Report

How an Orthodox Rabbi Became an Unlikely Ally of the Christian Right

By | February 14, 2017

(Ohr Torah Stone)

“We are in a third world war,” said Shlomo Riskin, slamming his fist on the table. We were sitting in a windowless room in the D.C. convention center, and Riskin, an Orthodox rabbi, was explaining how he had ended up here, at the annual summit of Christians United For Israel, giving a speech to thousands of conservative evangelicals.

Riskin kept banging on the table. “If you have eyes to see, extremist Islam has taken over Islam. And this is the third world war!”

Riskin is one of the most influential rabbis of his generation. Now an Israeli, he was born and raised in Brooklyn. As a young man, Riskin voted for Democrats. He marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., in Selma. He officiated at a young Elena Kagan’s bat mitzvah and advocated for women’s rights. Over time, he developed a reputation as a religious progressive.

In the last decade, Riskin has quietly developed another project: outreach to Christians, and especially to conservative American evangelicals. His most important partnership is with John Hagee, a Texas megachurch pastor whose organization, Christians United For Israel (CUFI), claims a membership roll larger than that of AIPAC. Like AIPAC, CUFI advocates for policies that it sees as pro-Israel and organizes activists and donors across the country.

Riskin and Hagee first met around 2007. At the time, CUFI was not even two years old, and Riskin was beginning to plan a center for Jewish-Christian dialogue. Before long, Riskin was speaking at conservative evangelical churches and calling Hagee “my pastor.” In 2008, when audio surfaced of Hagee preaching that Hitler had been sent by God to drive the Jews to Israel, Riskin defended the pastor. A few years later, when Glenn Beck held a rally in Israel, Riskin and Hagee were both featured speakers. And in 2015, when Hagee made a documentary implying that a sequence of lunar eclipses foretold an impending Rapture, Riskin appeared in the film as an expert witness.

When I met with Riskin last summer, the Republican National Convention was just gearing up in Ohio, and Washington was hot, cloudless, and strangely quiet. The CUFI summit takes place in a series of sterile, carpeted rooms. There, the attendees celebrate divine action in the world and consider the possibility of horrific violence in the Middle East. It’s the kind of place where—just to give a personal example—a stranger may walk up to you and pitch a scheme to import Texas longhorn cattle to the Holy Land.

Almost every attendee is a Christian. But David Nekrutman, the executive director of Riskin’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation, had told me that it was now possible to get a minyan—a quorum of tens Jews (or Jewish men)—at CUFI. Sure enough, when I walked in on the second full day of the conference, Riskin and about a dozen other Jewish men were finishing up the morning shacharit prayer. While the men folded up their prayer shawls and put away their tefillin, evangelicals from around America milled about the conference area, drinking coffee and visiting the CUFI gift shop.

Much has been written about American evangelicals’ love for Israel and the Jewish people. Much less has been written about the handful of Jewish leaders who have staked their reputations and careers on returning that love.

Riskin’s partnership with Hagee seems to reflect a genuine concern for Jews—and a very particular vision of what represents the greatest threat to their future.

“Jews have to be strong,” Riskin told me. “Jews need alliances.”

 

SHLOMO RISKIN IS a towering figure in a tight-knit world. His rabbinical students serve Jewish communities around the world. In his mid-twenties he helped found Lincoln Square Synagogue, which quickly became one of the most influential Modern Orthodox synagogues in Manhattan. At 76, he has been a public figure for more than half his life, and he makes small talk easily. He is not uncalculating, but he can be strangely naïve; at one point during our interview, he asked me, earnestly, how it was that I came to know so much about him (“He’s a professional,” an aide reminded him).

The rabbi is bad at concealing annoyance. He has the air of a wartime diplomat—endowed with a certain politesse, but not unwilling to scrap.

Riskin had to travel a long way to find himself appealing to rooms full of evangelical Christians. His mentor, the legendary rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, famously forbade Orthodox Jews from participating in interfaith dialogue with the Catholic Church, and Orthodox leaders do not always welcome interfaith conversations.

In 1983, Riskin moved to the West Bank to help found the settlement of Efrat. It was a risky career move: At the time, he was still leading Lincoln Square Synagogue, and he was perhaps the most prominent rabbi in America’s Modern Orthodox movement, which combines traditional practice with an openness to the secular mainstream. His exit to the West Bank was the Modern Orthodox version of Michael Jordan leaving the Chicago Bulls to try his hand at baseball.

The settlement, just a little more than 10 miles south of Jerusalem, quickly attracted an affluent, American crowd. People jokingly refer to the town as “occupied Scarsdale”; many houses there are valued at more than a million dollars. Many of the first Efrat settlers were also political progressives. In a way that can seem baffling to anyone familiar with the settlement movement of today, many of these settlers viewed the occupation as a utopian project, consistent with their liberal values. The Intifadas had not yet occurred. The settlements were not so widely viewed as the chief obstacle to peace.

“I think people like Riskin, and the larger cohort that he represented, solved this question of the tension between liberalism and nationalism, or Zionism and liberalism, basically by moving to the Occupied Territories and saying that ‘I’m still a liberal here,’” said Sara Yael Hirschhorn, a scholar at Oxford and the author of a forthcoming book about Americans in the settler movement.

Tensions between settlers and both Palestinians and the Israeli government increased. In 1995, when the peace process threatened to displace settlers, a reporter from Religion News Service interviewed an American-born Efrat resident, “an ex-New Yorker who was once so taken with the non-violent principles of Mahatma Gandhi that she moved to India in the 1960s.” The Gandhi admirer told the reporter that “I’m so angry that if I’m forced to leave, I’d blow everything up before I went peacefully.”

