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Talking With Obama’s ‘Radical’ Rabbi

Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, a pacifist, pulls no punches

Adam Chandler
August 24, 2012
Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb at the Jewish Muslim Interfaith Prayer Walk for Peace in New Mexico in 2002.(Cary Herz/Getty Images)
Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb at the Jewish Muslim Interfaith Prayer Walk for Peace in New Mexico in 2002.(Cary Herz/Getty Images)

The Republican Jewish Coalition has leveled an attacked against the President’s “Rabbis for Obama” campaign, for which some 600 rabbis signed up online to declare their support for his re-election efforts, specifically targeting Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, whom the RJC calls ‘radical.’

Gottlieb has said and done much that would put her at odds with President Obama’s foreign policy. She supported a boycott of Israeli products and she is firmly opposed to military action against Iran. She did dine in a very large room with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at an event where, she explained, “everyone who spoke condemned Ahmadinejad for his Holocaust denial and his statement about Israel disappearing from history.”

So when I spoke to her yesterday, I thought to flip the question around. Not, why would Obama want her controversial support, but rather why would she want to support a president whose foreign policy views are anathema to her. Here’s what she told me:

As a rabbi, this is a much broader perspective than his specific policies toward Israel and Iran. Within that context of looking at his domestic policy and his foreign policy, as an American citizen, I do not support another Middle Eastern war. I didn’t support the war in Iraq, I didn’t support the war in Afghanistan, and I don’t support a war with Iran.

On President Obama’s detractors:

The fact that Republicans are hyperbolizing around Obama in so many arenas. They have an extensive hasbara–if you like, to quote Obama–he’s a Muslim, he wasn’t born in this country, picking on American racism, accusing him of being a Socialist. Accusing him of being anti-Israel is the way that Republican Jews are supporting the overall Republican effort to delegitimize President Obama. Shame on them.

On whether President Obama and Governor Romney’s positions on Israel are distinguishable:

It’s hard to know how they would react in the next term to realize on the ground situations. I don’t think either of them particularly want to go to war with Iran. It’s very hard to sort out election hyperbole from their more rational statecraft.

Do you still believe the United States should engage with Iran?

Nothing has changed my mind that ongoing diplomacy is a good idea in opposition to war. Nothing changes my mind about that. I am, after all, a pacifist.

Based on President Obama’s first term, why would you support him?

The larger question is whether I would rather live under a Democratic or Republican administration. When people vote for president, they’re not just voting for President Obama, they’re voting for a platform that’s being put forward by the Democratic Party. There’s so much reductionism that happens in conversation about many issues of policy that people are using fear tactics to force people to vote a certain way.

So as a Jewish American, really as Lynn Gottlieb, as someone who identifies and has served the Jewish community in various capacities for the past 40 years, I prefer the climate of a Democratic administration. It feels like we have more access. That doesn’t mean we don’t have to organize to fight for the things we believe in, such as a living wage, such as more focus on education and college students and many other things that need to go better under a Democratic administration. I’m certainly not going to agree with everything the administration says.

She also pushed back against the word “extreme” used in the RJC ad to describe her or the group Jewish Voice for Peace, which she explained has 120,000 people on its list serve.

The idea that the Republican Jewish Coalition speaks for the Jewish community is on its face absurd since a vast majority of Jews are not Republican and don’t support Republican values.

How would you feel if the Obama campaign removed you from the list:

It would not bug me. Not really. I think it’s unfortunate that we can’t really be a big tent and that we have to draw lines in the sand about very specific tactics and then hyperbolize about it. The use of the language ‘delegitimize Israel’ or ‘anti-Semite.’ It’s a shame the democratic and progressive side of Judaism stands for that. We should just say we’re a big tent. Period. We have a lot of different perspectives, but we all have the well-being of the people of Israel in mind. But I would not take it personally.

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.