporary budget resolution); (2) American efforts to secure Israel’s admission to the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development); (3-4) American refusal to participate in the upcoming Durban Review Conference and its rejection of the Goldstone Report findings; (5) refusal to participate in joint military exercises with Turkey from which Israel was excluded; and (6) authorizing the targeted killing of a radical Muslim cleric in Yemen. The last, of course, had nothing to do with Israel, but rather with the ongoing threat the cleric in question poses to America.

The other items are indeed important. No one ever claimed that the United States under President Obama has gone from being Israel’s sole defender to its arch-enemy. But items one through five hardly establish President Obama’s great affinity for Israel either. In part, as with all American administrations, they reflect a political calculus: Jews, after blacks, are the Democratic Party’s most dependable voting bloc and largest givers. No need to needlessly risk their support, over primarily symbolic matters. And in part, they reflect the overwhelming support that Israel continues to enjoy among the American people and in Congress.

President Obama is famous for his oratory, and Rabbi Shafran offers two speeches as proof of his goodwill towards Israel. The first is his Cairo speech, in which he urged his Moslem listeners to recognize Israel’s legitimacy. That statement in an Arab country with which Israel has had a formal peace treaty for over thirty years should hardly be remarkable. Rather what was most notable about the speech, billed as an outreach to the Moslem world, was the president’s adoption of the Moslem narrative that the state of Israel should be understood as a response to the Holocaust. In the Moslem narrative, Israel has been inflicted upon them as European penance for its own sins during the Holocaust.

Months later, at the U.N. General Assembly, Obama did describe Israel as “the historic homeland of the Jewish people.” But the focus of Middle East section of the speech was almost entirely on Israeli settlements and the impediment they pose to peace. The president did not point to all the ways that the Palestinian leadership has never budged from its positions circa 1993.

That one sentence about Israel as the “historic homeland of the Jewish people” hardly overshadows two years of failed approaches, both in theory and practice, towards Israel and her neighbors.

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44 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    I’m glad to see this rebuttal here, but I, and probably many other readers, should have been given the opportunity to comment directly on Rabbi Shafran’s piece. When an article is expected to stir controversy, authors should not want to shut us out, unless they have doubts about their own arguments.

  2. Yoel L says:

    Rabbi Rosenblum’s article was very very necessary and the above comment is also appreciated
    This response was also printed in the Five Towns jewish Times Rabbi Shafran responded as well
    and there was a third response back.

  3. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

    Rabbi Shafran was not the one to “out” racism in the Orthodox community as a contributory factor towards opposition to the President. Rahm Emanuel reportedly was furious about it, and had some Orthodox groups barred from the White House for a while. I hope that Rabbi Shafran’s words will be part of the cure, not of the illness.

  4. Barry Rubin says:

    Thanks for the nice quotes from me but I left the BESA Center about 10 years ago and am director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center of the IDC in Herzliya, Israel. Please update the article and use this designation in future. For my blog from which these quotes are taken you can see http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com

  5. rtw says:

    My mom said she wouldn’t vote for Obama because of his middle name and she’s not Orthodox (ended up voting for him anyways, after Palin joined the McCain ticket); kal vichomer such people exist in the more isolated, Orthodox community. And I can tell you almost all of my Orthodox acquaintances who I’ve broached the subject with have been unsure of Obama’s birthplace. I don’t understand why it’s unwise to discuss these things.

  6. Bob Miller says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein wrote “…Rahm Emanuel reportedly was furious about it…”

    What is Rahm Emanuel not furious about?

  7. Pinny says:

    All Rabbi Shafran wrote is that lots of frum people reach conclusions about Obama without even knowing all the facts. They call him a rasha without even giving him credit for good things he has done. They don’t even know those things. From the people I know, that’s very true.

  8. eLamdan says:

    Thank you for your response Rabbi Rosenblum. My understanding is that Rabbi Shafran was simply expressing his bewilderment at the fact that so many people seem so certain about such a complex subject. You seem to typify such a certitude. Any non-expert on the Middle East can easily use the internet and find a myriad of articles asserting exactly the opposite of what you have stated.

