Do We Really Need Another Round of Shafran v. Rosenblum?

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One of my wittier friends commented that my recent exchange with Avi Shafran on President Obama’s Israel policy struck him as a mental health issue. “I mean its not like you and Avi are major players in the American foreign policy establishment, whose views are likely to have any impact of the Obama adminstration’s Israel policy,” he remarked.

I will confess I did not find any of the points made by defenders of the president’s foreign policy to be compelling or even very interesting — the defenders seemed far more eager to attribute low motivations to the president’s critics than to offer their own substantive defense. And I’m genuinely surprised that there were those who learned something new from Avi that they did not already know about Obama’s stance towards Israel. But I’m nevertheless delighted to find that the president has his defenders and that Orthodox Jews are not the victims of thought control or quite the automatons that we are caricacturized as being. Hopefully some of that independence of thought and multiplicity of viewpoints will reflect itself in communal debates, and not just in areas where our voices are not likely to have a major impact. In the meantime, it is always good to be reminded that no political party or politician embodies the Torah viewpoint or its opposite.

I do take to heart Avi’s admonitions about the difficulty of shaking oneself from settled views or even exposing oneself to counter viewpoints. All of us have a problem changing our minds once we have formed an opinion. That’s why we so badly need a chavrusah who is ever ready to contest our words and understandings with whom to learn Gemara. Similarly, any issue worth debating inevitably encompasses a number of perspectives. I’m therefore grateful that Avi has allowed himself to be pressed into service as my chavrusah on the Obama administration’s Mideast policy.

Avi now claims to have had a very modest goal in mind in his first piece on the subject: to provide readers with a few facts they may not have known about the actions of the Obama administration towards Israel. Had he done nothing other than point out some good things President Obama has done for Israel no one would have or could have disagreed, certainly not I. But his goal was larger than that. In his first piece, he only conceded that opprobrium towards the administration might be justified on fiscal issues, about which he professes to understand little. He did not concede any basis of criticism with respect to Middle East policy, about which, by contrast, he apparently considers himself to be sufficiently knowledgeable. I would respectfully submit it is Avi who has now gone far beyond his original “did you know these six things about President Obama and Israel” who is digging in his heals and putting forward a series of weak “terutzim” in response to my treatment of the major issues of the administration’s foreign policy, which found no place in his original piece.

Avi, for instance, accuses me of attempting to psychoanalyze the president and peer into the inner recesses of his mind when I wrote about Obama being thrall to the “liberal fallacy” of believing that all people are basically the same and just seek a slightly bigger piece of the pie for themselves. But I did nothing of the kind. I find nothing more destructive of serious policy debate than to reduce the ideas of one’s opponents to the realm of psychology — e.g. a fatherless childhood. What I was doing instead is something that political scientists and intellectual historians do all the time: discuss congeries of ideas and try to figure out the thread that joins them together.

The proof that Avi found lacking is simple. It lies in the president’s naïve belief that the time is ripe for achieving an overall solution. That belief betokens an unwillingness to take the Palestinians seriously – i.e., listen to what they actually say and consider the power of religious ideas on their stance. The optimism about finding a solution derives from the belief that the Palestinian-Israel dispute is primarily about drawing borders.

Avi professes to be untroubled by the Obama administration’s reneging on George W. Bush’s April 14 2004 letter to Prime Minister Sharon: That letter was not embodied in a formal treaty, says Avi, and is therefore not binding. I’m not sure that the administration will be happy to be defended on the grounds that its undertakings are worthless unless sealed in legally enforceable treaty obligations. The United States has not generally advertised itself to the world with a large sign called “Caveat Emptor” with respect to any of its undertakings. The assertion that Bush’s commitments were only valid upon the conclusion of a peace treaty is absurd because they dealt precisely with what Israel would not be asked to do to achieve such a peace treaty. And the letter was not given with respect to what Israel would subsequently do, but with respect to what Prime Minister Sharon had already done: commit to a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. Elliot Abrams, the leading National Security Council figure handling the issue has written this many times. Finally, Avi strikes me as losing the forest for the trees, in his legal casuistry. The Obama administration not only refused to agree that Israel can be expected to maintain large settlement blocks in any future agreement, but has also placed the Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem built since 1967 and housing hundreds of thousands of Jews on the same status as the settlements, something no previous administration has done.

