Israel, American Jews, and The Benjamins

March 22nd: Tzav
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Sometimes, we can follow our intuition and do very well. Other time, however, things are not as we would expect, and we have to check ourselves and our automatic assumptions and responses. A case in point comes in Leviticus 8 when we read about the ordination ceremony for Aaron and his sons. “A second ram was brought forward, the ram of ordination. Aaron and his sons laid their hands upon the ram’s head, and it was slaughtered. Moses took some of its blood and put it on the ridge of Aaron’s right ear, and on the thumb of Aaron’s right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot.” Moses did the same for the right ears, right thumbs, and right big toes of Aaron’s sons. Then, Moses took “the rest of the blood and dashed it on every side of the altar.” (Leviticus 8.22-24). What was the purpose of this blood?

The commentary in Etz Hayim explains that “dabbing sacrificial blood on certain extremities of the body is essentially a rite of purification.” Purification?! One would intuitively think that blood is something from which one needs to be purified, but here the ritual makes it a purifying agent. A similar dynamic comes into play in next week’s special reading Parah (Numbers 19.1-22), where the ashes of a red heifer, normally something from which one needs to be purified, are used in ritual cleansing. Things are not always what they seem.

I think of this intuitive/counterintuitive tension as I survey a recent news story and controversy: the remarks of Representative Ilhan Omar about Jews and American foreign policy. The anti-Semitic nature of her remarks has gotten a lot of attention, but I think that two other points need to be discussed.

First, it is a myth that Jews are the reason for the United States’ support of Israel. The fact that Israel is a Jewish State and that most American Jews support Israel may give rise to this kind of thinking, and AIPAC’s (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) fundraising self-promotion may give the impression that Jews are powerful in America. However, the real reasons for American support for Israel have very little to do with American Jews. As historian Ellis Rivkin explained, Israel is a beachhead of both democracy and developmental capitalism in a part of the world where, in America’s view, both are really needed. This was true when Rivkin taught this in the 1970s, and it is even more true today. Look at the crises in democracies throughout the region, and look at the intact and operating democracy in Israel. Even though squabbling is a way of life in democracy, look at the way that law and democratic representation reign in the Jewish State—even in the face of formidable challenges. Look also at the way that developmental capitalism thrives in Israel—with innovation and international integration driving both the Israeli economy and benefiting economies all over the world. There is also the military reality that Israel is, in Rivkin’s words, “the world’s largest aircraft carrier, stationed in one of the most strategically important places in the world.” When things get dangerous in the Middle East, Israel is there to support American interests and goals—and Israel is willing to man this “aircraft carrier” with minimal support from its allies.

We must also not forget the fifty million Christian evangelicals in the United States who believe that “blessing Israel” brings blessings and “cursing Israel” brings curses. As Rivkin would put it, if there were not a Jew in the United States, the U.S. would still support Israel.


Second, Representative Omar’s blaming “the Benjamins” for American policy is a paranoid tautology. The assumption of such an accusation is that nefarious interests are perverting the system by bribing the government (with $100 bills or Benjamins) to do the wrong things—to pursue policies inimical to what “the people want and need.” What it ignores is the assumption that the speaker knows what the people want and need—knowledge based on the speaker’s political thinking. In other words, this is a rhetorical device for claiming the moral and democratic high ground, something done by politicians in every party and on every issue. Think about how many times you hear the phrase the American people in most political conversations and how the American people are always in agreement with the speaker. Anything that goes along with the speaker is supported by the American people, and anything that is counter to the speaker’s opinion is against the will of the American people.

Are the Benjamins an important factor in American policy? Of course, they are. Anyone working for the prosperity and health of our society has got to pay attention to economic factors. Indeed, the vast majority of policy suggestions base their wisdom on positive economic effects. From Trickle-Down Prosperity to the Poor People’s Campaign for Economic Justice, proponents are always concerned with the practical economic effects. It’s just a matter of arguing which policy will bring about a particular effect.

My favorite example comes from the early 1990s, when many blamed U.S. involvement in the first Iraq war (Operation Desert Storm) on oil. “We’re just fighting for oil,” was a common complaint, suggesting that oil supply is not a vital American interest—that it is only a concern for rich people who, for the sake of their own wealth, are sending young Americans to die. It was a convincing argument, and it followed intuitive thinking. However, a little deeper thinking turned me around. If supplies of oil would drop and the price of oil would increase by 10% or 25%, would this only be a problem just for the fat cats and other immorally rich people? Or, would there also be problems for the common folk? Would prices on everything rise? Would poor people be able to drive to work or to the grocery store? Would auto sales and manufacturing decrease? Would food prices—for both rich and poor—increase? While there may be a critique about our national patterns of energy consumption, the fact is that oil is the lifeblood of our economy, and anything that threatens our oil supply is a legitimate threat to our people’s economic lives. Of course, it’s the Benjamins! It’s always the Benjamins because we all depend on money for our food, our shelter, our clothing, our security, our culture--our everything!  Whether Capitalist or Socialist, we need to be concerned about economic realities and about how people get the things they need to live. There are certainly different opinions about how to run the economy and address a host of human concerns, but suggesting that any philosophy or moral system can exist without economic factors is foolish and shallow—and ultimately demagogic.

Are the Benjamins a source of impurity, or are they simply a fact of life? Are economic interests inevitably a form of bribery, or must they be pursued within a framework of morality? The advice of the Torah is to integrate practicality and morality and thus bring godliness to the world.