    For example, the assertion that liberals “fail to comprehend the power of religious belief or to understand that there are those who take their religions far more seriously than they take their own” is one of the oldest attacks against them. Have there been no intelligent responses out there to this assertion? Regarding the Washington Post article on Abbas, there was a response in a Forward article.

    Finally, Iran is another complex issue. I’m not sure Obama has done everything right, but his goal seems to the the same as any other President’s would be – to stop a nuclear Iran. The repercussions to any approach go in so many directions that, frankly, I have no idea where you are getting your certainty from.

  9. L. Oberstein says:

    it is important to maintain a civil tongue and confine oneself to arguments, while avoiding ad hominems. One can disagree without being disagreeable.

    None of these misconceptions were terribly original with him, and most of them have long tainted American foreign policy in the region — the Clinton administration no less than that of President Obama.

    No one ever claimed that the United States under President Obama has gone from being Israel’s sole defender to its arch-enemy.

    These three quotes from Jonathan’s column would be more comforting if they really described the issue at hand. The vitriolic hatred of President Obama is beyond rationality. President Carter was far worse and one didn’t hear his religion,birthplace and political beliefs falsified and vilified the way the enemies of the elected President do. I understood Avi Shafran’s argument to be that even Republicans should admit that Obama is not all bad and that he is not evil incarnate.

    One is free to disagree with his foreign or domestic policy, that is what our democracy encourages.The problem is that the opponents of the President made a decision two years ago to destroy his Presidency. Even Clarence Thomas’s nomination for the Supreme Court was not filibustered and he was confirmed to a life time position 52-18. Today every appointment, even for minor positions was stopped unless cloture could be voted by 60 Senators. I don’t think Jonathan Rosenblum with his Yale education understands the danger to American democracy when a minority sets as its goal , not compromise, not the common good of the country, but above all to stop all legislation and all appointments . That this country is not in worse peril is not in the least due to Mitch McConnel and his gang , they put their short term interests above those of the country. The defeat of Senator Bennet in Utah for his own party’s nomination is the wave of the future unless , by some miracle, the republicans change their goals.

    Obama is no better and no worse than many other Presidents and his policies are debatable. But, what is really at stake here is whether the United States political dialog deteriorates further. Avi Shafran was asking for menchlichkeit. How come the Am Navon Ve chacham can so often have so little sechel ? The answer is not to pile on further. if we ally with the enemies of civility and compromise, we will find ourselves losing the uniqueness of America that has enabled us to thrive.

  10. Rafi M says:

    Give Obama credit for his handling of Iran. The Wikileaks cables reveal the effort the administration put into getting Russia and China in line on sanctions, showing both diplomatic skill and the priority they give to addressing the Iranian threat. The sanctions were achieved in June 2010 and are reportedly having a significant effect on Iran’s economy. The administration also put steady pressure on Russia to cancel its deal to sell Iran S‑300 missiles, which Russia eventually did. Iran still seems undeterred, so Obama has shown that the military option is still available. He has deployed two aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf and held a major air defense exercise with Israel in October 2010. (Will he actually strike when Iran continues to pursue a bomb? God help us if it comes down to that.)

    R. Rosenblum focuses a lot on Obama’s rhetoric. Rhetoric is important, but it’s a show. If you look at the tangible things Obama has done for Israel, he’s at least as good a friend as any we have had in the White House.

    I second L. Oberstein’s comment. There is way to much knee-jerk vitriol directed at #44 in this country and in our community.

  11. dovid 2 says:

    L. Oberstein writes about republicans that “… they put their short term interests above those of the country.”

    May I remind L. Oberstein that he justified his voting for Obama because Obama is good for the stock market, notwithstanding Obama’s infamous, decades-long connections with unsavory characters, openly hostile to Jews and Israel, his own animus towards Jews and Israel, his enduring lack of sympathy for Israel’s security concerns, his total lack of foreign policy experience and absolute lack of understanding of the dynamics of the Middle East, his total lack of management experience, etc. etc. etc.

