Shmuely Boteach Insults Russell Brand in the Name of Defending Israel

I did not plan to post about this, because I have other stuff to write about today and because fights about Israel/Palestine among celebrities are simply not the most important thing to write about when 2,000 lives, of mostly innocent civilians, have been snuffed out in Gaza. So, please forgive this brief digression. I was so disgusted with this column by “Rabbi” Shmuley Boteach that I decided to say something.  For those who don’t know the back story, renowned Palestinian American Yousef Munayyer appeared on Sean Hannity’s show a few weeks back. Hannity used his forum to yell at and insult Munayyer, needling Munayyer to condemn Hamas as a terrorist organization.  The clip was such an obvious example of bullying, of the intellectual dishonesty and overheated self-righteousness that characterizes the American pro-Israel right wing, that comedian Russell Brand used his internet forum to take Hannity down a peg.  Unsurprisingly, Hannity responded with a thin-skinned, babyish takedown of Brand, who as I mentioned is a comedian (way to take a joke, Hannity).  Now, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has joined the fray.  But instead of plainly arguing the case for Israel, Boteach chooses instead to bring up, in the most passive aggressive and craven way, Brand’s problems with addiction, his marriage, and his personal life to discredit Brand’s viewpoints. Why do I care? Because Boteach’s method of argument typifies the dangerous denial that ails the Jewish community on account of Israel and Zionism.

When you hold the title of Rav, it comes, in my view, with certain responsibilities. To stoop so low in public reflects negatively on the whole community and on Judaism, because when you use your title to sell books and merchandise you hold yourself out as an expert in our sacred texts and in our values.  Russell Brand may be a public figure who should expect below the belt criticism, but he is a human being and like all of us, he has his demons to face. What should other people assume about Judaism when a Rabbi, steeped in our wisdom and tradition, behaves in such a judgmental way towards another human being simply to score cheap points for Israel? After all that study of Talmud and Torah, this “Rabbi” chooses to point out the flaws of his interlocutor with spite and condescension, when he should be making his case? Also, do Russell Brand’s personal, human struggles somehow justify Israel’s conduct in Gaza? Of course not. Boteach is merely lashing out at another human being instead of searching for the truth. The former is a lot easier and more satisfying to the yetzer hara than the latter. I’m sure the Chofetz Chaim would be proud (I am also entitled to some sarcasm).

I don’t write this simply to chastise Shmuley Boteach, but to point out the tactics of intimidation, personal insult, and emotionalism that have come to characterize argument for Israel. Ultimately, objective observers the world over can see that Israel’s conduct in Gaza will not bring peace any closer. Those speaking out for Palestinian rights and for the merits of the Palestinian cause include great leaders of human rights struggles, nobel prize winners, authors, artists, not to mention bereaved Israelis themselves.  But Israel’s self-appointed defenders, in their attempt to tune out any uncomfortable truth dismiss their critics with ad hominem attack. This one is a closet antisemite. This one is a self-hating Jew. This one is on drugs. This one failed a math test in middle school. When that doesn’t work, they pitch a fit. If Job appeared this morning on CNN to criticize Israel, totally all tam ve yashar ve yarei elohim vesar mera, Shmuley Boteach would find something negative to say about him and then shame everyone listening into staying silent by crying antisemitism. (It doesn’t matter whether Job is an Israelite or not, by the way!) Why? Because attacking others is a deeply powerful and human way of denying difficult truths. It even has its own cliche: ‘killing the messenger.’ Israel’s defenders kill the messenger more than they make their own arguments and it does nothing to advance the interests of Jews.

Ultimately, critique, even strident withering uncomfortable critique, gives us the opportunity to make our case stronger. It gives us the chance to clarify our beliefs. And most importantly, it gives us the opportunity to fix what is broken. Let’s finally commit to fixing what is broken instead of attacking our critics about their personal struggles. Let it be messy and uncomfortable but let it be honest! No more of the nonsense. We have real work to do.