Opinion |

Have American Jews Really Not Learned Anything About Racism and Exclusion?

Suggesting President Obama is an Israel-hater or anti-Semite is a lie and an abomination, reflecting the debasement of the shared moral culture that US democracy, any democracy, requires to function.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie
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President Barack Obama looks down the fairway while golfing at Vineyard Golf Club near Lobsterville Beach during his vacation on Martha's Vineyard, Aug. 27, 2009
President Barack Obama looks down the fairway while golfing at Vineyard Golf Club near Lobsterville Beach during his vacation on Martha's Vineyard, Aug. 27, 2009Credit: Pete Souza, The White House
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie

Let me get this straight. According to the Washington Post, the Woodmont Country Club, a predominantly Jewish country club in the suburbs of Washington D.C., is thinking about rejecting the membership application of an African-American man.

The application has not yet been submitted, but might be forthcoming. This man, who has played golf at the club a number of times, is named Barack Hussein Obama, and is concluding two terms as President of the United States. Some of the club’s members object to his admission because, they say, his policies as President threatened “Israel’s very existence.” Others have supported the possible application.

While the news coverage of these developments has been quite restrained, my response is very different. In my eyes, these would-be deniers of President Obama’s application are out of their minds.

This is craziness. They are engaging in an act of supreme chutzpah and crass prejudice, disregarding the fundamental lessons of American Jewish history and embarrassing every Jew who takes pride in his or her religious tradition.

And on the question of Israel, they are also sending the worst possible message. They are saying that when it comes to matters of Israel’s security and well-being, right-wing American Jews will not even talk to, let alone associate with, those who hold centrist or leftist views. What is the matter with them?

Barack Obama at the Farm Neck Golf Club in Oak Bluffs, MA, August 9, 2014.Credit: Matthew Healey/Bloomberg

My first thought is: How would I explain this to my Uncle Abe? I grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts. My great uncle, Abraham Persky, who began as a penniless immigrant kid, built a textile business that manufactured polo shirts. His three factories were located in and around Worcester, and he became a very wealthy man. In the 1930s, he bought a large estate on the outskirts of Worcester and became involved in communal affairs. Always a generous man, he gave large sums to both community and Jewish charities.

As my mother told the story, the Worcester Country Club, which had always barred Jews from membership but now thought that some token diversity might be called for, asked Uncle Abe to join. He agreed and then immediately nominated his brother for membership. But the Club wanted one Jew and no more. Fine, my uncle said, if it wanted just one, it would get none, and he promptly resigned. Taken aback, the Club leaders reconsidered, and the Worcester Country Club became a “religiously integrated” institution.

The point, of course, is that at the time of my uncle’s confrontation with Worcester’s religious bigots, the Jews of America had spent more than a half a century fighting to overcome exclusion from clubs, neighborhoods, and hotels that wanted no Jews on their premises. One strategy for coping with prejudice was to create Jewish clubs and neighborhoods that would save Jews the humiliation of rejection by their gentile neighbors. But the preferred solution, and the one that my uncle chose, was to fight to abolish religious, ethnic, and racial barriers. When that finally happened, “Jewish” country clubs like Woodmont, while remaining predominantly Jewish, opened their membership to all.

The idea that Woodmont or any mostly Jewish club would discriminate against Barack Obama would be abhorrent and utterly incomprehensible to my uncle. Three-quarters of a century later, his principled stand seems modest, even quaint. But it was important at the time, one of many such acts by Jews, blacks, and seekers of justice of every religion and race that eventually led to civil rights legislation and a more open, free and caring America.

The members of Woodmont who express contempt for President Obama would surely deny that there is even a hint of bigotry in their actions. And indeed, apart from some leaked emails, they have refused to comment publicly on the matter.

But the fact is that their actions are directed at a very prominent African-American man with a Muslim name. The fact is that this incident occurs at a moment of national crisis, when hatred is being fanned at the highest levels between black and white, native and immigrant, and Muslim and non-Muslim. The fact is that virtually any country club, social club, or communal organization in the country would not only be willing but profoundly pleased and honored to welcome a former President of the United States into its membership, whether he be Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative.

And yet there are voices in the Woodmont Country Club of Rockville, Md, a club made up mostly of Jews, who expect us to believe that their motives are pure and unrelated to bigotry or zealotry or contempt for the “other.” My Uncle Abe would not buy it for a second.

And finally, let us look at the claim that the only motive for rejection is, in the words of the leaked email, that President Obama has weakened Israel and threatened its existence.

First, it should be acknowledged that there are certain circumstances that would justify excluding someone from a club or organization based on his or her views on Jews or Israel. If the applicant is a demonstrated anti-Semite, Holocaust denier, Israel hater, or Nazi sympathizer, that person can be legitimately excluded from our midst, without excuses or apology.

Second, you can like President Obama or not – and I like him, even though I opposed his decision on the Security Council resolution. But any suggestion that he falls under any of the categories just mentioned is a lie and an abomination. It reflects the debasement and distortion of the shared moral culture that American democracy, and any democracy, requires to function.

And third, the Woodmont incident reminds us, tragically, that what was once the unity of the Jewish people on Israel today lies shattered, almost beyond repair. Since when do we exclude from our midst those who hold different, but perfectly legitimate, views on Israel’s political problems? A case can surely be made that pro-settlement political leaders threaten Israel’s future. Are we to exclude them as well from our clubs and organizations? And if politicians are beyond the pale, why not, while we’re at it, exclude Jews who challenge our right-wing or left-wing views? Filled with anger and contempt, let’s just boot out everybody who questions the certainty of our assumptions about Israel and about Jewish matters of every sort.

But while the Jews at Woodmont, or some of them at least, choose the path of zealotry, I prefer to remember my Uncle Abe. He loved the Jewish people, cared about the general community, insisted on inclusion and dialogue, and chose healing and hope over hurt and hostility. He would be thrilled to be in a club with a former President of the United States. And so would I.

Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Follow him on Twitter: @EricYoffie

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