    All the signs were out there BEFORE the elections for anyone concerned with the wellbeing of Israel, that Obama is clueless at best, and anti-Israel at worst. A Zogby poll, dated Dec. 15, 2010, indicates that 63 percent of US respondents think Obama is a weak leader compared to only 19 percent who regard him as a strong leader. Four percent of Israelis believe Obama’s Mideast policies are “pro-Israel,” according to a Smith Research poll. I trust L. Oberstein will agree that Israelis know what’s good for them at least as well as he does. If only 4% think Obama is good for Israel, then he is a disaster.

    Wouldn’t L. Oberstein describe his choice of US president as putting his “short term interests” above those of k’lal Israel and those of the US?

  12. L. Oberstein says:

    Dovid2,you are entitled to vote for whichever candidate you prefer, even Sarah Palin for President. What I am talking about is civility, maturity, and respect for diversity. If the goal of the opposition party is to work together with the majority for bi patisan legislation, then it is part of our American fabric of democracy. If a minority uses all of its strength to hobble the majority , not on a few critical issues, but on all legislation and all nominations, then it is not loyal to American values. That these same fascists call themselves the only true patriots is revoling.

  13. Avi S says:

    Excellent retort to Rabbi Shafran. When Obama was first touted as a candidate in 2004, it was because many felt that he would be a racial healer. Someone who could reach out to both white and black people, and could possibly end cries of racism. Unfortunately, this has not been the case. Obama and his supporters and the media play the race card and frequently accuse the opposition as racists. Some healing! Calling Ortho opposition racist has it backwards. Because many people are intimidated by being called racist, or want to seem politically correct , the opposition to Obama’s policies has been tempered. were Carter still president the outcry would be twice as loud because no one would fear a Jewish liberal blogger, spokesman, Federation leader accuse an opponent of being a racist. If Obama had two white parents instead of just the one who raised him, the dislike for him among Orthos would be far greater and far louder and Rabbi Shafran would not need to apologize and Rabbi Rosenblum would not have to clarify.

  14. Avi S says:

    “it is important to maintain a civil tongue and confine oneself to arguments, while avoiding ad hominems. One can disagree without being disagreeable.”

    Good point, and from the start Obama, his supporters and the fawning media have accused and intimidated his opposition by cries of racism. This included both Bill and Hilary (were they racist for talking about his middle name, his Muslim background, or his birthplace?).
    Curiously, if his opponents are racist, which race are they against?

  15. aron feldman says:

    Yitzchok Adlerstein
    December 30, 2010 at 11:31 pm
    Rabbi Shafran was not the one to “out” racism in the Orthodox community as a contributory factor towards opposition to the President. Rahm Emanuel reportedly was furious about it, and had some Orthodox groups barred from the White House for a while. I hope that Rabbi Shafran’s words will be part of the cure, not of the illness

    I heard from an Aipac big shot that Rahm Emanuel was an unhelpful and even hurtful voice with regard to Israel during his WH tenure.Perhaps the reluctance of Orthodox groups to fall into place in the J St conga line contributed to his frustration and such a reaction was a result

  16. aron feldman says:

    Kudos to Rabbi Shafran for an excellent thought provoking piece,while i concur that racism should have no place in our circles,how much of the apprehension and concern about Obama that is (rightly) prevalent in our circles is legitimate and how much is just being attributed to racism as a convenient excuse?

    Are Jews not correct in being concerned with Obama’s connection to numerous academics (therefore whatever they say makes them kosher) who espouse moral equivalency and other anti Israel ideas?

    Is his embrace of a group like J St not a cause for concern?

    Is his giving an award to an open anti-semite like Mary Robinson (who led the whole Durban hate fest) not a red flag?

    Is his support of the UN not another serois question that needs to be asked?

  17. Michael L. Geller says:

    I am surprised to find missing in this dialogue on this orthodox related site no mention of Hashem and what His message may be, having arranged the elevation, from near obscurity, of Barrack Obama to the presidency. Things are fine until they are not. When exactly does the “this Paro knows not Yosef” moment come?

