by Rabbi Steven Pruzansky
As if on order, no sooner had I written “Life with a Smear” when we were presented with a real life example of a smear – a deliberate and conscious attempt to manipulate and distort the words of a public figure in order to shame her, force an apology, get her fired and ruin her life and career – all for the purpose of gaining some petty, partisan, political advantage.
The other day, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely purported to “disrespect” and “outrage” “all of American Jewry” (these are actual quotes from her critics) by articulating basic truths of which most American Jews are aware. Asked why there is a disconnect these days between much of American Jewry and Israel on diplomatic issues, and how such matters as the “Kotel” controversy have angered such a large part of American Jewry, she answered that Israel is the homeland of all Jews, “of all streams,” and every Jew should come live here and thereby influence Israeli society. But, she added, most American Jews are “not understanding the complexities of the region,” as they are –and here are the phrases that allegedly ticked off the self-appointed leaders of the branches of American Jewry that are in such a steep decline – “people that never send their children to fight for their country, most of the Jews don’t have children serving as soldiers, going to the Marines, going to Afghanistan, going to Iraq. Most of them have quite convenient lives. They don’t know how it feels to be attacked by rockets.”
If we parse her words fairly and objectively, it is clear that her sentiments are true and indisputable. Most American Jews do not have children serving as soldiers, Marines, in Afghanistan or Iraq. That is obvious, and I would speculate that most American Jews don’t even know someone who serves in the American military or served in Iraq or Afghanistan. (I do – a young former congregant was a Marine who fought during some of the harshest combat in Fallujah, Iraq, and I was proud to officiate at his wedding at which he wore his full dress uniform, replete with sword, and of course a good number of chaplains.) But most don’t, and that is true today of most Americans.
This is not because American Jews are selfish, uncaring, unpatriotic or disloyal. In truth, we are underrepresented in the American military according to our percentage of the population, but that has to do mostly with the underrepresentation of particular socio-economic brackets in the American military and the underrepresentation in the military of sections of the country where most Jews live. The higher socio-economic bracket to which one belongs and the more liberal the area of the country in which one lives, we find the lower the rate of participation in the military. This is true for Jews and non-Jews. We can quibble whether this should be so but not whether it is so. It is, and so it has been since the United States abolished the draft 45 years ago. (Parenthetically, only 25 % of the current members of Congress have served in the military, compared to close to 80% of the congressmen in the 1970’s.)
What Tzipi Hotovely said is absolutely true.
But this is how a smear works: Rick Jacobs, the leader of Reform Judaism who has become an open foe of a strong, proud, traditional Israel, castigated her for being “ignorant and ill-informed,” because, as he said, “my father served with distinction” in the American army. Indeed – we honor his father’s service! – but she did not say that Jews have never served in the American military (“never send” is not the same as “never sent,” and even that phrase was clarified), but rather that most Jews “don’t” serve in the American military. Note the verbal legerdemain – pretending her remarks were a blanket statement about the past rather than a comment on the present. That is rank dishonesty, and he should be ashamed of himself for engaging in it.
The point is not whether his father served or even whether he served (I assume he didn’t; he and I both came of age after the United States switched to an all-voluntary military). When there was a draft, Jews were drafted and served like any other citizen; American Jews fought in World War II in a greater proportion than our share of the population. I’ve walked the grounds of the American military cemetery at Normandy. The Stars of David that mark the graves of the dead American-Jewish soldiers stand out, if only because the thousands of crosses are arranged so neatly. But they are there, in almost every row. She was speaking about current events, how most American Jews today are detached from a military life, and how that surely taints their views on Israel where fighting in the military in an existential conflict that will not end is part of life and the expectation of almost every teenager. And she is correct – so correct that I would be curious to learn how many of her critics, or her critics’ children, have fought in the American military.