Avi’s treatment of the July 2009 meeting between the president and leaders of 14 Jewish organizations, including J Street, which was invited for the first time to such a gathering by Obama, is equally cavalier. He cites some unnamed figures as having “warm things” to say about the powwow. We don’t learn who or what. Nor does Avi consider the possibility that responsible Jewish leaders might be just a little bit hesitant about telling reporters that the president’s attitude scared them to death. He does not deny the full account provided by Edward Klain and Richard Chesnoff, the former editor of the New York Times Sunday Magazine and senior correspondent at U.S. News and World Report, respectively. They quote Abe Foxman of the ADL, who leans left on the peace process, as saying that Obama affirmed that he was pressuring only Israel. And in response to the suggestion that only an Israel that feels secure in its relationship with America will be able to make dramatic concessions for peace, the president said that Israel had such a friend in President George W. Bush and still didn’t make peace. That strikes me as a pretty clear statement of his belief that Israel is responsible for the lack of peace.

Avi neither denies nor even mentions the statements of Foxman and other top Jewish leaders after the meeting. They were taken aback by the degree all of Obama’s senior foreign policy officials have bought into “linkage” — the believe that all Middle East issues could be largely repaired by an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty, and the corollary belief that achieving that result depends of the Obama administration proving that it can separate itself from Israel by taking a tough stance on settlements.

Avi moves on to justify the Obama administration’s dramatic break with previous American support for Israel’s policy of nuclear ambiguity. I would concede that this approach may have more to do with the president’s general naivete about arms control than his attitudes about Israel — i.e., his failure to realize that fewer nuclear weapons per se has little to do with making the world safer or more stable. But the threat to Israel nevertheless remains. And it did not begin with the recent attempts to secure an agreement from the signatories to the Non-proliferation Treaty to a resolution against Iran. As early as May 2009, America’s leading nuclear negotiation urged Israel to sign the NPT.

Avi professes not to be bothered by the appointment of former ambassador to Saudi Arabia Chas Freeman to head the National Security Assessment because the appointment was made by the National Intelligence Director not the president. That only pushes off the question one level. How did the administration get stuck with a National Intelligence Director who could appoint such an outspoken critic of Israel and the Israel Lobby to head the extremely sensitive security assessment? It is at least suggestive of the atmospherics of the current administration.

Finally, Avi asks what purpose would have been served by the president mentioning the Jewish people’s connection to Israel in his Cairo speech. Should he have also cited the first Rashi in Chumash? he asks sarcastically. Well, in fact, a great deal would have been gained. It could have been a Sister Souljah moment for the president to tell the Palestinians and larger Arab world that peace cannot come unless it gives up its anti-Semitic narrative that there were never Jews in the Holy Land and that the First and Second Temples never existed. Instead he channeled the Arab narrative that the Jewish presence is an alien growth thrust upon helpless Arabs by Europeans after the Holocaust to assuage their own intense guilt feelings. Fueling dangerous fantasies is never helpful.

In his conclusion, Avi expressed the hope that he has at least “scored a single.” Unfortunately for him, one may hit a single without scoring. No quarter runs are given for a single. If you don’t manage to cross home plate, you are just a runner left stranded.

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8 Responses

  1. HESHY BULMAN says:

    Re: The contention that open-mindedness is of overarching importance – it is at times the slippery slope to moral equivalence. Jonathan is absolutely correct in his contention that the case for our historical right to E”Y must be made loudly and clearly by any friend of the Jewish people, perhaps most of all in the midst of its foes. But then, it must be with the understanding that in the mind of the Arab world, there can be no other case made in any event. One who feels that persuasion is at all possible on the basis of the suffering of the Jewish people is hopelessly deluded and impossibly naive. Avi Shafran may not be – Barak Obama and his ilk, are, and it is critically important that we clearly recognize where danger lies, intended or otherwise.

  2. Avi says:

    If Obama had two white parents instead of just the one that raised him, the opposition in the Ortho community would be twice what it is. For the last 30 or so years accusations of ” racism” have become the new McCarthyism. People are intimidated out of speaking their true opinions lest they get called racism. We have seen Obama, his admin, his supporters and his media, play the race card against the Clintons and the Republicans. We have seen the MSM parrot disproven accusations of racism against the Tea Party.
    Many Orthos are afraid to speak out lest they get called racist. Others who do speak out temper their statements ( but would never pull their punches against Jimmy Carter) and become wishy washy, and others accuse other people of being racist as to inoculate themselves from the same accusations. This is akin to the appeaser feeding others to the crocodile.
    No the opposition to Obama is not because of racism, but the less than appropriate opposition is from fear of being called racist. If both his parents were white the opposition would double and we wouldn’t be discussing this.