  18. Jonathan Rosenblum says:

    Is calling those with whom one disagrees “fascists” the model of civility that Rabbi Oberstein wishes to hold up for us.

  19. Reb Yid says:

    Rabbi Oberstein, as usual, is on the mark. And on this matter Avi Shafran is correct as well.

    Enough with calling Obama a Nazi, emphasizing his middle name, continuing to question his place of birth (a shanda beyond shandas–shame on those Jews that are in league with Tea Party folks on this), etc. And the ignorance of calling him a “socialist”–if only…he has sold out the progressive wing, chosen very moderate Supreme Court nominees [certainly compared to his predecessor], and considerably watered down his health care and tax proposals in the largely futile hopes of trying to attract Republicans and moderate Democrats to support his policies. Anything that has his name attached to it is labeled with epithets from the right (and from much of the Orthodox world), no matter the content.

    There are plenty of “pro-Palestinian” remarks one could assemble about Obama’s predecessor (including the fact he was the first one to publicly declare the establishment of a Palestinian state as official US policy). But for many, they don’t let the actual facts get in the way–it’s the labels that come first. No amount of trying to explain Obama’s virtues, or critique Republican positions, appears to matter these days. People are convinced that they, and only they, have the “truth”.

  20. Reb Yid says:

    A final point regarding middle names:

    Those Jews who continue to use Obama’s middle name disparagingly best be careful. We certainly wouldn’t want others to do the same with Ben Bernanke’s (Sholom, for those who are interested).

  21. L. Oberstein says:

    Well, at least you noticed. I do not know the dictionary definition of “fascist” and may have used an incorrect term. Nativist movements, the “know nothings’ of the 19th century were anti-democratic (with a small “d”). That part of the Republican Party that was a working partner with the Democratic Party, the party of Dirkson, Mathias, Javits, and a few current Senators are a diminishing breed. The party is beholden to its most intolerant elements. How can you honestly find common cause with DeMint and his group, I don’t see how it reconciles with Torah values. The Agudah was crticized in between the war Poland for allying with anti semites for short term gain. I wonder if in historical hind sight that decision was wise. I for one remember the St Louis and am not willing to hound out of the country every undocumented alien and “to take our country back” by getting rid of the non white foreigners. 87 filibusters in one congress is a crime against America, p;ain and simple. it is political war against the functioning of our country. America is sinking in its competition with China and India in the new economy, we can’t just cut out government programs and put the poor out to fend for themselves, make social security voluntary and medical care available to those who have money and forget about the rest. There is a moral imperative for Jews to care about others . Tzedek tzedek tirdof was not invented by the Reform Movement.

  22. Naftali Braun says:

    I have been a fan of Rabbi Yonasan Rosenblum for a long time—and remain one. However, I have long been dismayed by his writings on the Obama administration quite apart from its foreign policies. I, like Rabbi Shafran, have been disheartened by the vociferous opposition of the Orthodox community to President Obama since he emerged on the national stage. During the campaign, this was manifested by the dissemination of vague and frightening rumors about the man himself, inspiring real and needless fear among the uninformed in our community. Unless I have missed something, Barack Obama did not turn out to be a secret jihadist; or else he is a very ineffective one. After the election this fear-mongering morphed into an unrelenting condemnation of every position, policy, and effort advanced by the administration. In its zeal to oppose the president, our community appeared to sell its soul to the Republican party; committing itself to endorsing and defending every plank in its platform. This seems to me profoundly unwise and exceedingly unbecoming. As a community, we should judge each issue that arises by how it would affect us, not by its political origin. We should not be foolish enough to think that any one party will lastingly embrace us, or naïve enough to think that our strong-headed opposition to one party will buy us commensurate favor with the other. We are, and always should be, and independent voice solely supporting the interests of Torah Jewry. I would have thought that if anyone would endorse this opinion, it would be Rabbi Rosenblum. I was disappointed, therefore, by his writings on these subjects over the course of the past two years. A particularly sore episode was the debate over the health-care legislation. The unilaterally combative position of major Chareidi publications on this subject—reflecting the vox populi of the Orthodox community—exemplified to me the flatness and one-dimensionality of the arguments presented. Did a single respectable voice weigh the number of poor frum families who would benefit under the legislation? Did any of them so much as recognize that the pursuit of a health-care bill was a respectable one? All I saw was a unanimous endorsement of every technical, partisan gripe that the Republicans asserted. To my great disappointment, Rabbi Rosenblum’s articles during this period were in lock-step with the rest of them. thought that some of what I have described was voiced by Rabbi Shafran in his article. Rabbi Rosenblum’s reply detailed a comprehensive response to every one of Rabbi Shafran’s assertions regarding Israel, but a reply to this larger point I did not see.

