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Jewish World Review May 26, 2000 / 21 Iyar, 5760

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Chutzpah or Quiet Diplomacy?

Once again, American Jews choose between silence and protest -- SUPERLAWYER AND AUTHOR Alan Dershowitz made a bundle a few years back when he wrote a book praising the benefits of American Jewish "chutzpah" His book of the same name became a bestseller.

Though Dershowitz has since worn out his welcome with many Americans as he morphed into a tiresome media celebrity, the Harvard law professor had an excellent point. American Jews have gotten where they are today — a position of unparalleled power and influence in the history of the Diaspora — by virtue of hard work, talent and a willingness to speak up for their own interests.

But not everybody thinks Jewish chutzpah is a good thing. The other night, while speaking on a panel of writers about Jewish conservative ideas, one of my colleagues on the program said something that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin, the head of the Seattle-based Toward Tradition group geared to promoting Jewish conservative policies, said it was wrong for Jewish liberals to be so forward in their advocacy of abortion rights and gun control. This was not so much because he thought they were acting outside of what is justified by Jewish religious law, though he clearly thinks they are.

Rather, he believes the Jewish organizational push for abortion rights is an offense to those Christians who oppose such laws. He said it was "chutzpah” for a liberal Jewish minority to be attempting to impose their values on a Christian-majority country. Given that American Christians had tolerated and welcomed Jews in this country, he seemed to be saying that liberal activism jeopardized "tolerance” for Jews in this "Christian country"

Lapin is dead wrong.

Whether we all agree with making abortion or gun control a "Jewish” issue — and I don't — isn’t the point. If liberal Jews feel these issues are critical, the last thing I would want is for them to shy away from speaking up because of a supposed fear of a Christian backlash.

The very suggestion that they should is offensive.

Perhaps Lapin has spent too much time hanging around with conservative Christians and worrying about what Reform Party presidential candidate Pat Buchanan thinks.

I prefer to believe the South African-born Lapin just doesn’t understand American democracy and that the United States — a nation of immigrants — is fundamentally different from Europe.

This is one country — thank G-d — where Jews do not live on sufferance. No matter what our political leanings, we must stand up for our rights without cowering in fear because the troglodytes who support Buchanan might like us less.

Ironically, this question of whether to be outspoken in protest or quiet is key to another major issue today: the fate of the 13 Iranian Jews who have been falsely accused of espionage on behalf of Israel.

After a year and a half in the prisons of the Iranian ayatollahs, they were put on trial by the Islamic Republic. Given the circumstances they have been put in, it is not surprising that most of this group, which is composed of religious leaders and ordinary Jews, "confessed"

But the question torturing American Jews has been whether to speak up in fiery protest against this injustice or to remain silent and allow "quiet diplomacy” to free the 13. The split on this issue has run right through the organized Jewish world, and the result is confusion and a general inability to rally Jews to the aid of the 13.

This is nothing new. Throughout modern Jewish history, Jewish communities have had a consistent choice when faced with threats to their interests and security: Keep quiet and depend on diplomatic efforts by a few chosen leaders, or to actively resist.

Prior to the 20th century, there was rarely much of a choice. An isolated, powerless minority that survived only on the sufferance of the local nobility or monarch, Jews had no protest or armed struggle option available to them. They could only hope that a rich member of the community would be able to bribe his way into the halls of power as a "court Jew,” and use that influence to save communities slated for destruction or further persecution. The term ‘court Jew’ has since become a term of abuse when aimed at powerful Jews, but the original court Jews often did their best to help their less fortunate brethren.

But as traditional anti-Semitic persecution gave way in this century to totalitarian annihilation, a consensus emerged in Jewish life on the outmoded nature of the court-Jew model.

Jewish notables were of no help during the Holocaust. Their best efforts merely served to help the Nazis, since the Judenrats — Jewish councils — were used by the murderers to control the victims.

The Holocaust should have especially discredited the tradition of "quiet diplomacy” for American Jews. The unwillingness of prominent American Jewish leaders with access to President Franklin Roosevelt — such as Rabbi Stephen Wise — to press for rescue of European Jewry was a shameful failure. Wise even tried to discredit those activists, such as Hillel Kook and Ben Hecht, who were working for rescue.

Then, too, many Jews thought talking about rescue would harm the standing of American Jews and alienate American Christians. Of course, the truth was just the opposite. Non-Jewish politicians flocked to the banner of the Jewish dissidents, who trumped Wise’s approach and forced FDR to act to save some Jews late in 1944.

The triumph of Zionism and the establishment of Israel transformed Jewish thinking on these issues. Jews saw what could be achieved when they stood up and defended themselves. The beginnings of the movement to free Soviet Jewry in the 1960s and ’70s was also a good example of the triumph of activism over diplomacy.

So what is the best course of action on behalf of the ‘Iran 13’?

There is no way of knowing if anything will influence the fanatics who run that country. Perhaps some diplomatic efforts on behalf of the prisoners will be fruitful. But it is unlikely they will help if they aren’t backed up by voc al Jewish protests. American Jews need to make it clear to our own government and every country that does business with Iran that we will not be silent while Jews are in danger.

That’s why I support the efforts of New York Rabbi Avi Weiss to rouse American Jewry to active protest on this issue, despite the efforts of some bigwigs to deprecate his efforts in favor of letting diplomacy work. No matter how powerful American Jews are, on some issues there is no substitute for grass-roots activism.

The moment we play the coward and pull our punches because of some perceived fear that our neighbors will disapprove, we will have taken a giant step back toward the world of European ghettos and court Jews.

Lapin’s fears notwithstanding, that is a misstep American Jews can never afford to take again.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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© 2000, Jonathan Tobin