On March 3, I wrote in Contentions about a public letter organized by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and signed by a group of Wisconsin rabbis that took the position that support for the state-worker unions in their dispute with the governor and the majority of the legislature of that state was mandated by Judaism. The RAC has replied to that blog post with the following letter. My response follows.
Responding to the effort in Wisconsin to sharply curtail collective bargaining rights of public employees, Wisconsin rabbis wrote a letter to the State Senate opposing Governor Scott Walker’s so-called “budget repair bill.” They asserted that Jews are inspired by our tradition to defend the rights of organized labor.
COMMENTARY’s Jonathan S. Tobin sharply criticized the letter, suggesting the rabbis overstepped their bounds as faith leaders. In doing so, he ignored central Jewish tenets commanding us to pursue justice and to serve as a moral goad to our communities. Jews are commanded to engage in tikkun olam — repair of the world. Government, with its immense resources, is indispensable in this task.
The Talmud alludes to a right to strike and to a precursor form of association akin to collective bargaining. Similarly, the medieval commentator Rashba talks about the right of the equivalent of trade associations and guilds to organize to protect the interests of workers. For the rabbis, the Jewish mandate of social justice included protection of workers and their rights. We do not believe Jewish law is binding upon non-Jewish societies, but we do believe that the manner in which rabbis applied the universal values of Jewish tradition to their own societies can be a model for us today. In that spirit, I am proud of our rabbis who spoke out on this issue.
What seems to irk Mr. Tobin most is reflected in his argument that the Reform Movement, so critical of the Religious Right’s injection of religion into politics, was hypocritically doing just that on this issue. But no Jewish organization of which I am aware believes that the Religious Right does not have a right to speak out on public-policy issues or that religion in politics is bad. We have always defended the right of such groups to speak out. But just because you have a right to speak does not make what you say right. And in the free marketplace of ideas, based on insights from our own faith tradition, joined by almost every mainline religious organization, Jewish and Christian, we have challenged and criticized the narrow, extreme agenda of the Religious Right.
Further, some of what the Religious Right advocates is different from what other religious groups do. Based on their understanding of their own faith tradition, the Religious Right has advocated the use of the coercive power of government to impose religious practices on others (e.g., school prayer, banning evolution in science classes, religious symbols on government buildings). In order to avoid bumping into First Amendment limitations, they then support changing the Constitution.
Religious Right leaders have the right to make such arguments, but were they to succeed, the America that has given Jews more rights, freedoms, and opportunities than anywhere else in Diaspora life would be greatly altered. Those are the intrusions into our freedoms for which we have criticized the Religious Right.
In contrast, we defend the right of all religious groups to bring their moral perspective to the recent public debates over labor rights, whether in agreement with us (Catholic bishops, mainline Protestant denominations) or opposed. Anyone may disagree with the Wisconsin rabbis’ interpretation of Jewish text, law, and historical experience. But applying the lessons from our faith to current events is a sacred task for all Jews, especially our teachers and leaders, and I commend them for stressing the relevance and importance of values derived from their faith in the most urgent political decisions our nation is making.
Rabbi David Saperstein
Director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism
Religious Action Center Eisendrath Legislative Assistant
Jonathan S. Tobin writes:
No one disputes the right of any rabbi or group of rabbis to express their opinions about legislation in Wisconsin or any other issue. But an attempt to transform what was primarily a budget dispute as well as an open attempt to override the democratic will of a state’s voters into a matter of Jewish religious doctrine is the sort of overreach that brings no credit to either the rabbis or the cause they support.
Liberals can certainly mine Judaism’s sacred texts to bolster their partisan political stands much in the same way that some conservatives do. But the point here is that invoking the Rashba or the Talmud in order to preserve the political muscle of state-employee unions in 2011 and to counter the attempts of a state’s democratically elected government to bring their benefits into line with budget reality is the sort of implausible exercise that inevitably undermines respect for faith. The precepts of Judaism inform the full spectrum of Jewish life, but those who seek to use them, as the RAC has done in this case and other questionable causes, to gain an advantage in a bitterly divisive and partisan dispute does neither Judaism nor civil society any good. There are such things as political issues on which Jews can take a stand as Jews, but that does not mean that every conceivable political dust-up is a Jewish issue. Most Jews may be political liberals, but that does not mean that Judaism is itself liberal, let alone a partisan creed. Those who enter the public square to take stands on what are entirely secular issues need to be careful not to be perceived as speaking for all Jews, let alone Judaism, and that is precisely the danger that the Wisconsin rabbis and the RAC ran in their zeal to get in their two cents in favor of the unions and against the Republican governor and legislators.