  23. shloi says:

    I read with great interest R.Oberstein and Naftali Braun’s comments.
    I am not an American so it is difficult for me to understand the opposition to the health-care legislation. In Europe public health care is a given.
    What is more incomprehensible to me is the almost knee-jerk opposition of so many charedi public figures against any legislation or programme concerning welfare issues. I do not know why. Is it because welfare is associated with socialism, and socialism means secularism/atheism? Is it because many charedim being self employed or in the professions and not salaried employees, they feel that people have to fend by themselves? I have no idea.
    What puzzles me even more is this: the apparent paradox between the charedi hashkofo of Torah learning for years after the wedding with large families and the fact that this way of life needs the benefits associated with the welfare programmes and laws that the charedi figures so oppose. The adoption of an all Republican agenda would apparently compromise such a way of life.

  24. Bob Miller says:

    Anyone who wants to read a scholarly, well-documented study of Barack Obama’s particular path in Socialism should check out the 2010 book “Radical-in-Chief” by Stanley Kurtz.

    However, anyone who is not willing to reconsider the topic because of their ideology or emotions, don’t bother.

    Some comments by historian Victor Davis Hanson (transcript from Hugh Hewitt’s radio interview):

    VDH: Well, it’s not like the other books, the Dinesh D’Souza book and others, because it’s scholarly, and it’s not . . . it’s disinterested. It’s just trying to explain that this man. Stanley’s not saying commie commie, socialist socialist. He’s just saying this was a hard-core socialist. He was. He’s unapologetic about it. The record was there. And we didn’t even understand this. We never were told this. We didn’t, the media didn’t, we know all about Sharron Angle, we know all about Miller in Alaska, we all know about Christine O’Donnell. But we don’t know anything about the president of the United States.

    VDH: I think it’s different than the other books, because it is disinterested, and it’s scholarly and it’s well documented. And he doesn’t have an axe to grind. He’s just really interested, it’s an intellectual curiosity as how does a socialist become the president of the United States when we had this aggressive attack dog media. And it’s fascinating to read that there’s this paper trail where Barack Obama believes in the equality of result, a redistributed change. That’s fair, there’s a lot of people who do believe in that, and he happens to be one.

  25. rtw says:

    If Obama’s a socialist, you have nothing to worry about: he’s clearly awful at instituting his ideology. Yeah, he’s spread the wealth around…to the banks!

    What’s so bad about socialism anyways? George Orwell was a socialist and his writings are now considered as American as apple pie.

  26. Michael L. Geller says:

    National Socialism. International Socialism. rtw, try it out and report back. Or just ask a survivor or refusenik.

  27. Bob Miller says:


    Please study the US Constitution and the book I recommended, and report back.

  28. Bob Miller says:

    Shloi wrote,

    “What puzzles me even more is this: the apparent paradox between the charedi hashkofo of Torah learning for years after the wedding with large families and the fact that this way of life needs the benefits associated with the welfare programmes and laws that the charedi figures so oppose. The adoption of an all Republican agenda would apparently compromise such a way of life.”

    This contradiction applies only where a large enough pool of Jewish voluntary donors and supporters does not exist in the private sector. Increasing taxation doesn’t exactly expand and enrich that pool, does it?

    If we want to be free of government interference, we also have to be prepared to encourage rewarding private-sector careers for those not cut out for lifelong full-time learning.

