The Hebrew phrase “Da Lifnei Mi Attah Omed” appears above the Ark in many synagogues and means “know before Whom you stand.” These words come from the Talmud (Tractate Berachot 28b) and remind us that we are always in the presence of G-d and to conduct ourselves accordingly. For Jews, this includes remembering the commandments, resisting assimilation, and safeguarding the religious and national integrity of the Jewish people. But when community leaders and professionals express deep concern for the sensitivities of those who deny Jewish history and nationhood, one has to wonder whether they’ve forgotten before Whom they stand, or whether they ever knew in the first place.
This dictum hovered over a recent forum held at a Massachusetts synagogue. The program was entitled, “National Security Chaos: Are We Passing the Tipping Point,” and featured a distinguished panel that included: retired three-star general William G. Boykin, former Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence; Frank Gaffney, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs and Director of the Center for Security Policy; retired Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, former member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence; and Tom Trento, founder of the United West. The program took place shortly before Election Day and generated a bit of controversy with some local clergy.
The synagogue’s Rabbi, Jonathan Hausman has for years been running a speakers’ forum that draws a diverse array of participants, including generals, officers and experts from all branches of the military; governmental, political and intelligence professionals from the U.S., Israel and Europe; and academics, journalists, writers and free speech advocates from all over the world. The synagogue is a regular stop for many high-profile guests, and Boykin, Gaffney and Trento have spoken there and elsewhere in Greater Boston numerous times in the past without incident.
A few days before this program, however, Rabbi Hausman received a message and call notifying him that members of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis, an association that includes many Reform and Conservative clergy, would be condemning the event in conjunction with a number of non-Jewish clerics. Rabbi Hausman was told by the board’s president that the speakers were Islamophobic, and he also received information that the Massachusetts chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (“CAIR”) was planning to protest the event.
Rabbi Hausman disputed the claim, and as a courtesy offered to discuss the program content with the board’s president in person, thereby providing an advance opportunity to review and determine whether it was in fact biased. Despite his offer, the program was condemned without a meeting based on, from what he was told, comments attributed - without corroboration - to three of the speakers by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Rabbi Hausman was then the subject of misleading media reports, and he received information concerning potential disruptions that necessitated tightened security. But as those who attended could verify, the program was not a hate fest. Though the threat of radical Islam was certainly discussed, the panel also spoke positively about Muslim moderates and the need to support them.
What happened in Massachusetts is reflective of a liberal establishment that seems more concerned about the risk of Islamophobia than the actual incidence of progressive and Muslim anti-Semitism. Jewish liberals are often quick to criticize those who discuss the role of radical Islam in much of today’s terrorism, and to dialogue with advocacy groups that delegitimize Israel. However, they show great reluctance to probe fellow progressives and political associates for anti-Semitic beliefs.
Some supporters of the program found CAIR’s presence in the mix interesting in light of its positions regarding Israel, the security of which was also discussed by the panel. The Anti-Defamation League, in 2015 posted an online profile stating that: “CAIR’s stated commitment to ‘justice and mutual understanding,’ […] is undermined by its anti-Israel agenda […] and CAIR chapters continue to partner with various anti-Israel groups that seek to isolate and demonize the Jewish State.”
The question is why one-hundred liberal clergy members would sign a letter condemning a program of vital and timely interest without first reviewing its subject matter, and essentially demanding that speech not be heard. It seems that progressive ideology trumps free speech and self-interest, as it has for generations among politicized American Jews.
The liberal mainstream seems not to have learned from history, and some of its critics have suggested parallels to the Jewish political establishment during the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Jewish Democrats supported Roosevelt and his New Deal policies with religious-like zeal, and he relied on many Jews as trusted advisors, including financier Bernard Baruch, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, presidential speech writer Samuel Rosenman, and Congressman Sol Bloom, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. When it came to protesting Nazi genocide, however, Roosevelt did not want to get involved and cared little for Jews who did.
Roosevelt was ambivalent about Jewish suffering in Europe and agreed with the assessment of his Mideast envoy, Lt. Col. Harold Hoskins, who reported that news of the Holocaust (which he termed “Zionist propaganda”) could upset the Arab-Muslim world and derail the war effort. The Hoskins report was endorsed by Roosevelt’s Secretary of State and many of his Jewish supporters, including Bloom and Rosenman. Its message was also endorsed by Jewish movie moguls in Hollywood, who agreed not to produce Holocaust films under the pretense that they would harm the war effort, and by newspaper publishers who buried news of the concentration camps on the back pages.
Even more blatant were the attempts to besmirch Peter Bergson (Hillel Kook) and his Revisionist Zionist colleagues, who produced a traveling stage show entitled, “We Will Never Die,” to publicize the plight of Europe’s Jews. Despite denials by Roosevelt apologists, the Final Solution was common knowledge by 1942, and Bergson’s group conceived the show to stimulate a national call to action. The show toured a number of American cities, but Jewish establishment organizations attempted to suppress it. Some even solicited government agencies (including the IRS) to harass Bergson’s people with frivolous investigations, though no improprieties were ever found. When Eleanor Roosevelt saw the Washington performance, she lobbied for the establishment of the War Refugee Board in 1944, although it was created far too late to have any practical benefit.
Many liberals erroneously adopted the Palestinian cause as a civil rights issue, and in the process validated an apocryphal national myth that repudiates Jewish history.
The question troubling to many historians is what motivated progressives to oppose efforts to save Jews at a time when the failure to act had fatal consequences. One of the uncomfortable answers is that Jewish lives were not a priority for Roosevelt, a patrician elitist who believed Jews were overrepresented in the American professions. Whereas he tolerated assimilated Jews who supported him politically, he seemed to have little use for Old World stereotypes.
Unfortunately, some Jews who venerated Roosevelt may have felt the same way, falling prey to a Diaspora mentality that to this day encourages self-rejection and identification with hostile critics. Some may have even deluded themselves into believing his policies would somehow save Hitler’s victims, though these policies consisted primarily of deafening silence.
This devotion to progressive ideology survived Roosevelt and morphed into a secular religion that colored the way many Jews saw themselves and Israel – particularly after the Six-Day War, when quite a few lost sight of her precarious position in the Mideast and began to regard her as Goliath instead of David. It became common after 1967 for the Jewish left to falsely accuse Israel of discrimination and war crimes without chastising the Arab-Muslim nations that precipitated several wars of attempted extermination and rejected the Jews’ sovereignty in their homeland. Many liberals erroneously adopted the Palestinian cause as a civil rights issue, and in the process validated an apocryphal national myth that repudiates Jewish history.
Which brings us to a present where Jewish assertiveness, support for Israel, and criticism of radical Islam are all too often equated with bigotry.
In supporting a political agenda that often disparages Israel, downplays Islamist extremism, and ignores left-wing anti-Semitism, today’s progressives seem similarly misguided. Many of them support politicians who question Jewish sovereignty and defend unbalanced criticism of Israel as honest political expression. Regardless of intent, such actions are inconsistent with claims of fealty to traditional values, or reflect naiveté concerning their political bedfellows.
Whatever the case, many of those who claim the mantle of leadership don’t appear to recognize the existential nature of the extremist threat. Furthermore, they seem inspired by progressive priorities far more than traditional Jewish values, which raises the question: Do they really know before Whom they stand? Or are they bringing strange fire before the altar?