Letter October 10, 2003

Published October 10, 2003, issue of October 10, 2003.
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Use Bush Audience To Push Communal Needs

I was among the rabbis who met with President Bush on September 29, and feel that I must respond to the unfortunate spin that the Forward gave the meeting in an October 3 news article and an accompanying editorial (“Rabbi Presses the President On Rise in American Poverty”; “Speaking the Truth to Bush”).

Having had many briefings, meetings and moments in the White House, I am sensitive to the privilege and protocol that come with such meetings. While we are not a one-issue people, generally when one represents the Jewish people and has the privilege to respond to an invitation from the president for a pre-Yom Kippur talk, one presents the most critical and pressing items affecting the Jewish community.

We are, after all, invited as Jewish leaders and we are there to assure that our interests are considered. We do care most passionately about unemployment, poverty, health care, childcare, social security, taxes, education, the environment, prejudice and war. But there are many, many lobbyists and many organizations that descend on Capitol Hill on a daily basis to advocate these issues.

There are few that advocate the issues that affect the Jewish people. While I and other rabbis have communicated with elected officials on general issues such as poverty and health care, I know that if I have a few minutes with the president I believe it is my task as a Jewish leader to convey my most immediate concerns affecting the Jewish community in this precarious and dangerous world. Not many others will be advocates for the Jewish community. If not I, when given the opportunity — then who will? I am sometimes amazed how some individuals miss the point or misuse the opportunities to speak with the president on Jewish matters.

I was therefore not the only one uncomfortable with Rabbi Amy Schwartzman, who grabbed the gavel and refused to give it up. In the middle of discussing terrorism and security both here and abroad, Schwartzman deviated from the theme of the president’s heartfelt conversation with the rabbis to boldly and pompously lecture him on poverty. She seemed to have come with an orchestrated script held before her and to relish the opportunity to give the impression that the president does not care about poverty — and the Forward’s coverage of the meeting fed that notion.

All who attended the meeting felt the president’s genuine concern and compassion about economic issues. Some even left with a greater belief in faith-based initiatives to help respond to these vital issues. But the Forward did not report that.

We all left knowing that on Yom Kippur we would pray for universal, national, communal and personal matters — but that we must as religious leaders speak to our congregations of our most desperate hopes to inspire them. After all, who will pray for us as we pray for them?

Rabbi Jacob Rubenstein

Scarsdale, N.Y.

An Outrageous Critique

The September 26 editorial criticizing the Anti-Defamation League for its “Tribute to Italy” dinner and award to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is outrageous in its substance and tone (“A Discredit to the League”).

The fact that the Forward did not merely disagree with our decision but accused us of abandoning principles is a reflection of the editorialist’s political point of view. Ignoring the prime minister’s visit to the synagogue in Rome, where his apology for his remarks about Mussolini was accepted by the community, suggests that your views were more affected by politics than moral concerns.

Yes, we are aware of the controversies surrounding Berlusconi, and we have referred to him as a “flawed friend.” But at this time the great moral challenges facing the world and Jews involve global antisemitism, the struggle against international terrorism and the overwhelming attacks against the State of Israel.

No leader in Europe has addressed those challenges — which affect the survival not only of the State of Israel but of Western civilization itself — as has Berlusconi. When there was a need to speak up against antisemitism in Italy, Europe and the Middle East, Berlusconi was there. At a time when the United States was looking for world support in its struggle against Saddam Hussein, Berlusconi was there. At a time when Israel was increasingly isolated in Europe, Berlusconi was there. When there was a need to address the problem of funding by Europe of the Hamas terrorists, Berlusconi was there.

Keeping our eyes on the priorities we have as Americans and Jews, we are proud of having given this award to Italy and Silvio Berlusconi. We believe by doing so we have lived up to the principles of the Anti-Defamation League that have served the Jewish community well for 90 years, and we believe we have contributed to the well being of the Jewish people and the United States.

Glen Tobias

National Chairman

Abraham Foxman

National Director

Anti-Defamation League

New York, N.Y.

