Agreed: We disagree

Agreed: We disagree

Jewish tradition is shaped by passionate debate

Gabe Kahn is the editor of The New Jersey Jewish News.

Does the divide within the U.S. mirror that of the Jewish community?
Does the divide within the U.S. mirror that of the Jewish community?

On Shemini Atzeret I sat in my synagogue’s sukka, dining with friends on a breakfast of steak we had just seared in the shul barbecue, discussing, you guessed it, the imminent presidential election. As I struggled to carve the sizable — and, as it turned out, spectacular — cut of meat with inadequate plastic cutlery, someone declared that any media outlet that endorsed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton was “corrupt.”

“Well, what about me?” I asked. “Our paper endorsed her. Am I corrupt?” He didn’t respond, but the sheepish look on his face said it all: “If you endorsed her, then, yeah.”

So there it is. I guess I’m perceived by some as an arm of the liberal media apparatus conspiring to push the former secretary of state out of her rightful place in Leavenworth and into the White House. That I’m expecting political favors. That I’m on the take. That I’m an anarchist or just plain evil. Even my friends say so. 

His comment struck me as a depressing illustration of just how far the Jewish community has veered off the derech

The political and social divisions within the United States are known to all, and go far beyond party, class, or racial lines. And though I knew, at least anecdotally, that it cut through the Jewish community as well, it was still jarring to find that a decision made based on what I (and others) believe is best for our country, our people, and yes, the State of Israel, would be justification for my landsmen to question my motives.

And yet it is. Last week Gary Rosenblatt, the editor and publisher of our parent publication, The Jewish Week, penned an insightful and entertaining column, “After the endorsement came the comments,” in which he outlined various responses to the editorial endorsement of Clinton published in both our newspapers. One, he wrote, asserted that The Jewish Week is “anti-Semitic — take the ‘Jewish’ out of your [paper’s] name.” 

Of course, as readers aren’t privy to the discussions of our editorial board, it’s understandable for them to be suspicious of our reasoning for making the first endorsement of a political candidate in the history of NJJN or The Jewish Week. I tried to shed a little light on this in a response to a reader who, though polite, expressed displeasure with our position:

I wanted to let you know that I completely respect your opinion and I hope you understand that our decision to endorse Secretary Clinton was not one we took lightly. We are fully aware that this election is particularly divisive and that this position could upset many of our loyal readers, such as yourself.

I’ll simply say that I agree with you in that Hillary Clinton has more than her share of flaws. So do Mitt Romney, Barack Obama, John McCain, John Kerry, George Bush, Bill Clinton, and every other major nominee since at least Lincoln, but we believe that if she is to become president she will not endanger the safety of our country or undermine our democratic ideals. It is our opinion that the same cannot be said of Mr. Trump. His shameful boasting about sexually assaulting women and his refusal in the final debate to accept the results of the election, and his “clarification” that he would accept the will of the American people — as long as he wins — reaffirms our decision. 

Such rhetoric is unprecedented by a major party nominee and, one could argue, the greatest threat to our democracy since Watergate, the Civil Rights era, or even the Civil War. We could not, in good conscience, stand on the sidelines…and not state unequivocally that this man is unfit to be the leader of the free world. 

Upon posting this response to the NJJN Facebook page, another reader criticized my reply by noting that it said nothing about either candidate’s policies relating to Israel, and most of the complaints that flooded our editorial inbox pointed to Clinton’s support for the Iranian nuclear deal as proof that, in terms of her relationship to the Jewish people, she is not “with us.” As to this, I take exception. 

The Iran deal, in my mind, is not a good one. I did not agree with it at the time, nor do I now, and I wish President Obama had heeded his own advice when he said that when it comes to Iran, “a bad deal is worse than no deal.” But the notion that anyone supporting this flawed deal is, necessarily, anti-Israel is absurd. Isn’t it possible that this is just a difference of opinion about what’s best for stability in the Middle East, noting that many of Israel’s top military and security leaders approved of the deal? 

You can question voting for someone whose judgment would lead them to believe it’s a good deal and who won’t take steps to rip it to shreds upon ascending to the presidency. You can oppose her because you think her policies are insufficiently supportive of Israel and don’t take its security into account. You can vote for Donald Trump if you think his ideas will be of greater benefit to Israel. But it’s patently unfair to say that just because our opinions on this and some other issues don’t line up, she is anti-Israel, especially when there is ample evidence to the contrary.

Debate is one of the hallmarks of Judaism. The Talmud itself could be described (though far too simplistically) as a compilation of disputes to deduce the proper practice of Jewish law. Heck, both Abraham and Moses argued with God. These clashes were not personal, nor were the principals engaged to prop up their own nefarious interests. Hence the phrase “Machloket L’shem Shamayim,” “Disagreements for the sake of Heaven.”

Circling way back to my original point, I’m willing to concede that the factions within the overall U.S. electorate have, at least for the time being, irreconcilable differences. But not us, not the Jewish community, no matter who wants to write us off. We’re fortunate that we’ve expanded and prospered in this country so that the Jewish umbrella encompasses so many distinct groups. Our only hope of staying dry underneath that massive parasol protection is to start with the mindset that our disagreements are just that, and while our views may be different, we are still one people, and we’re on the same side.

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