Opinion

Boteach’s Bannon Selfie: Rabbis and the Alt-right Don't Mix

Shmuley Boteach, like too much of the Jewish world, thinks scoring rhetorical support for Israel justifies almost any moral compromise. But in fact, he’s the donkey being led onwards with the promise of a carrot he’ll never reach | Opinion

An image of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and Steve Bannon tweeted out by Boteach in 2016.
An image of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and Steve Bannon tweeted out by Boteach in 2016. Twitter screenshot

The easiest way to get my kids to behave would be to beat them.

Making money would be so much more convenient if I stole it.

I could get a lot more people to do what I wanted them to do if I lied to them.

So why don’t I?

Why don’t most of us do these things?

I suppose one could argue that we understand that there are deeper consequences to these actions that may hurt us in the long term. Our children may behave now, but the psychological toll of being beaten is astronomical. We could get caught for stealing. If we lie enough, people eventually will catch on.

But hopefully most of us don’t live such superficial lives. Hopefully we don’t do these things because of deeper reasons. Otherwise, if opportunities to steal, lie, beat came into our lives without the chance of our being caught, then we’d all fall into these actions the moment they presented themselves to us.

It seems that most of us believe that how we get the results we want matters just as much as getting those results. Maybe more. In other words, I’d rather make a lot less money legally than steal a lot of it. I’d be okay with not getting people to listen to me even if I knew they would if I lied to them. I’d rather my kids misbehave than beat them.

I find it fascinating, then, that so many of us do not apply this same logic on a larger level. In our communities, in our politics.

An image recently went viral among the Jewish world: it was of Shmuley Boteach, the self-professed “America’s Rabbi,” smiling broadly as he stood next to Stephen Bannon. Bannon, the controversial new chief strategist to Donald Trump, is known most famously for heading Breitbart, the internet’s cesspool of alt-right bigotry.

As Ben Shapiro, a former editor-at-large for Breitbart has written, “Andrew Breitbart despised racism. Truly despised it. With Bannon embracing Trump, all that changed. Now Breitbart has become the alt-right go-to website, with [technology editor Milo] Yiannopoulos pushing white ethno-nationalism…”  

Boteach wanted all his Jewish followers to know something, though. On his Twitter account, along with the picture of him and Bannon, he wrote: “Steve Bannon has shown great support for Israel & this administration promises to be very strong for the Jewish state.”

Of course, not a word about Bannon’s rag. Not a word about whether it matters that Bannon may be a danger to Muslims or to minorities. What mattered, according to this tweet, was one thing: Whether Bannon and the Trump administration would support Israel.

In fact, Boteach himself called the alt-right, the radical conservative wing that Breitbart represents, “deplorable” on CNN recently (although he pled ignorance only three weeks earlier, when he wrote: “I don’t quite know what the alt-right is. I certainly despise white supremacists and racists.”)

A video of a Don Lemon Panel with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach.

When asked whether he was providing cover for the Bannon by appearing in such a picture, his answer was simply, “There is no reason to believe Steve Bannon is anything but a friend of Israel.”

When pressed on the issues other issues of anti-Muslim, misogynist, and racist rhetoric on Breitbart, Boteach’s answer was to pivot away and try to point out the problems he saw in the Obama administration.

For the record, I agree with a lot of what Boteach said when it came to his critiques of the Obama administration. Their inaction in Syria, especially, is heartbreaking. If I ever imagined myself on CNN, Lord help me, it would be in Boteach’s seat, arguing against Peter Beinart about how the Obama administration has handled Israel.

Shmuley Boteach.
Natasha Mozgovaya

But that is, in fact, what was so sickening to me when seeing Boteach’s picture, and seeing his pathetic defense of it on CNN. What Boteach cared was one thing: Israel. Supporting Israel. He did not care about how he supported Israel. He did not care about what the cost of it would be. He was perfectly willing to call the alt-right “deplorable” and yet ally himself with its biggest champion.

All this would just be another media coup by Boteach, another “friend” he could write about in his next article, if not for the fact that, in reality, Boteach is simply an extension of the way so much of the Jewish world has chosen to live out its public morality.

To be a religious person, in theory, is to be the biggest champion for the statement that the “ends don’t justify the means.” If I wear my tefillin the wrong way, then I have not fulfilled the mitzvah. It was the Ten Commandments that taught us that choosing not to steal is not about the consequences: it is about an objective truth about what is right and what is wrong.

Is this not also true with supporting Israel? With our vote? With who we are willing to take a selfie with?

Unfortunately, it seems that the world in general, not just the Jewish world, not just Boteach, is collectively letting go of our concern of the how. Of our concern of what really matters. We want to win elections, even if the most lowly man on earth is our standard-bearer. We want to support Israel, even if it means selling our souls. We want to have our voices heard, even if it means Muslims, minorities, and others will suffer.

Sacrifice. A word that should mean something to all of us. When we don’t steal, we sacrifice the money we could have made if we did. When we don’t lie, we sacrifice not getting what we want. When we care for our children, we sacrifice making our lives easier for their wellbeing.

And yet, the concept that we should be willing to sacrifice our wellbeing in order to protect the innocent, does not seem to have become part of the national conversation this year. A man like Boteach will go on television, go on Twitter, and proclaim that aligning himself with the biggest agent of white nationalism is a moral action because it results in "good" for Israel.

This is an inside-out, bizarro world, funhouse mirror, morality. An “ends justify the means” way of dealing with reality. It is the most superficial way of going about life. It is the idolatry that the Second Commandment implores us to reject, the idea that something physical can in any way lead to helping you achieve your ends. It is the opposite of faith, the exercise that tells us that if you live your life in the right, in the true, way the results will be for the best, even if it seems hard to see in the moment.

To live any other way is to be like the donkey with a carrot in front of him, going wherever it leads. That is what Boteach presented himself as on live television and on Twitter when he embraced a white nationalist in order to get his way. An ass being led blindly, in constant search of the treat he thinks he is fighting for, but which will never come near him.

And ultimately, all who follow this dark path end up in the same place. Like snakes who eat their own tails, they only realize that the only result they’ve achieved is to swallow their own souls.

I will support Israel until the day I die. But I’d rather die than become an idolator. And I hope the rest of the world begins to let go of its own idolatry as well.

Elad Nehorai is the founder and editor-in-chief of Hevria, a publication for creative Jews, and the blogger behind Pop Chassid. Follow him on Twitter: @PopChassid