Here’s another shameful smear: the accusation that she was disrespecting all those young American Jews who go to Israel and enlist in the IDF. Again – smear. Distortion. Misrepresentation. Lie. And this is how it works – did she mention lone soldiers? Did she mention the IDF? Of course not. Look at both her words and the context. In our community, many dozens of youngsters over the years have enlisted in the IDF, and we are proud of all them. But have any of them fought in Afghanistan or Iraq? Not to my knowledge… So this is a blatant effort to willfully distort her words. She made no reference to the IDF – so how can she be accused of disrespecting those who fight in the IDF? But this is how the smear game works – more verbal sleight-of-hand – denouncing someone for what was said and is true by attributing to them things that were not said and are false.
There are two real problems at play here, and Minister Hotovely is responsible for neither of them. The officialdom of the heterodox movements is uncomfortable, even resentful, of a successful woman who is proudly Jewish, proudly religious, proudly traditional, proudly Israeli and proudly right-wing. She undermines several of their persistent narratives about Orthodoxy and traditional life in Israel. Seeing the Deputy Foreign Minister of Israel wearing a shaitel must gall them. Too bad – for them.
And the bigger problem is this: with the heterodox movements in a free fall, both in terms of raw numbers as well as influence in American politics because of their persistent liberal bias, they need an enemy to energize their base. They need periodically – these days, it’s every few weeks – to find a scapegoat, an accusation, an insult or a cause to get their people riled up. It can be the Haredim to whom they attribute all sorts of mischief and ill-will. It can be the Kotel, where suddenly – literally, suddenly, after many decades – the status quo of exclusively traditional prayer bothers them. It is as if they woke up one day and realized – or contrived – that the status quo must bother them. It can be the non-acceptance of their conversions, their rabbis, or their modes of worship in one form or another. It can be the growth of the settlements or a forceful response to Arab terror or Gazan rockets. But it is always something.
That is why even an apology from Tzipi Hotovely, which she proffered because that is the way the smear game is played (and shame on the Prime Minister for not standing behind her), will not suffice for the complainants. They want her and her kind out! It is not her but what she stands for that irritates them. She is a constant reminder of what they too could have – with their children and grandchildren – if only they would return to the honest study of Torah and the true observance of mitzvot. That is why they seem to be perpetually aggrieved and always cross about something going on in Israel.
When many Israelis speak of “American Jewry,” they conjure to themselves a benign image of Jews who proudly love and support Israel, feel a deep emotional bond, and constitute a solid bloc of the type of encouragement and cooperation that one can expect from family. Would that it were so – but those days are long gone, sadly. Most American Jews today are unaffiliated – they do not identify as Orthodox, Reform or Conservative. They don’t feel that bond with Israel that their parents and certainly their grandparents did, most by far have never even visited Israel, and the ranks of American Jewry (including the heterodox movements) have been decimated by intermarriage that has obviously sapped their identification with Jews and the Jewish State. And the heterodox movements are permeated with Western ideas and values that occasionally conflate with Jewish ideas and values, but not always, and they can by and large no longer tell the difference.
The cause of Israel struggles today on college campuses because too many young Jews are cut off from their Jewish identity. The more the Jew is disengaged from Judaism, Torah, mitzvot and Jewish values, the more he or she will be disengaged from Israel. It is a tragic but accurate formula – that is why Minister Hotovely was banned by a “Jewish” group from speaking at Princeton – but there is little that Israel can do to reverse that trend. Identification and support for Israel will result from an enhanced sense of Jewish identity but those young Jews who are estranged from Israel have already embedded another identity and set of values and priorities. That is what has to be reversed and at this the heterodox movements are ill-equipped as they have long fostered an alienation from Torah.
That is why they force themselves to be outraged, manufacture slights and insults, and are avid players of the “Gotcha Game,” in which they monitor every single word of their targets in order to find the one word that they can wrench from context, cast in the most negative light or otherwise twist and falsify – all so that they can show relevance to their dwindling flock and their fellow travelers in the secular media. This is the smear game in action.
It would be edifying if Israelis truly understood what is happening in American Jewish life, paid less attention to the instigators of insincere indignation, and more attention to those Jews whose Jewish children and grandchildren will be building Torah, supporting Israel, making aliya and preserving the future of the Jewish people. And, of course, it would be an absolute delight if all Jews – of every stripe and background – did the same, and in so doing brought the era of redemption closer.