As for my comparisons between this statement and liberal criticism of the Religious Right, the RAC is right to say that there is a difference between arguments over the extent of the right amount of separation between religion and state and purely secular disputes. Rabbi Saperstein and Mr. Backer claim to know of no liberal Jew who is critical of conservative Christian political activism per se. But the general disdain for such Christians and their political stands on a host of issues — and not just school prayer — among liberal Jews is so widespread and so adamant that it strikes me as highly unlikely that they have never encountered it. It is not difficult to imagine the scorn that a letter in support of Governor Walker and the Republicans signed by a group of conservative Christian clerics would provoke from the same liberal Jews who applauded the Wisconsin rabbis that signed the RAC’s letter.
Moreover, even on separation issues, the notion that Jewish interests demand opposition to religious conservatives is a matter of opinion. On school choice as well as on questions of state aid to religious schools, it can be argued that the extremist view of separationism that the RAC endorses is contrary to the best interests of the Jewish community as well as society in general.
A “naked public square” in which faith has no role in public policy is something that conservatives have always opposed. But those who enter that square to speak on behalf of Judaism need to be careful not to do so in a manner that attempts to place Judaism or any faith in a partisan context. Unfortunately, I believe that is exactly what the RAC’s Wisconsin letter did.
Were Wisconsin Rabbis Right to Take Sides in Union Battle? An Exchange.
Must-Reads from Magazine
It's a duck.
Democrats are finally digging out of the wreckage the Obama years wrought, and are beginning to acknowledge the woes they visited upon themselves with their box-checking identity liberalism. So, yes, the opposition is moving forward in the Trump area, but toward what? Schizophrenia, apparently.
The party’s rebranding effort began in earnest last week when Democrats revealed a new slogan meant to evoke an old one: “A Better Deal.” Writing for the New York Times opinion page on Monday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer insisted the Democratic Party’s new agenda “is not about expanding the government, or moving our party in one direction or another along the political spectrum.” Any sentient political observer could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.
“First, we’re going to increase people’s pay,” Schumer wrote. “Second, we’re going to reduce their everyday expenses. And third, we’re going to provide workers with the tools they need for the 21st-century economy.” He endorsed Bernie Sanders’ $1 trillion infrastructure spending proposal, a national paid family and sick leave program, and a hike of the minimum wage to $15 per hour. To reduce the cost of consumer goods, Democrats will pursue changes in the law to allow Congress to break up big firms with oppressive capriciousness.
When pressed on Sunday about what the “Better Deal” agenda may mean for health care, Schumer confessed it meant the most radical expansion of entitlement benefits in American history. “Medicare for people above 55 is on the table. A buy-in to Medicare is on the table. Buy-in to Medicaid is on the table,” the senator said. All options are available—including, apparently, a single-payer system in the form of voluntary Medicare-for-all—once Democrats “stabilize” ObamaCare’s insurance market.
Schumer admitted that the source of Democratic troubles in 2016 and since isn’t Moscow or former FBI Director James Comey; it’s that the electorate doesn’t know what values or beliefs his party represents. Connecticut Democratic Senator Chris Murphy agreed. “Our failing historically has been to focus on very targeted demographic messages, cultural issues, rather than broad-based economic themes,” he insisted. So the Democratic Party’s message in 2018 will apparently be not just big government but behemoth government. And yet, the faintest warble of Schumer’s conscience compelled him to assure voters that big government isn’t the Democratic objective. Why?
Because the way for Democrats to win involves party members farther to the Right—that faction of Democrats known as the Blue Dogs. “The [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] recognizes that the path to the majority is through the Blue Dogs,” asserted Arizona Rep. Kyrsten Sinema. She told Politico that she is in talks with at least 20 potential candidates vying to revive this endangered species. “We are able to convince folks who normally wouldn’t vote for a Democrat to vote for this Democrat.”
Before voters purged moderate House Democrats by voting for Republicans instead in 2010, their eventual disappearance was heralded as a great victory for the Progressive Monolith. “Democrats aren’t ideological enough,” wrote Ari Berman in an October 2010 New York Times op-ed. He argued that ideological homogeneity would make Democrats “more united and more productive.” In fact, the 2010 midterm elections marked the end of the legislative phase of Barack Obama’s presidency. Good call there.