  3. David F. says:

    Sure, why not? It’s been entertaining and informative so far and I for one, would love to see it continue. Most of us do not have the time and resources to delve into this subject too fully and appreciate the efforts and writings of those who do. Gentlemen, please continue!

  4. rephoel greenman says:

    What to me is most troubling and dangerous about this “debate”is the implication that if one was somehow convinced by Rabbi Shafran that Obama does not harbor deep animosity toward Israel we as orthodox Jews could then relax our feelings of animosty towards Obama.Lets then grant Rabbi Shafran his “weak” terutzim on the Israel issue and see what we have.(This alone is somewhat delusional for the many reasons mentioned by Rabbi Rosenblum,in addition to the fact we would have to ignore all the vile anti-israelites/semites that Obama has “learned by”;wright,ayres khalidi,said ect)1.Can we support someone who believes in unqaulified unconditional abortion accsess? 2.Can we support someone who refuses to recognize the threat posed by islamic radicals.4.Can we support a president who would cut in half tax exemptions to charity?5.Can we support somone who as a matter of policy wants gas and electricity prices to be prohibitivly expensive.5.Can we support somone who is completly beholden to teachers unions and thus a sworn enemy of advancing private schools?6.Most urgently,can we support somone who is a proponent of single payer healthcare ie.ratioining vital treatments based on cost analysis and encouraging euthanaia ie.shfichas damim?I would say the answer to all these quistions is a resounding NO.No politician will ever be 100% in line with all our hashkofos but someone who is so antithecal to us on all major issues deserves nothing less than than unadulterated derision.Rabbi Rosebnlum aludes to the argument that these debates are pointless on a practical level but I would suggest that they are not only pointless but an obligation.In a time when so many high profile Jews in politics are seen promoting shamefull views and policies(emanuel,axelrod,boxer,shumer,krugman ect)we have to demonstrate that by no means to they represent all Jews or Torah values.

  5. DF says:

    I’m not sure many of Obama’s detractors are, in fact, making an uninformed judgment. There’s a diffrence between democrats and republicans, or if you prefer, between liberals and conservatives. The former group is very often oblivious to the the arguments of conservatives, because they currently control legacy media outlets. Whereas it is quite impossible for conservatives not to be aware of their opponent’s ideas. Maybe its a “generational thing”, but anyone under the age of 50 – i.e, who uses the internet regularly – is usually pretty well informed. If our community in the whole doesnt like or trust Obama , it’s probably for pretty good reasons. Remember, Obama was elected in part because of Bush fatigue and a not-very-popular candidate in John Mcain, and also on the basis of voters who for the most part didnt know and couldnt care less what Obama’s positions were. There are tens of millions of non-Jews who also dont like him. I would prefer Rabbi Shafran recognize the intelligence and independence of his own community, rather than attribute their disagreements with him to uninformed-opinion making.

  6. Ori says:

    Rabbi Shafran makes a good point, but I’d like to add another one.

    Rabbi Avi Shafran: That means reading as many news reports on the point as can be summoned, as well as various “takes” on them among commentators (bearing in mind, of course, where the commentators “are coming from.”

    Ori: That is a lot of work. A Google search for “Obama Middle East” returns 23 million results. For most of us, we can probably do more productive work for now, and only form opinions in late 2012, when they’ll actually make a difference.

  7. Avi Shafran says:

    The answer to Jonathan’s question “Do We Really Need Another Round…? is, at least in my opinion, no.

    And so I won’t tax readers with rebuttals to his rebuttals (though I have them aplenty!).

    Instead — and I think Jonathan and I can agree on this — I would simply suggest that anyone who is interested in formulating a truly informed opinion on any of the points about which Jonathan and I disagree undertake some independent research. That means reading as many news reports on the point as can be summoned, as well as various “takes” on them among commentators (bearing in mind, of course, where the commentators “are coming from.”

    And then objectively and honestly put yourself in President Obama’s place.

    You may end up agreeing with Jonathan; you may end up agreeing with me. Either way, though, I think you’ll be making an informed judgment — something, as my point all along has been — too few of us make often enough.

  8. Bob Miller says:

    Since I can’t post a comment to the original article by Rabbi Shafran, I’ll try it here.

    I’ve been wondering if that was an attempt to prevent a communication breakdown between our “black hat” communities (and their organizations such as the Agudah) and Obama. Jews in golus are very familiar with the fallout when we get on the wrong side of a head of state.

    Anyway, that’s my dan l’chaf zechus position about an article that had little technical merit. The best baseball analogy might be September/October for the Mets.