“Radical Rabbi” Lynn Gottlieb (right), standing next to Imam Abdur-Rauf Campos Marquetti whom conservatives will likely soon claim is the young Barack Hussein Obama.
Veteran peace activist and interfaith dialogue advocate Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb is the latest target in a campaign to attack Barack Obama in the run-up to the US presidential election.
Gottlieb is a cofounder of the Shomer Shalom Network for Jewish Nonviolence and serves on the advisory board and rabbinical council of Jewish Voice for Peace. She was also one of the first women to be ordained as a rabbi and was the first female rabbi in the Jewish Renewal movement.
In 2007, the Washington Post’s “On Faith” column, Ms Magazine editor Letty Cottin Pogrebin named Gottlieb one of America’s “50 Top Rabbis.”
However, on August 21 this year, the Obama–Biden presidential campaign launched its “Rabbis for Obama” initiative, presenting a list of over 613 rabbis who have signed on to support the Obama campaign. According to campaign, “this list of rabbis represents a broad group of respected Jewish leader[s] from all parts of the country. These rabbis mirror the diversity of American Jewry.”
But scouring through the list of 600+ rabbis, the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) zeroed in on Gottlieb, and on August 23, issued a press release “express[ing] profound outrage at the inclusion of radical rabbi Lynn Gottlieb” on the Rabbis for Obama list. The RJC accused Gottlieb of having “a long and troubling history,” citing the following as examples:
- Gottlieb is involved with Jewish Voice for Peace, “which the Anti-Defamation League has called one of the ‘top ten anti-Israel groups.’”
- Gottlieb has visited Iran.
- In 2008, Gottlieb attended a dinner event with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The RJC also attempted to contrive a connection between Gottlieb’s inclusion in the “Rabbis for Obama” list and Jimmy Carter’s upcoming address at the Democratic National Convention:
The fact that the campaign announced Rabbi Gottlieb’s participation in “Rabbis for Obama” at around the same time that it was announced that former President Jimmy Carter—who has met with Hamas and has been a virulent critic of Israel—will speak at the Democratic Convention, highlights not only the insensitivity of the Obama campaign to the concerns of the Jewish community, but also underscores why Pres. Obama has seen a significant erosion of support among Jewish voters.
The right-wing press then picked up the story and added more supposed examples of Gottlieb’s “extremism.” The National Review labeled Gottlieb “Obama’s Anti-Israel Rabbi” and claims that Jewish Voice for Peace “has even come out against the existence of Israel.” Adam Kredo in the Washington Free Beacon accused Gottlieb of being “a devotee of the far-left J Street,” while Jonathan Tobin in Commentary denounced Gottlieb as “a notorious anti-Zionist” who is “outside even the parameters of what the left-wing lobby J Street would consider ‘pro-Israel.’”
Both Kredo and Tobin point out that Gottlieb expressed support for the Olympia Food Co-op’s boycott of Israeli goods in 2010. Kredo links to a video where Gottlieb gave her support to the Co-op, and he notes that Gottlieb “signs onto the video by giving the traditional Arabic greeting, ‘Salaam Alaikum.’” It is unknown what significance Kredo finds in this traditional Muslim greeting, nor is it known why Kredo considers it more significant than the “Shalom Aleichem” that Gottlieb had preceded it with.
Responding to the charges
On her Facebook page, Gottlieb wrote a quick response to the charges:
I signed on to be a rabbi for Obama. There are no other clergy groups, such as Imams or Priests for Obama. Really, what Jewish person wants to vote for a guy who believes all Jews should move to Israel so that we can all finally convert and bring the end of time and go to heaven or be burned up in the apocalypse?
Being an Obama rabbi AND a member of JVP, I was compared to Jimmy Carter in the context of the Democratic Party’s insensitivity to the concern of Jews. (Jimmy is speaking at the convention, I’m not!) Both Jewish Voice for Peace and I are the objects of scorn in this piece.
I have been part of 2 civilian diplomacy trips to Iran in 2009, and did attend a 350 person dinner hosted by the Iranian Mission to the United Nations to honor interfaith relationships. Every person who spoke criticized the President for his Holocaust denial statements and his statement about wiping Israel off the map which is not helpful when trying to prevent a war between Iran and Israel. My speech is printed in Fellowship Magazine of the F.O.R. [Fellowship of Reconciliation].
I stand with JVP for selective divestment and boycott of settlement products (and support BDS), along with hundreds of thousands of other people, including tens of thousands of Jews, which challenges the message of ‘extreme’. Seems like adopting these tactics are becoming more mainstream all the time.
Gottlieb did in fact visit Iran twice, and none of her current critics have bothered to explain what they found so problematic about it. The trips were sponsored by the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), and as Gottlieb explained to me, the purpose was “building cross cultural and religious relationship among ‘enemy’ peoples so peace has a better chance of rooting itself among the nations. The global interfaith effort that is currently taking place reaches out to faith based individuals and communities without regard to their national identity.”
In fact, as part of the trips, the FOR delegation visited Iran’s Jewish minority community, attending services in three synagogues in Tehran, visiting a Jewish communal organization in Shiraz, and meeting with other Jewish individuals and youth.