The House’s Blue Dog Coalition is “dedicated to pursuing fiscally-responsible policies, ensuring a strong national defense, and transcending party lines,” according to its mission statement. How those objectives comport with Schumer’s platform—cutting a 13-figure check for infrastructure, rampant economic interventionism, and a semi-single-payer system—is anyone’s guess. Democrats may plan on localizing individual races so as to shield their candidates from the party’s negatives, but that’s easier said than done. Just ask Jon Ossoff, who lost in a Georgia special election despite having done precisely this.
The party’s leaders seem aware that the kind of hyper-liberalism articulated in the “Better Deal” agenda is incompatible with the kind of “economic populism” that proposes individual frugality and prudence as well as solvent safety nets for those who need assistance. For all his faults, Trump was able to marry these two concepts in a way that appealed both to Republicans and enough swing Democrats to win the White House. Democrats appear to be appealing to centrists only at the point of a progressive bayonet. If Democratic candidates start winning again, it won’t be a result of their party’s coherent platform.
The border of incitement.
The idea that speech can itself constitute an act of violence grows ever more popular among the left’s leading polemicists. They argue that employing a politically incorrect word can be triggering; that the wrong gender pronoun can provoke; that words and sentences and parts of speech are all acts of aggression in disguise. The left seeks to stop this violence, or less euphemistically: to silence this speech.
Given their particular sensitivity to the triumphant mightiness of the pen, it’s profoundly disturbing to note where lines are drawn and exceptions made.
Linda Sarsour, the left’s darling of the day, posted a widely-shared picture of Palestinians praying in the streets of Jerusalem, an act protesting the placement of metal detectors outside the Al Aqsa Mosque. “This is resilience. This is perseverance. This is faith. This is commitment. This is inspiration. This is Palestine,” Sarsour wrote. “Denied access to pray at Al Aqsa Mosque in their own homeland, Palestinians pray on the streets in an act of non-violent resistance. They are met with tear gas and rubber bullets.”
Absent from her platitudinous prevarication was any mention of the inarguably violent act that led Israel to construct the metal detectors in the first place, the recent killing of two Israeli police officers at the Temple Mount. Also absent: any reference to the three Israelis who were brutally murdered in the settlement of Halamish on Friday night. It was a far cry from nonviolent resistance when 19-year-old Omar al-Abed entered a home, saw a family finishing a Shabbat dinner, and began indiscriminately stabbing his victims.
Sarsour’s rhetoric is dangerous precisely because she understands her audience and how to appeal to their emotions. She peppers her statements with a few felicitous bromides like “non-violent resistance” and hopes no one notices the inconsistency of her arguments. Others on the left are slightly more honest about their intentions.
Writing in Al Jazeera, Stanley Cohen called on Israel to “accept that as an occupied people, Palestinians have a right to resist—in every way possible.” He begins by telling his readers: “long ago, it was settled that resistance and even armed struggle against a colonial occupation force is not just recognized under international law but specifically endorsed.” His entire article is predicated on a false premise in that it demands the characterization of Israel as a “colonial occupation force”— a characterization that is categorically incoherent.
Cohen cites a 1982 UN Resolution which “reaffirms the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples for independence, territorial integrity, national unity and liberation from colonial and foreign domination and foreign occupation by all available means, including armed struggle.” He does not mention which countries voted for and against this resolution.
Among the countries that voted for it: Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, Pakistan, Rwanda, Qatar, Niger, Kuwait, Bahrain, Iran, Iraq.
Among the countries who voted against it: Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, United Kingdom, United States.
On college campuses, the call for armed struggle has become the Cri de Coeur of leftist students who are otherwise hypersensitive to the impact that intangible words can have on corporeal beings. On Columbia’s campus, students who form the backbone of the BDS movement have successfully blurred the line between incitement and impassioned—albeit severely misguided—opinion. In 2016, the Columbia/ Barnard Socialists concluded one social media post by declaring: “long live the intifada.” As recently as Sunday—after the Halamish attack— the Students for Justice in Palestine shared the Al Jazeera article calling for armed resistance. Where are the outraged professors, administrators, and students concerned for the safety of the student body? Where are the charges of bigotry and racism, the calls to silence this speech, to stop this violence?
