Tuesday, October 13, 2015

On "Jewish values"

Sar Shalom

Barack Obama's typical response to those who complain that he favors the Palestinians too much is that in actuality he does support Israel, but that that support is rooted in Israel's "Jewish values." When Israel strays from these "Jewish values," Obama sees it as his place to prod Israel to come closer to those values that make Israel worthy of support.

It may be tempting to dismiss Obama's protests as camouflage for his ulterior intent to reimpose the Pact of Umar on Middle Eastern Jewry. However, I do not think any such approach could be intellectually defended [Update:] has any reasonable chance of convincing anyone who does not already believe so. A better approach would be to ask what exactly does Obama mean by "Jewish values?" One possible suggestion I would offer for Obama's concept of "Jewish values" comes from a fictional account by Victor Hugo:

All at once, in this whitish band, two figures made their appearance. One was in front, the other some distance in the rear.

"There come two creatures," muttered Gavroche.

The first form seemed to be some elderly bourgeois, who was bent and thoughtful, dressed more than plainly, and who was walking slowly because of his age, and strolling about in the open evening air.

The second was straight, firm, slender. It regulated its pace by that of the first; but in the voluntary slowness of its gait, suppleness and agility were discernible. This figure had also something fierce and disquieting about it, the whole shape was that of what was then called an elegant; the hat was of good shape, the coat black, well cut, probably of fine cloth, and well fitted in at the waist. The head was held erect with a sort of robust grace, and beneath the hat the pale profile of a young man could be made out in the dim light. The profile had a rose in its mouth. This second form was well known to Gavroche; it was Montparnasse [a street ruffian].

He could have told nothing about the other, except that he was a respectable old man.


While Gavroche was deliberating, the attack took place, abruptly and hideously. The attack of the tiger on the wild ass, the attack of the spider on the fly. Montparnasse suddenly tossed away his rose, bounded upon the old man, seized him by the collar, grasped and clung to him, and Gavroche with difficulty restrained a scream. A moment later one of these men was underneath the other, groaning, struggling, with a knee of marble upon his breast. Only, it was not just what Gavroche had expected. The one who lay on the earth was Montparnasse; the one who was on top was the old man. All this took place a few paces distant from Gavroche.

The old man had received the shock, had returned it, and that in such a terrible fashion, that in a twinkling, the assailant and the assailed had exchanged roles.

[After obsering a struggle, Gavroche caught the exchange between the old man and his attacker]

He was repaid for his conscientious anxiety in the character of a spectator. He was able to catch on the wing a dialogue which borrowed from the darkness an indescribably tragic accent. The goodman questioned, Montparnasse replied.
"How old are you?"-- "Nineteen."-- "You are strong and healthy. Why do you not work?"-- "It bores me."-- "What is your trade?"-- "An idler."-- "Speak seriously. Can anything be done for you? What would you like to be?"-- "A thief."
A pause ensued. The old man seemed absorbed in profound thought. He stood motionless, and did not relax his hold on Montparnasse.

Every moment the vigorous and agile young ruffian indulged in the twitchings of a wild beast caught in a snare. He gave a jerk, tried a crook of the knee, twisted his limbs desperately, and made efforts to escape.

The old man did not appear to notice it, and held both his arms with one hand, with the sovereign indifference of absolute force.

The old man's revery lasted for some time, then, looking steadily at Montparnasse, he addressed to him in a gentle voice, in the midst of the darkness where they stood, a solemn harangue, of which Gavroche did not lose a single syllable:--

"My child, you are entering, through indolence, on one of the most laborious of lives. Ah! You declare yourself to be an idler! prepare to toil. ... Woe to the man who desires to be a parasite! He will become vermin! Ah! So it does not please you to work? Ah! You have but one thought, to drink well, to eat well, to sleep well. You will drink water, you will eat black bread, you will sleep on a plank with a fetter whose cold touch you will feel on your flesh all night long, riveted to your limbs. ... You desire fine black cloth, varnished shoes, to have your hair curled and sweet-smelling oils on your locks, to please low women, to be handsome. You will be shaven clean, and you will wear a red blouse [prison uniform of that day] and wooden shoes. You want rings on your fingers, you will have an iron necklet on your neck. ... Believe me, do not undertake that painful profession of an idle man. It is not comfortable to become a rascal. It is less disagreeable to be an honest man. Now go, and ponder on what I have said to you. By the way, what did you want of me? My purse? Here it is."

And the old man, releasing Montparnasse, put his purse in the latter's hand; ...

Les Misérables, Volume IV, Book IV, Chapter II

To relate this story to Israel's situation, the Palestinians are like Montparnasse with Israel as the elderly gentleman. The Palestinians are poor and see others' possessions as belonging to them, and thus try to rob Israel. Israel, being in a stronger position, suppresses the attempted robbery. But, Jewish values mandate sympathy for the downtrodden, do they not? Thus, if Israel were truly acting in accordance with "Jewish values," she would give the Palestinians what they are attempted to seize despite having them at her mercy, as the elderly gentleman did in the vignette. Could this be what Obama expects of Israel, that sympathy for the downtrodden should override all assessment of what leads to their being downtrodden?


