Paris, they say, will always be Paris. At least the city’s taste for farce remains undamaged, to judge by the recent mass rally billed as a rebuff to terrorism at which (according to Israeli press reports) Israel’s blood-stained prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, literally elbowed his way to the front to grab the best photo ops.
But why beat up on Netanyahu? Ever since the shootings at Charlie Hebdo and a kosher Paris grocery, more eloquent voices than his have been singing in the same unwittingly satirical key. In a January 15 op-ed in Israel’s premiere daily, Ha’aretz, Rabbi Avi Weiss emotionally recounted his spontaneous decision to fly to Paris “to let my fellow and sister Jews know that they are not alone, that Jews around the world care deeply about the assaults so recently befallen them.” Proclaiming “Je suis Charlie, je suis juif,” the “modern Orthodox” Rabbi Weiss explained that “I’ve always felt a pull to go where I might be able to provide some comfort.”
Fine words, but one can’t help wondering whether the rabbi, like Moliere’s Tartuffe, is proud of having learned the “science…that instructs us/How to enlarge the limits of our conscience/According to our various occasions.” Today Rabbi Weiss proudly defends French cartoons offensive to (some) Muslims and underscores his solidarity with the victims of “horrific terrorist attacks.” But where was he in 2006, when the French embassy canceled a book party it was about to hold in New York City (where Weiss lives) in honor of Carmen Callil’s Bad Faith, because that book – a “masterpiece,” according to one French embassy official – included a postscript that spoke of the suffering of Palestinians? Comments offensive to Israel apparently don’t stir Rabbi Weiss’s freedom-of-speech instincts; nor has he shown any inclination to “provide some comfort” for Palestinians who have survived decades of Israel’s brutal occupation, even after the slaughter of some 2,300 in Gaza just last summer.
Of course, Rabbi Weiss isn’t alone in flaunting such double standards. In the wake of the appalling attack on the satirists of Charlie Hebdo, Eric Alterman stressed the importance of defending “journalists, the liberty of expression and Jews” from “a war of jihad against the West.” But Alterman & Co. certainly haven’t embraced Noam Chomsky for defending, say, Robert Faurisson’s liberty of expression, presumably because Faurisson’s denial of the Nazi genocide of Jews offended Israel and the French government (which prosecuted Faurisson) rather than Muslims or Palestinians. I don’t mean to say that Alterman ever thought Faurisson should be killed for what he wrote – but how can you pose as a champion of “liberty of expression” while chiding someone else (in this case, Chomsky) for taking the principle seriously? The same inconsistency mars the imagery of an anti-journalist “war of jihad,” so promptly invoked to describe the murder of ten French satirists, but seldom heard from American liberals when Israel killed a larger number of Palestinian journalists in its latest assault on Gaza.
And while we’re on the subject, what about the free speech rights of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American expatriate who was blown to bits by a U.S. drone in September 2011 after praising an attack on American soldiers in Fort Hood, Texas? When the Obama administration was belatedly forced to release its written justification for Awlaki’s assassination, even mainstream commentators were embarrassed: the New York Times correctly described the memo (whose author is now a federal appeals court judge) as “a slapdash pastiche of legal theories…that was clearly tailored to the desired result.” But if the defense of free speech applies, as it must, to all speech no matter how offensive, how can world leaders join hands in support of the slain satirists in Paris while blinking at the murder of Awlaki?
If you think Awlaki’s case too provocative to serve as a useful standard of comparison, how about that of Jim Clancy, formerly a 34-year veteran at CNN? Just this month, Clancy abruptly quit the network after sending a few tweets to pro-Israel trolls suggesting that their comments amounted to propaganda (he used the Israeli word hasbara). Neither he nor CNN is saying that Clancy was fired for offending Israel apologists, but this is “the reigning theory,” according to Allison Deger, whose January 20 piece on the Mondoweiss blog also concluded that Clancy was “likely” correct in believing that his correspondents engaged in propaganda for Israel. So how about a flag-waving rally of American liberals and foreign dignitaries marching en masse down Fifth Avenue chanting “Je suis Clancy”? Nice idea – unlikely occurrence.
To return to Avi Weiss. The “ultra-Open Orthodox” rabbi, as he was called a year ago by the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, has taken his share of criticism from the Orthodox Jewish right for some genuinely liberal initiatives, including the ordination of women. And I am sure his “pull to go” to Paris to “provide some comfort” for a distressed Jewish community was entirely genuine.
But nobody ever doubted his concern for the welfare of fellow Jews. The real test of the kind of moral platform assumed by Rabbi Weiss is not how it works for one’s comrades, but how it works for those whose suffering can be traced to oneself or to others for whom one bears responsibility. That’s a Talmudic teaching, as Rabbi Weiss certainly knows; and as a prominent supporter of Israel, he could do much to influence the attitudes of religious Jews toward the oppression of Palestinians and Africans in a country where he is widely respected. Instead, he chose to tell his followers what they wanted to hear, offering “comfort” in France but not in Rafah, Holot or East Jerusalem. “To our enemies,” he told a Paris gathering of Orthodox Jews, “we must declare, ‘Am Yisrael Chai’ – the people of Israel live.” Days earlier, Palestinian infants whose homes were destroyed by Israeli artillery had frozen to death in Gaza.
I’m sorry to say that given the quality of his moral message, Rabbi Weiss’s political instincts led him to the right place, after all. Some things really don’t change, among them the value of public moralizing about “the West” and its “enemies.” The Paris rally, with all its fustian, its solemn posturing and vague fear-mongering, was to Jewish morality what Stalin’s show trials were to justice. Victims everywhere – Jews included – deserve much better.