  29. L. Oberstein says:

    One can be ad hominem without blatant ad hominemism. I think that the frum world is isolated from main stream America and doesn’t realize that “we must all hang together or we will certainly hang seperately” .Unlike the sittuation in Israel where many chareidim feel apart from the rest of the country, we live in a country that totally accepts our diversity and enables us to practice our peculiar life style in an atmosphere of acceptance and tolerance. There is an element in the United States that is afraid of what is going on, the increase in foreign born people who they feel are taking their jobs, the decline of America’s position in the world, the bursting of the economic bubble which is causing hardship. In Europe this led to Hitler, in this country it has led to an inchoate mass of angry white people, who were financed by wealthy white businessmen in the last election. The masses of the Tea Party may not even realize how their message was taken over by the very rich who bought unlimited and anonymous attack negative ads full of lies in the past election. The Tea Party has been played by those who fear Obama’s agenda,for reasons that are not the same as this mass of angry people who want to keep the government out of their lives but don’t touch my social security,etc. I just find it so strange that so many orthodox Jews somehow identify with reactionary politics. When has that ever been our salvation? It is in our interests to help make America work again. This means bi-partisan efforts to solve the great problems, not sloganeering oposition to anything progressive . Obama may or may not succeed and right now, he is a lot of trouble, but we as Jews should want him to succeed because the alternative is gridlock and the rise of modern day “Know Nothings”.

  30. HESHY BULMAN says:

    Jonathan – Although I am an admirer of much of Avi Shafran’s writing, I must commend you on an excellent bit of work. To me, the thrust of your argument was not at all a mindless assertion that Obama is evil, but rather that, due to a particular mind-set, borne of his Liberal education and an overall ignorance of Israeli/Arab relations, he has taken positions far more harmful to our interests than most, if not all, of his predecessors. He may very well harbour ill will towards Israel, but that was expressly not your contention, and anyone who claims it was DIDN’T READ THE ARTICLE! As to our good friend Rabbi Shafran, I suspect that if he lived in E”Y, he would have a very different view.

  31. eLamdan says:

    We all caught the assertion that liberals have a mindset that makes it impossible for them to understand Israeli/Arab relations. It is indeed a very silly assertion. One can just as easily argue that strongly religious people have a mindset that is very religious, and thus they cannot comprehend the idea that moderates might outnumber them. Arguments like these simply demonstrate that people impose their ideas on the situation, instead of formulating their ideas based on the facts.

    In fact, there are many objective studies that have been done that support a more “liberal” approach to the middle east. It’s possible that these studies are flawed. However, instead of assuming that all liberals are imposing their mindset on the situation, why not have a look at actual studies and then decide?

  32. shloi says:

    Bob Miller wrote:

    “This contradiction applies only where a large enough pool of Jewish voluntary donors and supporters does not exist in the private sector. Increasing taxation doesn’t exactly expand and enrich that pool, does it?”

    A large pool of donors may be effective only when a small number of people engage in a particular way of life, not when this is the way of life for significant numbers.

    “Increasing taxation doesn’t exactly expand and enrich that pool, does it?”

    The recent financial crisis that reduced the pool and wealth of donors was not caused by increasing taxation.

  33. JB says:

    I would agree with your article from a pure “Israel” focussed perspective, if it weren’t for the MANY conversations I have heard in more right wing communities. I have heard more than one or two prominent community leaders in NY and NJ citing the rumors around this president in their weekly drasha. These are rumors that are blatantly untrue, but these leaders clearly adhere to the Fox News/Sarah Palin extremist view – items like his religion, his birthplace, death panels, etc.

    I wish more American Orthodox Jewry really did care more about Israel – many in fact do. But at this point, I think their dislike has little to do with the policies towards Israel you mention above, and more to do with Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh and racism.

    When leaders speak from a place of misinformation it diminishes our respect for them, leaving the entire debate tainted. And this is why I want to thank both of your for elevating these discussions.

  34. Bob Miller says:

    “The masses of the Tea Party may not even realize how their message was taken over by the very rich who bought unlimited and anonymous attack negative ads full of lies in the past election.”

