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Ecumenical rather than sectional

On the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the beautiful new memorial for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. displays a host of inspiring lessons that were taught by the great civil rights leader.  Among them are these words, spoken by Dr. King in Atlanta on his final Christmas in 1967:  “If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.”

As a rabbi, I am proud to be the inheritor and guardian of a religious tradition that is founded upon the “ecumenical rather than sectional” loyalties that Dr. King modeled for us all.  Our Torah teaches no less than thirty-six times that we are commanded to love the stranger – the one who is not of our tribe.

Just a few miles from Dr. King’s memorial, the AIPAC Policy Conference convened this past week and was broadcast live by all of America’s major news networks and more expansively throughout the world.

I am deeply troubled by the multiple standing ovations that were afforded this past Monday evening to a man whose words, actions, and values are so regularly at odds with the peace-directed ideals of our Jewish tradition and our country – ideals elevated by Dr. King and so many of our nation’s greatest visionaries.

It’s one thing to be polite. Derekh eretz (the Jewish discipline of interpersonal decency) is an important value, and it is proper and fitting to greet a guest – even one with whom you might disagree – politely.  But politeness does not demand cheering from a Jewish audience for a person who eschews the very “world perspective” that Dr. King prayed might characterize our nation.

The celebration of a person who tramples so many of our Jewish values simply because he spoke in support of one of them caused a lie about Jews to be broadcast to the world.  This is an embarrassing failure on the part of the Jews in the convention hall on Monday night.

I am about to send my eldest child to college, where life is already hard enough for pro-Israel Jews.  We can be sure that it just got harder, with the world looking on as the worst anti-Semitic sentiments – that Jews have way more power than they deserve… that Jews trade away their other “purported” global ethical values in favor of whatever is good for themselves… that Jews are loyal only to Israel/themselves, not the countries in which they live – seemed to be playing out before their eyes.

Particularly in a presidential election year, the AIPAC Policy Conference is not just another platform for the internecine American Jewish debate about Israel.  The entire world watches this one Jewish event – and only this one Jewish event.  We can only assume that many millions of non-Jews were reaching their conclusions about who the Jews are and what they stand for on Monday night.

Lest anyone who tuned in to the convention come away with the false impression that Jewish self-concern can ever be embraced at the expense of our religious tradition’s other fundamental values, I wish to be perfectly clear.

The Jewish people’s loyalties “transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation.”

The Jewish people celebrates the Torah’s command to love more than just ourselves.

The Jewish people of America love our country and are determined to join with Americans of all faiths to uphold the soul of this nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

This is not a political matter.  It is blind to partisanship and party allegiances.  Whether Democrat, Republican or Independent, America’s Jews are devoted to our “ecumenical rather than sectional” loyalties, and we always will be.

Make no mistake – I love and support the land, people and state of Israel.  I believe in the legitimacy and importance of a safe and secure Israel, and I will never stop working for the day when Israel will live in peace with all of its neighbors.  But we, the Jewish people, do not need nor wish to check all of our other sacred religious values at the door in service of this one commitment, no matter how important it is to us.  To do so is to debase our own Jewish heritage.  To do so when the world is watching us so closely is to debase ourselves.

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