Nowhere does the idea that speech can constitute violence find more support than on elite liberal arts colleges. But regardless of whether they have intellectual or moral merit on their own, calls for safe spaces, trigger warnings, and micro-aggression-free environments that come from groups or individuals who not only condone, but use their words to quite literally call for violence, must be ignored, and the hypocrisy highlighted.
From the safe confines of an ivy-covered campus–or from the relative safety of this country, for that matter–it’s easy to preach justice and retribution, to portray armed struggle as the necessary means that will find justification through a righteous end. But especially those who are sensitive to the power of language should understand: euphemistic terminology does nothing to mitigate the violent nature inherent in this rhetoric. There must be no confusion. The left’s glorification of armed struggle is nothing short of approval for those Palestinians who target and kill innocent men, women, and children. Those who proclaim to speak for social justice have been damningly silent.
Podcast: How bad is it?
On the first of this week’s COMMENTARY podcasts, Noah Rothman and Abe Greenwald join me to sort through—and we do it systematically, which is a first for us—what is going on with the Russia investigation and how it divides into three categories. There’s the question of the probe itself, there’s the question of collusion, and there’s the question of obstruction of justice. It’s really good. I mean it. Give a listen.
Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.
Democracy dies while the president looks the other way.
Past U.S. presidents have used their bully pulpit to campaign for human-rights and democracy. By encouraging the unprecedented wave of democratization that has swept the world since 1945, their words and actions had consequences. That’s not something that Donald Trump does. Far from it; he positively praises dictators. His words have consequences, too, and they are not good.
After Trump praised Rodrigo Duterte for his war on drugs, which involves sending out death squads to kill thousands of people, the Philippine president was emboldened to impose martial law on Mindanao. After Trump visited Saudi Arabia and praised its rulers, they were emboldened to launch a counterproductive boycott of Qatar that is splintering the anti-Iran coalition in the Middle East. And after Trump visited Warsaw on July 6 and embraced the ruling Law and Justice Party, it was emboldened to push through parliament a law that would essentially destroy the independence of the Polish judiciary, the last major institution standing in the way of its authority.
Now, it’s perfectly plausible to argue that, in each case, local officials reacted to their own imperatives and that the words of Trump were not decisive. The president of the United States does exercise an outsized influence on allies, though; especially allies like Saudi Arabia and Poland, which rely on American protection for their very existence. Strong words of censure from Trump might not have dissuaded any of these rulers from the path they chose, but his words of support undoubtedly encouraged him to take actions that are antithetical to American values.
That’s particularly the case in Poland, which has long been held up as a shining star of the post-Communist world. Now its star is faded, its stature diminished because the populist Law and Justice Party appears intent on imposing quasi-authoritarian control over its unruly democracy. Party members have just pushed through parliament, without the benefit of hearings, a law that would remove all of the country’s supreme court judges and replace them with alternatives handpicked by the justice minister, who is a party member.
Under pressure from crowds of protesters and the European Union, President Andrzej Duda unexpectedly vetoed the supreme court bill, while signing other legislation that increases political control over the lower courts. The question now is whether Law and Justice will try again to politicize the judiciary as part of its larger assault on Polish democracy.
Already, Law and Justice has taken over the state-owned news media and turned it from the BBC model to the RT model, labeling political opponents as traitors to the Polish people. As the Wall Street Journal noted, the party’s leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, “has accused the opposition of conspiring to kill his identical twin brother, who died in a 2010 plane crash in Russia. ‘You murdered him, you scumbags,’ he said to the opposition during the parliamentary debate on the new law.”
There is not a shred of evidence to support this incendiary accusation; the plane crash was almost certainly an accident. Poland’s own investigation “blamed the disaster on a combination of factors, including bad weather and errors made by a pilot who was not adequately trained on the plane he was flying, a Tupolev-154. That probe also said Russian air traffic controllers gave incorrect and confusing landing instructions to pilots — but it stopped short of alleging intentional wrongdoing.”
In his disdain for political opposition and the media and his embrace of conspiracy theories, Kaczynski is reminiscent of Trump, except that he operates in a much more fragile political system without the protections enshrined in a centuries-old constitution.
During his ballyhooed speech in Warsaw, Trump defended “Western civilization,” but he had not one word of rebuke for his hosts in the Law and Justice Party over their efforts to undermine Polish democracy. The State Department, to be sure, is speaking up against the Law and Justice power grab. “The Polish government has continued to pursue legislation that appears to undermine judicial independence and weaken the rule of law in Poland,” it said in a statement. “We urge all sides to ensure that any judicial reform does not violate Poland’s constitution or international legal obligations and respects the principles of judicial independence and separation of powers.”