‘In-Marriage’ Advocate Excludes the Faithful

Allowing an ultra-Orthodox organization to pontificate about intermarriage in the Forward Forum illustrates your continued inability to give a voice to those who actually offer solutions rather than condemnations on the issue of intermarriage (“The Importance of ‘Marrying In‚’” October 3).

Agudath Israel of America is an organization that you yourselves criticized earlier in the year for only acknowledging secular Jewry when they see potential financial gain for their own ultra-Orthodox constituency. Meanwhile, 90% of American Jews are non-Orthodox, and of that, the number of intermarried is at least one-in-three married households.

What opinion writer Rabbi Avi Shafran — and apparently the Forward — doesn’t seem to grasp when quoting how many intermarried couples are not raising Jewish children is that intermarried families do not make their decisions in a vacuum. Like anybody else, we understand when we are not wanted. And while a few of us will fight through the institutionalized turning away that the Jewish community persists in showing us, the rest will ask, “Who needs this?” and leave — and they’ll be right to do so.

Luckily, there are Jewish organizations actually reaching out to intermarried families to welcome them into Judaism, like the one that helped my family. Where is your coverage of that? Where is the voice of all those dedicated outreach workers helping couples raise Jewish children, not through regurgitated opinion-article arguments but through the slow, tedious methods of one-on-one adult education and welcoming of strangers in the tradition of Torah?

A tiny minority of Jews continues to live life as if it were the 17th century. The vast majority is looking for solutions here in the 21st century, and the Forward continues to give short shrift to the organizations providing those answers.

Scott Egolinsky

New York, N.Y.

Allen’s Myopic Judaism

After reading film critic Michael Bronski’s October 3 column, I asked myself why Woody Allen’s portrayal of “Jewish men” gets so much attention (“What It Feels Like for a Boy”)?

Have Allen’s portrayals of Jewish men, the Jewish family or the Jews of the West Side been based on anything sturdier than his subjective sense of male inadequacy? Certainly, his knowledge and breadth of experience as a Jewish person seems to be quite inadequate too. Allen’s portrayal of himself and his problems as representative of Jews has helped project a very strange image of Jews to the rest of America.

Perhaps I am prejudiced because I watched him filming on my street on Yom Kippur several years ago, oblivious to the Orthodox synagogue, the sensibilities of neighborhood Jewish people or to the sacred essence and beauty of the day. Perhaps his criticism of Israeli “aggressiveness,” which obviously has nothing to do with his wimp image of the Jew and exposes his restricted perspective on Jewish experience, is responsible for my own intensely negative reaction to him. Allen views Jewishness through a peephole.

Sylvia Navon

New York, N.Y.

Islam Unfairly Painted

In his October 3 review of three books on terrorism, Alexander Joffe states as indisputable fact that “other religions embrace martyrdom from time to time, but none displays the theological passion for annihilation as Islam. The question… is not whether this is an authentic Islam or a forgery. It is authentic. The question is, what is moderate Islam doing about it? And the answer, frighteningly, is almost nothing” (“Death Is Celebrated and Life Means Less Than Nothing”)

Imagine if a non-Jew wrote that “other religions make territorial claims from time to time, but none displays the theological passion for occupation as Judaism. The question… is not whether this is an authentic Judaism or a forgery. It is authentic. The question is, what is moderate Judaism doing about it? And the answer, frighteningly, is almost nothing.” If such an assertion even made it into print, its author no doubt would be chastised soundly by an alphabet soup of Jewish organizations and criticized by Jewish theologians who know better.

Indeed, as amply demonstrated by the recent controversy over Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion,” Jews and Jewish organizations do not tolerate blanket generalizations about Judaism, nor generally do we accept non-Jews’ theological assertions about what is “authentic” Judaism.

It is equally wrong for Joffe to do so with respect to Islam and even more surprising that the Forward should print such arrogant and irresponsible commentary.

J. Shawn Landres

Lecturer, Jewish and Western Civilization

University of Judaism

Los Angeles, Calif.






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