When Jews neglect their own self-interest

When Jews neglect their own self-interest

We are now counting the omer, the period between Pesach and Shavuot. During the omer it is traditional to read Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, which contains teachings of great rabbis of the Mishnaic period. One of its most famous sayings, attributed to Hillel, is “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” 

I look at this as a balancing of self- and communal interest. While it is permissible to advance self-interest, this needs to be balanced against the interests of others. It is not egotistical to be for yourself. And it is significant that self-interest is placed before interest for others. As Hillel says, no one else will be for me if I am not.

I see an inversion of this rationale in the Jewish community, a significant portion of which puts the interest of others before the interests of themselves as Jews.

The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement has become a litmus test for Jewish supporters and sympathizers. The New York Celebrate Israel parade is a case in point. The issue is whether groups thought to support or sympathize with BDS goals and or methodology should be able to march in the parade.

A direct challenge to the parade organizers, UJA-Federation of New York and the New York Jewish Community Relations Council, was issued in an open letter by Rabbi Elie Abadie of the Edmond J. Safra Synagogue. Citing research by “Alan Dershowitz and many others who investigated these groups,” Abadie charges that groups have “funded NGOs that have tried to delegitimize Israel and supported anti-Israel organizations. They have urged for boycotting Israel and its products and called for sanctions against Israel.” 

Abadie threatened to pull his congregation and urge other Sephardi groups to back out of the parade if the progressive groups in question were allowed to participate.

Zionist Organization of America president Morton Klein had even a stronger statement. “[I]t is irresponsible and wrong for the JCRC to give legitimacy to Jewish organizations that support BDS with regard to Judea/Samaria.” 

The JCRC responded that it “carries the profound responsibility to bring together the widest possible spectrum of supporters of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” Groups applying to march in the parade are required to pledge that they “support Israel as a Jewish and democratic state,” and will not include “political, divisive, or inflammatory” statements on their banners or other marching props.

The kerfuffle over the Celebrate Israel parade has been overshadowed by the firestorm touched off by Brandeis University’s decision to rescind an honorary degree it had originally intended to give to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a campaigner for women’s rights and a fierce critic of Islam. The Somali-born Ali renounced her Muslim faith, making her an apostate, or murtad, and subject to a punishment of death or imprisonment until repentance. Ali has told interviewers that “violence is inherent in Islam” and that “Islam is the new fascism.”

“We cannot overlook that certain of her past statements are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values,” the university said in a statement released eight days after it had announced that Ali and four other people would be honored. 

In the words of the great philosopher Daffy Duck, “It is to laugh.”

What happened in the eight-day interval? A Brandeis student started an on-line petition against the decision, gaining thousands of signatures. The Council on American-Islamic Relations contacted its members though e-mail and social media, urging them to complain. CAIR sent a letter to Brandeis President Frederick Lawrence, referring to Ali as a “notorious Islamophobe.”

In its statement, Brandeis said, “For all concerned, we regret that we were not aware of” Ms. Hirsi Ali’s record of anti-Islam statements, though those comments have been fairly widely publicized.

Brandeis placed itself in the worst of possible worlds. If there was truly a problem, Brandeis did poor vetting. If after proper vetting, Brandeis withdrew the award under Muslim pressure, we have a prominent Jewish institution yielding to Muslim coercion.

What about the pretext of violating “core values?” Apparently Brandeis’ core values were upheld by granting similar honors to playwright Tony Kushner and South African Bishop Desmond Tutu.

Tutu has complained about “the Jewish monopoly of the Holocaust,” and demanded that its victims must “forgive the Nazis for the Holocaust,” while refusing to forgive the “Jewish people” for “persecut[ing] others.” His rhetoric approaches Zionism equals racism.

Defending the award to Kushner, who called the creation of Israel a “mistake,” former Brandeis president Jehuda Reinharz said “the university does not select honorary degree recipients on the basis of their political beliefs or opinions.” Shouldn’t that same standard, if it is a standard and not a rationalization, apply to Ali?

In caving to pressure and denying Ali her honor, Brandeis undoubtedly believed it was applying the second part of Hillel’s formulation, “If I am only for myself….” Increasingly, Jewish institutions like Brandeis — if it still considers itself a Jewish institution — and prominent members of the Jewish community like to show their impartiality by favoring those at odds with Jewish interests and survival. They ignore the first part of Hillel’s maxim that if you are not for yourself, no one else will be.

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