During his tenure as US president, Theodore Roosevelt coined the expression “bully pulpit”, by which he meant that the incumbent of the White House had a near-unique position to advance an opinion or agenda.
The White House may be the most powerful bully pulpit of them all. But there are others – classrooms, conferences, the Today programme – and, for a rabbi, there’s Yom Kippur, when probably more members are at shul than on any other day of the year.
As always, my shul’s mid-afternoon Question and Answer session was packed with hungry but engaged congregants. One query in particular prompted a lengthy response from the rabbi. In it, he referred to British Mandate Palestine and those Jews whose fight for statehood saw them join the militant Irgun group. “They weren’t terrorists,” went his argument. “It was a different time and they were fighting for their freedom.”
Really? I thought, my blood boiling (never good on a fast day). Oh yes, I’m sure their cause and the context would have been of great comfort to the families of the 91 people who died in 1946 when the Irgun bombed the King David Hotel.
Advocacy doesn’t and shouldn’t mean censorship
More to the point, doesn’t that argument sound familiar? Isn’t it essentially the defence used today by extremist groups after a blast on a bus in Israel or a random attack in the West Bank? If we condemn it now, we cannot excuse it in history.
I left the session seething with anger and disbelief but, most of all, with disappointment. Was it intentional moral relativism or just a short memory? I can’t speak for the rabbi – perhaps he simply said the first thing that came to mind- but it makes little difference. It is irresponsible, not to mention dangerous and counter-productive, to use the bully pulpit to spread a limited or even false view of events. That is always true, but it is especially so with a subject as sensitive as the Israeli-Arab conflict.
What my rabbi failed to acknowledge – and he is not alone, this crops up all too often – was that we can be proud Jews and still recognise that we have occasionally let ourselves down, from the Golden Calf onwards.
Likewise, it’s possible to be a proud Zionist and staunch supporter of Israel without advancing a watered-down version of our history, good and bad. In fact, it is impossible to be a proud Zionist and do that.
With a love for Israel so strong in the community, it’s only natural that rabbis and other representatives want to advance it and encourage congregants to follow suit.
But advocacy doesn’t and shouldn’t mean censorship. We should speak of Israel’s many
accomplishments but never shy away from remembering when it, or its citizens, have failed, as in the recent “Price Tag” attacks or when Yigal Amir shot Yitzhak Rabin.
We can – indeed should – emphasise that the perpetrators represent only tiny minorities but we cannot excise these incidents from the debate. After all, as another US President learnt, full disclosure is superior to “whitewash”.
We don’t equip our “enemies” with more ammunition by sharing all the facts, we equip them with less. And if we don’t give our advocates the full history, how can they be expected to respond to those who challenge it?
This is not an issue of left or right, of
J Street versus the Zionist Federation. It’s an issue of fantasy and reality. The architect and first Prime Minister of the state of Israel, David Ben Gurion, reportedly once commented: “When Israel has prostitutes and thieves, we’ll be a state just like any other.”
There may be a temptation to present Israel as a fairy story. But that is not the way to achieve a real-life happy ever after.
Roosevelt intended “bully pulpit” to be a positive concept, a privilege the presidency offered those who wanted to make lasting change. But, to a modern audience in tune with the worst excesses of political power, it also has negative connotations, hinting at co-ercion or undue pressure.
It would be to our credit if those with the honour of occupying one of the Jewish community’s bully pulpits could do so with the original intention.
This comment piece was first published in the JC