Nice words, but they don’t carry much weight. The whole world knows that the State Department does not speak for the president. And, while Trump tweets about a plethora of other topics, he remains conspicuously silent about the sabotage of Polish democracy. Despite the veto of the supreme court bill, the future of Poland’s institutions remains very much an open question. It’s not too late, Mr. President, to speak up for the very principles of Western civilization that you praised in Warsaw when you said: “We treasure the rule of law and protect the right to free speech and free expression.”
Are the rewards worth the costs?
Universities may be non-profit, but they are big business. At the end of fiscal year 2015, for example, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton’s endowments were $38 billion, $26 billion, and $22 billion respectively. Those are correspondingly equivalent to the gross domestic products of Mongolia, Cyprus, and the West Bank and Gaza. University presidents make salaries on par with and often higher than corporate CEOs. Fundraising—traveling the world glad-handing alumni and lobbying—rather than academe has become the primary function of many university presidents.
To be fair, universities have become ever more expensive to run. Government regulations and mandates attached to the receipt of federal funds have burdened campuses with ever more administrators. So, too, has the culture of victimhood, which requires an ever-expanding support staff. Add into the mix the transformation of universities into country clubs competing to offer increasingly luxurious amenities, and management of a university requires ever more cash.
Universities pride themselves on diversity, which they too often define superficially in terms of skin color. Attracting international students to campus kills two birds with one stone: diversity plus full tuition since the foreign students accepted seldom qualify for financial aid from the university.
I am fortunate in my current job to be able to visit perhaps ten different colleges and university campuses each year, sometimes for stand-alone lectures but often for debates. During these visits, I am able to talk to students, professors, and administrators. In addition, many of my peers from graduate school are now tenured faculty, and rising through the ranks of their respective universities. Some of them have raised concern that certain dynamics surrounding ever increasing numbers of foreign students from certain countries have been counterproductive to universities’ educational mission.
The Peoples’ Republic of China sends several hundred thousand students to U.S. colleges, for example. Saudi Arabia sends 60,000. Many of these students fit in and receive a top notch education, but many also cheat on their applications. Academic corruption is fairly commonplace in both countries. In the most blatant cases, students pay others to take various exams required for college admissions, such as the Test of English as a Foreign Langue (TOEFL). Politically-connected students in each country can ensure that their transcripts and extracurricular portfolios highlight what American universities seek rather than what reality is.
Once admitted and on campus, it is clear that these students are not what they claimed to be. In some extreme cases, they cannot speak English well-enough to communicate and cannot understand what is said in class. This forces a choice upon the university: expel the sub-par students or tutor them. The former maintains the school’s quality of education; the latter protects its bottom line. The unending quest to raise funds leads universities to choose the later. Some justify this practice because the tuition paid by the substandard students or their governments subsidizes the financial aid awarded to other students. Others recognize the problem but feel they have no recourse. Add into the mix the fact that some Chinese national students appear to be conducting surveillance on their peers, and the dynamics only get more complicated.
To be fair, fewer university administrations succumb to the quid pro quo of loosening standards than do those which rationalize limits to free speech and intellectual inquiry. The general pattern seems to be that middle-ranked undergraduate programs and masters programs at elite schools make the greatest compromises.
How to resolve the problem? Financial discipline among management would go a long way. So, too, would be a no-nonsense approach to standards. If necessary, universities should proctor their own exams overseas. After all, if dozens of mainland Chinese students can pay $50,000 per year to a university, that university should be able to find $5,000 to send a proctor to one or two cities in that country to oversee and mark exams and conduct in-person interviews.
American universities are facing multiple crises. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has documented threats to free speech on campus and, admirably, stands on objective principle; it does not pass its judgment through partisan litmus tests. Threats to free speech may get the headlines—and deservedly so—but as American universities increasingly become global campuses, willingness to bend standards after the fact when foreign nationals admitted do not match the abilities reflected on their applications can have a deeply corrosive effect on educational quality in America’s most elite colleges and universities.
So many foreigners—the sons and daughters of political and business elite—flock to American universities because they offer the best and broadest education. To destroy that reputation for short-term gain would be mismanagement in the extreme.