Pilloried With Hillary

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One of the many downsides of a world that moves as quickly as ours is that many of us feel we must react to events in “real time” rather than after some research and thought. Leon Wieseltier once wisely remarked that the concept of such immediate reaction (he was speaking of blogs) is predicated on the ridiculous idea that our first thoughts are our best thoughts. Reactions, in other words, are one animal; thoughtful judgments, an entirely different genus.

Enough time has passed—I hope—for a measured, non-knee-jerk, objective look at events of several weeks ago that were very quickly reacted to by many in the Jewish world. The events comprised a trifecta of sorts of alleged anti-Israel sentiment: a speech by the U.S. Secretary of State; remarks by an American ambassador; and the U.S. Secretary of Defense’s response to a question.

It didn’t help, of course, that a presidential election is looming. Republican candidates led the charge, claiming that the trio of (as they portrayed them) dastardly comments were just proof to their charge that the current administration hates Israel.

The remarks Hillary Clinton reportedly made at a private gathering in Washington were indeed offensive. Ms. Clinton seemed to portray Israel’s by-any-standard vibrant democracy as something less. (Let us pause to be thankful that she lost the 2008 Democratic primary.) And she waxed critical of what she perceived as discriminatory attitudes among religious Jews in Israel, evidencing a woeful ignorance of the difference between voluntary separation of the sexes and base discrimination. Those alleged comments yielded a torrent of well-earned chastisement, including a statement from Agudath Israel of America expressing its “chagrin” and contending that Ms. Clinton “seems either unaware or unconcerned with the sincerely held and time-honored convictions of traditionally religious Jews.”

The second of the lambasted, however, was a victim, not a violator. U.S. Ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman had the unfortunate experience of being paraphrased by Yediot Achronot, a notoriously sloppy news organization. Speaking to the European Jewish Conference, Mr. Gutman, a proud Jew and the son of a Holocaust survivor, noted that while classical anti-Semitism—the sort characterized by accusations of well-poisoning and economy-manipulation—is not noticeably on the rise, a new sort of anti-Semitism, expressed in anti-Israelism, is. Yediot implied that Mr. Gutman was engaging in apologetics for the latter. The ambassador did note how such modern Jew-hatred can be fueled by Israel’s actions—something no one in his right mind would ever deny—but at no point did he do anything remotely to “justify” such animus, as he was accused of doing by a gaggle of Jewish organizations and writers (and Republican presidential candidates). They all relied on Yediot’s report, and on reports based on its reports, rather than take the time to research what Mr. Gutman had actually said.

The condemnations of Mr. Gutman were succinctly summarized by Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, who knows a thing or two about anti-Semitism, as “an awful lot of nonsense.”

Finally, there was the comment of U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. At the 2011 Saban Forum, an annual gathering of U.S. and Israeli officials, he was asked if he agreed with the contention that, for peace’s sake, Israel should withdraw from territories claimed by the Palestinians. His response was: “No, just get to the [goldarned] table.” (Mr. Panetta used a more explicit adjective.) He then repeated the sentence several times, making clear that his admonition was intended for both the Israeli government and the Palestinian leadership alike.

Now one can easily make a case for the fact that Israel is entirely willing to sit down at the goldarned, or any, table, that the Palestinians are, as usual, the obstacle to negotiations. But no one has ever accused Mr. Panetta of being unsupportive of Israel. No one could. And his venting of frustration over stalemated peace talks doesn’t change that a whit.

And yet, Mr. Panetta and Mr. Gutman were pilloried along with Hillary by talking heads and tapping fingers, the threesome cast as a Treacherous Trio, their strings pulled, of course, by an evil wizard in the White House.

It’s easy to rush to judgment. What’s less easy but more important is to recognize that factuality and fairness are high ideals, indeed deeply Jewish ones.

© 2011 AMI MAGAZINE

[Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami Magazine]

The above essay may be reproduced or republished, with the above copyright appended.

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