As for Gottlieb’s “Dinner With Ahmadinejad” (which was the title of Kredo’s article), none of her critics bothered to provide details of the gathering and of what had transpired there on September 25, 2008. Kredo’s headline suggests that it could have been a personal and intimate evening between Gottlieb and Ahmadinejad, when in fact it was a gathering of hundreds, with several speakers criticizing the Iranian president.
The text of Gottlieb’s own speech that night is available online. As she states in the preface to her speech:
Meetings organized by peace and non-violence organizations and individuals with Ahmadinejad do not mean those attending agree or support specific Iranian governmental policies that are in conflict with the values of the peace community or the accompanying rhetoric about Israel, Jews or the United States…
At the Thursday dinner, most speakers who addressed and questioned the President took the opportunity to challenge him on several issues. They berated Ahmadinejad for his failure to state unequivocally that he mourns the death of six million Jews during the Holocaust, asserted their opposition to all nuclear weapons, bemoaned the Iranian record on human rights and in particular the execution of juveniles, the lack of religious freedom of expression, the persecution of the Bahai community and Iran’s denial that Israel has a right to exist as a nation state…
Ahmadinejad may be gone from power by June due to their elections. Whether he is or is not, those in the inter-faith peace community are looking to open channels with Iranians in the Department of Inter-religious Dialogue. For those of us in the Jewish community, it is important for us to note that, unlike most other Middle Eastern countries, Iran still possesses a small but significant Jewish community. Somewhere between 12,000 and 25,000 Jews reside mostly in Teheran, Shiraz and Esfahan. As the oldest extant Jewish community in the Middle East outside of Israel, how do we protect them, reach out to them and nurture their Jewish life in Iran? The possibility of real engagement is difficult in an atmosphere of aggressive rhetoric which does nothing to create a climate of rapprochement.
And here is an excerpt from her speech:
Peace is not envisioned as a quietist or passive stance. Rather shalom, the condition of harmony and well-being for the whole of society and the human heart of the believer is a condition that must be actively sought and publicly acknowledged for the sake of preventing violence and building peace.
That is why I stand here today, even when many of my co-religionists are dismissing, demeaning or boycotting this important conversation. I want to make clear that there are many thousands of Jewish people within my community whose voices are not heard, but nonetheless support dialogue as both a religious obligation as well as a way to give witness to hope…
As you are well aware, I come from a community that has experienced the genocidal results of hate speech leading to hate action. I know the country of Iran recognizes the Holocaust as I understand that there was a widely viewed television series dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust this past year in Iran which was watch by millions of people. I would like to remember for a blessing all those who have died in our world, on account of war.
I mourn the death of all young men and women sent to soldiering in conflicts not of their making.
I mourn one half a million Iranians who died in the Iran Iraq war,
I mourn the millions of Iraqis have been killed, injured and displaced by a war the United States initiated in Iraq.
I also mourn the forty million people who died in the second world war, including two million Armenians, one million Roma, tens of thousands who died on account of sexual orientation as well as those who were targeted for murder based on special needs. And of course, I mourn my own extended family, six million Jewish people who were murdered because European historical anti-Semitism made it acceptable to see us as less than human. Because of the Holocaust, I learned from the rabbis who ordained me and guide me, to be active in preventing further suffering of all human beings as a primary religious call to action. That is why I, like thousands of Jewish Americans, Israelis and Europeans have joined with other peace activists across the globe to work tirelessly for Palestinian human rights, as well as Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation through the path of non-violence.
As Gottlieb later explained to Larry Cohler-Esses for the New York Jewish Week, “I said what I had to say without insulting [Ahmadinejad] … I wanted to isolate him but not insult him. It’s tricky. It’s a fine line … because I wanted to keep the channels open.”
The real reason for the attacks
Why are right-wing groups attempting to smear Gottlieb based on innocuous or commendable actions from years past? Although the focus is on Gottlieb, the goal is to strike at Obama. By highlighting Gottlieb’s name among 600+ rabbis, and by calling on the Obama campaign to “immediately remove her from any formal or official involvement in the campaign,” the right is employing the same tactics it had used against Obama in the previous presidential election cycle.
In 2008, the targets were the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, prominent sixties radical Bill Ayers, and Columbia professor Rashid Khalidi. All were smeared and portrayed as “extreme”—Wright was portrayed as a “racist” “firebrand pastor,” while Ayers and Khalidi were described as “terrorists”—and their connections to Obama were exaggerated.
The purpose was to put Obama on the defensive and force him into a lose–lose situation: That is, if Obama did not repudiate his association with these people, he could be accused of “palling around with terrorists,” which would create a distraction for his campaign. At the same time, if he denounced his associations with these people, then it would give credence to the original accusations that Obama had previously been palling with terrorists and also undermine his attempts to build a base of support.
The right was willing to try to destroy these individuals in order to take Obama down a notch. However, in the case of Lynn Gottlieb, a.k.a. “Obama’s Anti-Israel Rabbi,” the connection is much more tenuous, and it remains to be seen how far the right is willing to smear Gottlieb before they give up and move on to the next target whom they suspect of being Obama’s weak link.
Update: Bill Kristol has written a letter on behalf of the Emergency Committee for Israel calling on Obama to “repudiate” several “anti-Israel figures” on the Rabbis for Obama list, including Gottlieb, although he does not specifically name the supposed problem rabbis. Meanwhile Haaretz has a brief interview with Gottlieb over her decision to endorse Obama.