After the Orthodox Union honored Attorney General Jeff Sessions at its annual policy conference in Washington last week, even as reports of children being forcibly separated from their parents by immigration authorities began to emerge, I tried to give the OU the benefit of the doubt. In fact, I think that the OU has earned the right to be given the benefit of the doubt — not to have its actions interpreted in the best possible manner, but in a manner that is consistent with its past action.
In this respect, the OU’s Advocacy Center, under the leadership of public policy director Nathan Diament, has a strong record of support for liberal policy agenda items, sometimes against opposition within the Orthodox community (gun control comes immediately to mind). Diament was criticized for not taking a strong enough stand against certain government policies during the Obama years. Yet the advocacy center has established a consistent pattern of staying its course and focusing on pragmatic policy issues that affect its core constituency (“Merubim tzorkhei amkha” — “Many are the needs of Your people”). Effective lobbying requires a narrowing of focus; this is part of the dirty business of politics — the notorious “swamp” of Washington.
There’s also a personal element. I worked for the OU for two years as an educator with the its Heshe and Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus, at the University of Maryland, among other positive associations I’ve had with the OU. I can also understand why the group went through with presenting the award: Sessions is a key figure for many of the OU’s policy objectives relating to issues of religious liberty, and they have to play the hand dealt, not necessarily the one they wish they had been dealt. Organizations that must play the “long game” can little afford to burn bridges — and disinviting a major cabinet figure would do just that.
The plaque presented, bearing the original Hebrew of the verse, “Justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20), was made long before the implementation of the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy for immigration.
My first reaction when I saw the plaque was to think it a clever way to admonish the attorney general. That verse from Deuteronomy is an imperative, an admonition. It is a mainstay of placards in Jewish social justice movements. But rebuke can be gentle; another biblical verse teaches, “Divrei hakhamim be-nahat nishma’im” — “The words of the wise, spoken softly, are heeded” [Ecclesiastes 9:17]. The admonition to pursue justice can serve — perhaps even better serve — its purpose when hanging on the wall of an office instead of being shouted through a megaphone. God is in the still, small voice, not in the whirlwind and the fire [1 Kings 19:11-13]. It was gratifying to see OU President Moishe Bane confirm that initial reaction to the Sessions honor, and that the OU raised some of the immigration issues with him behind the scenes. [Two days after the meeting with Sessions, and following high-volume criticism on social media for its handling of the event, the OU joined an open letter signed by 26 other Jewish organizations opposing separation of migrants’ families at the border.]
Yet there are two things that cannot be overlooked. The first is the picture of OU executives standing and smiling with the attorney general — a picture that the OU itself shared on social media (and later removed after being criticized). It gives an impression of coziness, of smugness, that all is as it should be. It communicates the sense that as long as the particular interests of its constituents are served, everyone else can go to hell. This impression does not reflect the reality of the OU’s work, but it reflects a real sentiment that exists in parts of the Jewish community, and it is both dangerous and damaging.
The second thing is that, at certain times, narrowness of focus undermines one’s own goals. In this case, educational values are sacrificed to obtain funding for the very institutions that are teaching those values, thus undermining their own educational goals. Much of the OU’s advocacy focuses on programs that fund Jewish education, through vouchers, special education programs, public busing to private schools, etc. This is as it should be. For more than 150 years, as universal education became a feature of modern states, Jewish education — the Jewish community’s insistence on autonomous educational institutions — has been a mainstay of Jewish (especially Orthodox) lobbying efforts.
But the United States is neither an authoritarian regime nor one that harbors thinly veiled antipathy toward Jews or the goal of de-Judaizing its Jewish subjects. Earlier efforts were to ensure that Jews could run their own schools; thank God, in the U.S., this is a given. The present efforts are about the cost of education. However, pursuit of relief from the exorbitant financial burden of Jewish education risks excessive narrowing of focus, thus incurring a moral cost that is too high a price to pay for financial relief.
Rabbi Elli Fischer, a frequent contributor, is a writer, editor and Hebrew-English translator in Israel.