This is in response to two of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s recent columns in the Jewish Standard. I would like first to say that I, along with any others, do respect much of Rabbi Boteach’s work as a theologian. I have found many of his columns on these pages interesting to read. I’ve found some the rabbi’s political commentary, however, to be quite simplistic and inconsistent. I will start with his piece from his November 6th “Truth regardless of consequences” column: “Five values to unite America.”
Rabbi Boteach starts with the value of “a hatred of evil.” A great value, of course, but one that he quickly politicizes in his own way. He first lists some examples of America fighting evil (including some trite quips that Vietnam and Iraq were about “fighting evil,” even though South Vietnam’s leaders were no less evil than the North’s, and even though the U.S. had supported Saddam Hussein in the 1980s — but I imagine most readers probably have their minds made up either way on those issues by now). Then Rabbi Boteach predictably continues the myopic Axis of Evil line and brings it to how the U.S. should never return to the Iran deal, as it legitimized “a brutal, monstrous government.” Yes, I agree that the regime running Iran is awful, but are U.S. negotiations under Trump with North Korea over nuclear issues any different in legitimizing a brutal regime? Glaringly, there is also no mention at all of the U.S.’s continued support for other brutal regimes in the region, especially that of Saudi Arabia; more on that later.
But perhaps the most asinine claim in the piece is where, when discussing the value of a love for God, Rabbi Boteach writes “No country on earth is as religious as the United States.” It’s easy to miss, when glancing over this the first time, just how much of an exceptionalist statement this is, a truly hubristic insult to the strong faith and spirituality of millions of people in more than a hundred other countries, from Latin America, to Africa, to Asia. Yes, it’s nice to talk about the faith many Americans have, but it’s ridiculous to say that ours is stronger than that of other countries. Rabbi Boteach says that other countries like Iran just leverage God for political purposes, while giving a token acknowledgement that it happens in the U.S. too. This still oddly implies Iran can’t be “as religious as the U.S.,” even if its ordinary citizens are still genuinely religious. Some of the anecdotal examples he gives about the U.S. being so religious is that our public speeches end with “God bless America,” and how we’re the only Western country with “God” printed on our money.
Rabbi Boteach ends with, “It will take more than just empty rhetoric about an increasingly elusive national unity….it demands purpose through shared values.” Clearly, it will take more than just typically politicized us-versus-them rhetoric about those values, too. He also mentions some other nice values, like a love for communal service, of learning, and of family; I sincerely like his idea of a national Friday night dinner campaign for families to come together without cellphones and TVs. But even his discussion of these values retroactively falls flat, because a week after preaching these values and proposing unity, Rabbi Boteach wrote “An American rabbi says thank you to President Trump.” Again, most readers here probably have their minds made up about Donald Trump one way or another by now, but I think a lot of us would agree that while many factors have hurt unity in the U.S., Trump has done more to divide us than any other president in recent history. And on the topic of values like “love of learning, and family,” I don’t have to go into how Trump has assaulted these very ideas time and again, from the science on climate change and the pandemic, to his fundamental anti-intellectualism, to his family separation policies.
Rabbi Boteach magnanimously says, “I accept the results of the election, in bowing to the majesty of the American democratic tradition,” in the same breath as he defends a man who is actively fighting that majestic tradition. Yes, he tries to put some nuance into his thank you to Trump, admitting that Trump is “controversial” and “flawed,” but saying that he still is a friend of the Jewish people due to his unwavering support for Israel. Forgetting for a moment the many American Jews (probably a few thousand now) who have needlessly died or been hurt as a result of Trump’s carelessness and lack of leadership around the virus, I’m not so sure that’s the case. Shammai Engelmayer’s column from two weeks ago does a great job going into some of the winks and nods Trump has given to rabidly anti-Semitic right-wing elements over his term, from anti-Soros conspiracies, to QAnon leaders, to the Proud Boys.
Trump all but said that we have dual loyalty when he told a room full of Jews that Netanyahu is “your prime minister,” and further said that Jews who vote for Democrats show “great disloyalty.” He has embraced evangelical Christian Zionists, many of whom support Israel only because they see it as a necessary step before the end times; preachers like Robert Jeffress, present at many events with Trump, have said that all Jews — not to mention Muslims, Hindus, and even Catholics — will go to hell unless they accept Jesus in what he sees as the right way. Trump also has embraced far-right groups around Europe, especially in Hungary, and while most modern far-right leaders there (like Trump) are close with Netanyahu, and do not openly show anti-Semitism, many members of their chauvinistic parties still are completely awash in all sorts of neo-Nazi and white supremacist ideology. Lastly, Trump’s White House gave press credentials to notorious pastor Rick Wiles, who has used his TruNews to consistently spew anti-Semitism, including claims that Jews (among others) suffering from covid-19 in the U.S. and Israel are being punished by God. All of this amounts to way more than mere guilt by association; it shows that Trump simply does not care about the virulent anti-Semitism that his movement is swimming in, no matter if he’s a modern “King of Israel, like the Second Coming of God,” as one evangelical dubbed him.
And once more, Rabbi Boteach brings us back to that first value from his other piece: a hatred of evil. He says that Trump was also “the protector of Muslim life” since Trump launched airstrikes in Syria against Assad, “who was given a pass by Obama,” conveniently leaving out that Obama had sought Congressional approval for airstrikes (which Trump tweeted at the time that he should do), but was denied. Rabbi Boteach uses this, along with the Trump-brokered deals between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, as evidence that “the Arabs and Muslims” (clearly a uniform group of millions of people) didn’t actually hate Trump much after all. As if the geopolitical elements leading governments to negotiate with him means that the average people on the ground must have liked him, too — many of whom who faced a blanket ban stopping them from entering the U.S. simply because of which country they were born in.
Again, while Rabbi Boteach rightfully calls the leaders of Iran and Syria brutal and destructive, he continues with the “Americans oppose tyrants, we don’t support them” rhetoric and stays egregiously silent on how Trump continues the U.S.’s support for other brutal regimes in the region. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE are just as terrible to women and gays as Iran is; the UAE has the added bonus of being built by extremely exploitative labor in recent decades. And for several years now, these states, led by Saudi Arabia, have been using American weapons to massacre thousands of civilians in the Yemen Civil War. But of course, because these countries are friendly to U.S. and Israeli interests, they get a pass.
Rabbi Boteach and other apologists romanticizing U.S. involvement overseas simply should be straightforward and admit that the values of his “World Values Network” are just selectively applied based on geopolitics. I’ll bet anyone my future dose of the covid vaccine that if Iran’s government hypothetically turned around and normalized relations with Israel tomorrow, but continued with its regular scheduled domestic tyranny and its brutal proxy wars with Saudi Arabia, Rabbi Boteach and company no longer would be a champion for the people of Iran. Because Americans don’t support tyrants — we oppose them, or something.
God bless America, the most religious country on earth.
Ben Berman lives in Mahwah. He is a graduate of Clark University, where he studied history and international relations.