  1. Obama sees it as his place to prod ...

    Yes. Everyone who disagrees with him - or whom he dislikes - has to be "prodded."
    I don't think he's believable when he talks about "Jewish values." It's just an excuse to make himself sound morally superior to whomever he wants to scold.
    He does exactly the same to American Christians. He obviously has no real respect for them. Or love for them. They are just another group he can morally look down on. The list of people /groups he morally looks down on is very long. You have to have a certain sort of arrogance - to say the least - to believe your rightful role is to tell everyone else how thoroughly disappointed you are with them all the time. If only they were more like him.
    President Obama chastises American Christians for not displaying - according to him- sufficient Christian Charity. This is from someone who utterly fails to display any of the basic principles of Christian Charity in his own life. He shows no signs of forgiveness towards those he considers his enemies. They just get smeared or insulted or laughed at. He shows no humility. Ever. And he demonstrates no ability to admit error or to feel remorse for his own mistakes. As far as I can tell, he has never taken responsibility for anything that has gone wrong. The blame always lies elsewhere.
    He's a preacher, a sermonizer. America's supposedly much needed "Chief-scold". His role is not based in any genuine understanding of anyone's values. It's based in taking a position of, completely underserved, moral superiority and then using that to try to manipulate situations so that the world becomes more to his liking.
    It's a tool for getting what he wants, while making himself out to be better than most other people.
    I expect that Obama would want Israel to capitulate to every demand the Palestinians and their supporters want. Not because of Israel's Jewish values, but because that's what he wants politically . Everything is about politics and ideology. The rest is smoke and mirrors.

  2. As someone who has actually been in screaming matches with Orthodox Rabbis about who is and who is not allowed to take Daf Yomi, about conversion, about the role and responsibility of a Bet Din, about what a shanda a Agudathim are. As someone who has fought tooth and nail about Jewish values I can safely say I am unconcerned what Obama things. Crack open a Pirkey Avoth or a tome on Rashi or a Shulkan Aruch. Organize a mikveh, something, anything, then tell me about Jewish values.

    1. Getting Obama on record on what he considers to be Jewish values would have one of two effects: either it would allow questions about how Israel is in violation of those values or it would allow questions about what makes those values "Jewish values." My suggestion as to Obama's definition of "Jewish values" is an attempt at the latter. I would surmise that asserting that Jewish values do not require giving your purse to a subdued attacker would engender more respect for Judaism than would asserting that Jewish values permit tolerating a society like that described in Ezekiel 16:48.

    2. Sar Shalom,
      I think you show a great generosity to President Obama by taking what he says at face value, and spending time and effort trying to parse his comments.
      Hypothetically; if you could get him to define what he means by "Jewish values" it would be meaningless. He - or his advisors - would define them whatever way they believed was politically expedient..
      The only "Jewish values" he would probably endorse are those that entirely overlap with the support of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. He probably believes that Israel can't be capable of demonstrating "Jewish values" while it has a right-wing government.
      He certainly believes that America can't be demonstrating the " values" he approves of while America does not vote in a Democratic administration. Preferably under his leadership.
      Etc. Etc.
      If he cares so deeply about "values" perhaps he would like to define what kind of values the Cuban regime has, or the Iranian regime. Which of their values does he find so admirable?
      And, perhaps, he would like to explain which of the "values" expressed by Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad etc , he has such understanding and sympathy for.
      I, for one, would be interested to hear his answers.

    3. Did you read my suggestion of what constitutes Obama's idea of "Jewish values?" I tried to condense it, but it's still a bit long. The point is that once the concept of "Jewish values" is defined, either the concept could be ridiculed or any pattern of behavior could be defended as consistent with it. If he defines "Jewish values" in a way that eerily matches those of the Democratic Party, he can be challenged for doing so.

      The problem with saying that he is twisting Jewish values to match those of the Democratic Party before he defines his concept of "Jewish values" is that he can then turn around and say "What, you don't believe in charity to the poor?" What's needed is to force him to explicitly say that "Jewish values" require something that most of society would consider ludicrous for any value system to require.

      As to how Jewish values should be construed, R. Leo Jung wrote how socialism borrows from Judaism the notion that there should be a minimum standard of living for all and capitalism borrows from Judaism the notion that the enterprising should be allowed to enjoy the fruits of their honest labor. If there any -ism to which Judaism holds, it would be tsedekism.

      He doesn't justify his policies towards Iran and Cuba in terms of values. He justifies them in terms of realities that have to be dealt with. His perception of reality is off in the case of Iran, and his Iran policy deserves to be pilloried on that basis, but raising the standard that he applies to Israel is a red herring.

    4. I understand what you are saying, but in order to believe there is a real point to asking him to define "Jewish values" one would have to believe he is an honourable man. I do not believe him to be an honourable man.
      On the subject of Israel I believe him to be very much like the European progressive left. Far more so than in his position he would be likely to confess to.
      Although, some of his administration's pronouncements are fairly revealing.

      He justifies deals with Iran and Cuba in terms of political realities. Well, yes, he
      justifies whatever he wants to do in whatever way it will play best.
      He's an ideologue. Pure and simple.
      His perception of reality is off in the case of Iran. Yes. But it's more than that.
      And his appeasement of the Castro regime - totalitarian dictatorship - says what about his own values? Have you heard him speak about the egregious human rights record of Cuba? I don't think he could care less about it. Or the horrors of the Iranian regime.
      Cuba and Iran oppose America. That means they get his sympathy.
      And his support.

      I believe he has an ideological hostility to Israel. The company he kept before he became president suggests that, as does his worldview.

      Going back to "values". Why is Israel the only country that he feels he has the right to lecture about its values ?
      And why never lecture the Palestinian leaders on their values?

      I think there is an article at E.I. from about 2007 which speaks to his position on Israel /Palestine. I am reluctant ( as you can imagine) to post a link to E.I. but it is an instructive piece. I will try and find it.
      It's worth Googling.

      The article linked below is an amazing piece which traces the experience of a half-Jewish leftwing British man, Saul Freeman. It's the story of someone slowly realising what the left has become. Do read it, it's really powerful.


      I'll try to find the other link.

    5. Link to E.I. article:


      Worth reading.