In the 1990s when I studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion under the tutelage of the giants Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, z”l, and Rav Yehuda Amital, z”l, a debate raged within the Modern Orthodox community. The vast majority of rabbis and communal leaders strongly believed that pursuing a peace process with Arafat was a course that would spell disaster for the State of Israel, while a small minority (including my roshei yeshiva) supported the move.
The important lesson I learned as a yeshiva student at the time was not whether and how to balance the values of peace, human life and sanctity of the land—but rather the possibly more supreme importance of maintaining a balanced perspective even amidst strong disagreement. Both roshei yeshiva reminded us that although we may not agree with the policies and political moves of Yitzchak Rabin, z”l (whose yahrzeit we just commemorated), he was a man who dedicated his life to the Jewish people and was driven by the interests of Israel and the people of Israel.
While time has arguably proven, and the roshei yeshiva years later admitted, that Arafat and his successors were not in fact interested in a long-lasting peace, rejecting every deal put on the table, the supreme principle was ultimately true. That is to say that it is very likely that no matter how misled the policies put forth by an administration might be, it is more important to accept the democratic process and not vilify those with whom you do not agree. Ultimately, if we keep that respect we will be able to find our way and meet whatever challenges we bring upon ourselves, whereas if we so strongly believe the questions at hand are so critical and there are no limits to the need for opposition then we risk severely damaging the institutions that enable us to function, so it may be much harder to repair whatever damage is done.
This has been a great personal concern, as politics become more and more radicalized, no doubt propelled by media seeking engagement and the overwhelming amount of information that allows any outlet to define the truth by focusing on certain information and ignoring others, thereby casting those we dislike as one-dimensional villains.
However, I was greatly disappointed to see this shallowness and shortsightedness has become acceptable among people whom I would think are wiser. It has sadly become acceptable to vilify the other side in the worst possible way, at the extreme comparing President Trump to Hitler, making assertions about his mental stability and positing that he may very well start a nuclear war. All these are extreme allegations for which one can construct a well-thought-out argument, just as one can construct a well-thought-out argument for anything, but ultimately the question is, do we want to make it an all-out war? Do we want people to believe that if President Trump wins the world will come to an end (as it did the first time he won?). I am personally concerned that if Biden will win we will effectively get a President Harris who has clear ties to a strong anti-Semitic faction, but if he indeed wins, I am going to hope that I was wrong and all of the positive statements being made about him will prove to be right. Having reservations, disagreeing and opposing are all part of a healthy process. Vilifying, name calling, making doomsday predictions—these are extremist tactics that I believe only harm everybody regardless of who is on the other end.
In that regard, Rabbi Barry Kornblau’s article from October 23 was interesting and well-thought-out, but yet a great disappointment to me.
The first disappointment came with the title “Why (Orthodox) Jews Should Vote for Biden.” I understand the appeal of this but my Yeshivat Har Etzion training has taught me to be wary of someone who in the name of God tells me for whom I must vote. In the past this has been more commonly associated with certain factions, but regardless of the speaker, this is a notion that I find objectionable. Does a rabbi have the authority to tell me that my religion is flawed because I disagree with his political opinions?
Rabbi Kornblau also mentioned hakarat hatov as an important value and quite clearly shows how this does not in fact apply to President Trump. Hakarat Hatov means recognizing good—not necessarily voting for someone because they did good but simply acknowledging that someone has done good. I would’ve been more convinced of the merit of Rabbi Kornblau’s message if he had been willing to recognize the good that President Trump has done, just to take three examples: pushing through Joe Biden’s 1995 legislation to move the embassy to Jerusalem (by the way, including having “Israel” on passports issued in Jerusalem, which has happened after October 23), crippling the pay-for-slay program and bringing together a peace deal with the UAE. These are pretty monumental achievements, and while other considerations may override these, it is appropriate to acknowledge them.
However, these are not only important because they are “good for the Jews”; they happen to be morally correct and positive achievements that demonstrate the willingness to do the right thing regardless of political pressure. Is it not right for the greatest superpower to allow a democratic and upstanding country to determine its own capital? Is it not important to make a statement that murder of Jews (or anyone else) is not something that should be supported by any government? Is peace not a supreme Jewish and universal value? I understand Rabbi Kornblau very much dislikes President Trump, but I don’t think hakarat hatov is a value limited in application to one’s political party.
Rabbi Kornblau further goes as far as to blame President Trump for the death of 190,000 people in America. First of all, every world leader seems to be struggling largely unsuccessfully with the coronavirus, so it is very hard to judge which policies will or won’t work. In Israel, for example, the first wave was so successfully managed that the death toll was in the few hundred (under 40 per million). Fast forward six months and we have had a devastating second wave—so what appeared to be a success story has turned into a temporary success.
This has been a challenge in the face of which most strategies have failed. I would suggest that pinning the death of 190,000 people onto the president is unfair—particularly in the United States, where these directives and most legislation is state based. Rabbi Kornblau goes as far as to specifically blame the terrible toll in the Jewish community in Brooklyn on President Trump. I am wondering whether the reason Bnei Brak and Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox communities have suffered most in Israel is also because of Trump? How about the Arab population in Israel, which has now also been a greatly affected demographic? Maybe all those instances are better explained by population density and a culture of large social gatherings rather than by what President Trump did or didn’t say…
Finally, the article concludes with: “Trump chooses to use his presidential tongue not for life but for death.” Rabbi Kornblau, the last 100 years have seen world leaders who have preached and administered death; President Trump is not one of them. This very day there are leaders who justify and instigate to murder and death, and President Trump is not one of them. To implicitly accuse him of creating death, to say that Trump is less legitimate than Vladimir Putin and Xi Jingping, is to be oblivious to the fact that America is in fact unique, that our commonalities are much greater than our differences regardless of the extent to which we disagree with or dislike the other, and our common values are not to be taken for granted, as not every culture in the world shares the same values (“liberty and justice for all,” for example…).
Rabbi Kornblau, you are certainly entitled to endorse and promote your candidate and your views on the various issues at hand, but please don’t further the culture of delegitimization and extremism. Very soon the presidential election will be decided and over 40% of the country will be unhappy with the result. I daresay, regardless of whomever may emerge as victor, we will be far better off if we recognize there is a merit in the other side and the views of voters who think differently from us are also legitimate and count, and “losing” an election is not the end of the world. Whatever harm the elected president could possibly do in four years can ultimately be repaired and corrected, but if we get used to delegitimizing the other side we can do damage that is beyond repair as we will lose the ability to function as a democracy.
Once we have done our duty at the ballot it becomes clear that we may not be able to determine who will be president, what policies s/he will implement nor how s/he will express her/himself. However, we do have full control over our own attitudes and our manner of speech. It is up to us to remain above hatred and incitement and maintain a critical yet balanced attitude as this will have the greater effect on our communities and children.
Dov Daniel grew up in Israel and attended the Hesder program at Yeshivat Har Etzion. He received his MBA from The Wharton School of Business in 2006 and moved to Israel with his wife Shani and six children in 2017. They reside in Efrat.