    The writer of the above may not realize how absurd this statement is.

  35. dovid 2 says:

    L.Oberstein’s calls fascists those who criticize his Brooks Brothers-clad ersatz socialist without his even knowing what the word means. Obama reminds me of Nicolae Ceausescu, the Romanian edition of Saddam Hussein. A no-goodnik as a shoe maker, some old-time commies thought Ceausescu might make a good president and appointed him to the position. Needless to say, the man ruined the country. An equally unqualified and clueless Obama, two yrs. into his presidency, still blames his predecessor for the sorry state of the economy. When Ronald Reagan took over the presidency in 1981, the misery index (inflation / unemployment index) averaged 20.27. He also had to deal with the Soviet menace. He had some good ideas, rallied the nation behind him, rolled up his sleeves, and got work. He didn’t waste time blaming his predecessor. Alas, all this is irrelevant to L.Oberstein. Gd-fearing Jews consult daas Torah before voting, just as they do before any step with weighty consequences. In the Obamian universe, these characters also belong to the crowd that holds onto their “guns and religion”. A truly backward and primitive crowd. One might call them reactionary and even fascists. L.Oberstein knows better. He consults his investment guru. If his guru tells him that Obama is good for the stock market, he will enthusiastically vote for him. If the guru will tell him tomorrow that Sarah Palin is good for the stock market, he will embrace her (well, not literally) with equal enthusiasm, notwithstanding what he told us until now.

  36. L. Oberstein says:

    “his investment guru”. I am more than willing to accept all the vast wealth you apparantly think is mine. Just tell me who my ” investment guru” is ,so I can contact her (let’s be egalitarian) and collect some money to pay my many bills.

  37. L. Oberstein says:

    Can anyone deny the truth of this email which I received today? Is there anyone whose eyes are so against the President and his party that they do not understand how an atmosphere of hate speach leads to acts of violence, both in Israel and the USA. This is not a matter of mere debate any longer, it is a matter of humanity.
    Though some of the contributors to this discussion write dismissively of my comments, I agree with the statement below:
    Nothing less than our democracy is at stake
    This email is from Marc Stanley, a Jewish Democrat.
    “I know that like us, you were stunned and horrified by the attack today
    on Gabby Giffords Arizona’s first Jewish Congresswoman. Representative Giffords is acourageous and vibrant leader dedicated to advancing the causes and
    values we care so deeply about. Beyond being an advocate for health care
    reform and immigration reform, as well as the people of Arizona.

    The tragic attack on Representative Giffords, her staff, and citizens
    participating in the practice of democracy in Arizona is beyond
    reprehensible. One suspect, now in custody, may be directly responsible
    for this crime. But it is fair to say – in today’s political climate,
    and given today’s political rhetoric – that many have contributed to the
    building levels of vitriol in our political discourse that have surely
    contributed to the atmosphere in which this event transpired. Throughout
    the health care reform debate , we saw an ever-worsening level of political
    discourse -frequently pointing fingers at Democratic members of Congress who were
    supposedly directly threatening our country and our way of life. As
    elections approached, members of Congress increasingly received threats
    even as our public debate became more and more coarse.

    As we learned in Israel through the tragic assassination of Prime
    Minister Yitzhak Rabin, words – and an eroding public discourse – can
    have profound consequences. The rhetoric of hate and anger must be
    banished from our political discourse before the next calamity takes

    The loss of any life – and the injury of any American – is unacceptable.
    While we do not yet know exactly what motivated this deranged gunman,
    improving the tenor of our public debate can only help. It is up to us
    to act now. Nothing less than our democracy is at stake.”

  38. Reb Yid says:

    Amen. Rabbi Oberstein’s post just a few days ago was unfortunately all too prophetic.

    Words, images and actions all matter. All too easy to document the climate that, at minimum, provided a toxic environment for this tragedy.

  39. David F. says:

    “Can anyone deny the truth of this email which I received today?”

    Sure, I’d love to. While I agree that improving the tenor of our public debate can only be a good thing, I do not agree that the “building levels of vitriol in our political discourse” can be proven or are even likely to have contributed to the tragic events of yesterday. There was no less vitriol slung at President Bush and his advisers for the eight years of his presidency [anyone remember, “Bushhitler?”] and yet, this did not occur.
    Political vitriol has been around for a very long time as have political assassinations. Neither, unfortunately, is likely to stop anytime soon. By pretending that this was in any way as result of the vehement disagreement over Obamacare, whoever wrote this email revealed him/herself to be nothing more than a Democratic operative seizing the opportunity to look use this tragedy for political gain.

  40. dovid 2 says:

    I emphatically urge L.Oberstein not to make political capital out of this event the way the Israeli left made out of the assassination of Ytzchak Rabin. I trust L.Oberstein does not believe and even less state that the act of this loony represents either CC commentators and contributors, or I venture say the Republican Party. Or, that anyone of us whipped this character into a frenzy to go on a killing rampage. “Mein Kampf,” the “Communist Manifesto,” “Animal Farm” and “Brave New World” are among his favorite books. I challenge L.Oberstein to prove that “Mein Kampf” and the “Communist Manifesto” are favorite reading material among anyone of us, or for that matter with the Republican Party. Apparently, the suspect tried to join the US Army but was found unfit. Given US Army’s rather lenient admission standards, this only shows this guy is just a crazed idiot who likes guns and used them with deadly results.

    This country has a history of assassinations of political leaders, often by deranged assassins. You know better than I that Ronald Reagan was a target of an assassination attempt, that Martin L. King, Robert Kennedy, JFK were actually killed, and the list is far from complete.

  41. dovid 2 says:

    I would like to add that US President Barrack Obama being an oxymoron in that he is uncomfortable being American, acts non- or anti-American, and at the same time is the president of the USA, combined with the Democratic Party’s attempting to ram through legislation that majority of the country doesn’t want, are two factors that unnecessarily heightened tensions in the political arena and in by-and-large in the nation.

  42. Reb Yid says:

    Rabbi Oberstein noted that tzedek tzedek tirdof was not invented by Reform.

    Abolishing sinat chinam can be added to that list as well. Excusing political vitriol is as “un-Jewish” as you can get.

  43. David F. says:

    “Rabbi Oberstein noted that tzedek tzedek tirdof was not invented by Reform.”

    I doubt anyone ever asserted otherwise. What’s at issue is whether all of Judaism can be boiled down to this one maxim and whether it can truly be accomplished when one does not follow the other dictates of the Torah which instruct us on how to achieve this lofty goal.

    “Abolishing sinat chinam can be added to that list as well. Excusing political vitriol is as “un-Jewish” as you can get.”

    Once again, no one excused political vitriol. All that’s been said is that it’s nothing new and isn’t going anywhere and shouldn’t be used to score political points off a tragedy. Nothing “un-jewish” about that, as far as I can tell.

  44. DF says:

    I thoroughly agreed with R. Rosenblum’s article, particularly his understated but critical remark that it was “unwise” of R. Shafran to even raise the possibility that orthodox Jews would stoop to judging someone solely on his race. There are few people anywhere today that engage in such pure racism [despite the inability of certain commenters to recognize America has long ago moved beyond Alabama circa 1958.] Rather, as others have noted, suggestions of “racism” are merely the attempts of some to stifle well-deserved criticsim of this president.

    In that regard, I am extremely surprised both Rabbis Rosenblum and Shafran focused exclusively on Israel, as though the Jewish vote is bottomed solely and only upon a president’s foreign policy towards Israel. In actual fact, my own vote, and no doubt the vote of countless others, is equally if not more so based upon the candidate’s domestic policies. The orthodox community is by and large an entrepeneurial, pro-business society. Many of us viewed and continue to view Obama’s policies as harmful to the free market economy. For that reason, and ONLY that reason, we didnt vote for him. More than anything else, it was R. Shafran’s failure to acknoweldge this obvious point that made me disapointed in that otherwise excellent writer’s article.

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