Not long after, the peace deal collapsed. When the Second Intifada broke out in 2000, visits to Israel and the West Bank slowed down dramatically. “I was very much isolated,” Riskin remembered. In the middle of the violence, a group of Lutheran nuns came to visit Riskin in Efrat. They were part of the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary, a small German community that emphasizes reconciliation between Germans and Jews.

“I very much respected this phenomenon,” Riskin said. “I realized the tremendous importance of Christian friends to Israel, and I realized that we are now in a religious war between extremist Islam and the free world, really. Having the Christians on our side is very, very important.” Riskin had a longstanding academic interest in Christianity as well. In 2008 he founded the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation (CJCUC), and he had hired Nekrutman, a former staffer at the Israeli consulate in New York, to run it.

In other words: In order to shore up support in what he sees as, fundamentally, a religious war started by Muslims, Shlomo Riskin founded a center for interfaith dialogue.

The organization seems to have found a niche. Liberal Jewish movements have been doing interfaith work with Christians for years, but they mostly work with mainline churches who share their cultural and political leanings, not with evangelicals. (Occupying this niche can have its costs, and Riskin has received flak from other Orthodox Jews for his interfaith work).

The CJCUC does outreach to a variety of Christians groups, including Catholics. (Riskin met Pope Francis last fall.) The organization directs aid to Palestinian Christians and leads Bible sessions for Christian visitors to Israel. It often hosts groups at its headquarters, which recently moved from Efrat to Jerusalem, and Nekrutman estimates that they serve seven or eight thousand Christians per year.

But it is Hagee who has been Riskin’s most consistent and high-profile Christian ally. Around 2007, Riskin traveled to San Antonio to visit a student of his who had just become the assistant at an Orthodox synagogue there. The synagogue’s head rabbi, Aryeh Scheinberg, offered to introduce the rabbi to Hagee. At the time, Riskin was beginning to plan out the CJCUC. He knew that evangelical Christians would be a major part of their organization.

The two men met briefly at Hagee’s church, and they stayed in touch. Nekrutman later set up another meeting. “The more I got to know him, the more I got to see how sincere and genuine he was in his love for Israel,” said Riskin.

The partnership seems to have been fruitful. In Riskin, Hagee has a prominent Jewish ally who will appear at events, and who has shown himself willing to defend the pastor during controversies. Meanwhile, Hagee offers both political and financial clout for Riskin’s chosen causes. CUFI claims to have 3.3 million members—more than thirty times as many as AIPAC. When then-Indiana Governor Mike Pence traveled to Israel in 2014,  CUFI sponsored the future vice president’s trip.

Since 2010, John Hagee Ministries has given at least $850,000 to Riskin’s principal organization, Ohr Torah Stone; the total amount is almost certainly higher.* The organization has also put Riskin in front of a large group of potential donors, as well as potential clients for the CJCUC.

And at a time when many American Jews are alienated by the settlement movement and the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, CUFI offers Riskin access to one of the few voting blocs that is consistently, overwhelmingly, and uncritically supportive of Israeli policies: American evangelicals.

 

WHEN WE MET in July, Riskin told me the following story: Years ago, the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, a global outreach organization that connects evangelicals to Israel, asked him to come and give a speech. At the time, according to Riskin, many Israelis suspected that the Embassy wanted to convert Jews to Christianity, but Riskin said he felt good about the organization’s goals. When he got up to speak, he told the Christians that he knew their theology very well.

“Your theology is, number one, right now, this is not the time to convert the Jews,” Riskin remembers telling them. “Right now, all the Jews have to become better Jews. Those good Jews are going to move to Israel. And then there’s going to be the Armageddon—a war between the Muslims on one hand, and the Christians and the Jews on the other. And the Christians and Jews are going to win. And there’ll be a resurrection. And Jesus will be resurrected. And he will convert all the Jews to Christianity.”

The Christians were delighted with this spiel. “They were giving me rousing ovations, saying ‘Amen, amen,’” Riskin remembered.

The rabbi then told the Christian Embassy that he had a lot in common with them. He too wanted to make Jews into better Jews. He too wanted to convince those better Jews to move to Israel. “That’ll take another two, three hundred years,” he predicted. “And then there’s a war. And then there’s resurrection of the dead, and I believe that Jesus will be resurrected, if that indeed happens, because Jesus, from my perspective, was a religious Jew.”

The audience was loving it.

But then Riskin told them that when when Jesus is resurrected, he will look around and say, “What’s this Sunday? I kept Shabbat! What’s this bacon and eggs for breakfast? I don’t eat pork products! I keep the Old Testament. What do you mean, Easter? The Last Supper was a Passover seder!”

“So I think there will be conversion,” the rabbi told them. “But it’s going to go the other way.”

This did not go over well. “Absolute silence. No amens, no standing ovation. Absolute silence. It was one of the most interesting moments I’ve ever had in my life,” he said, adding, “I felt good about it!”

And finally, the punchline. The director of the Embassy, said Riskin, stood up and said: “‘Brother Rabbi, let’s agree that when the Messiah comes—for us the second time, for you the first time—he will decide who will convert who.’ I said, ‘That’s exactly what I said!’ And then there was rousing ovation and everyone was very happy.”

 

THERE ARE MORE Christians in Texas than Jews on earth. But at CUFI’s annual summit, it is the Jews—their tortured past, fraught present, and uncertain future—that are the center of attention. Each summer, a few thousand CUFI members from around the country attend exhibits and hear speeches by American and Israeli leaders. They participate in a Night to Honor Israel that is part fundraising dinner, part revival. In the summit gift shop, they buy metal seder plates, elegant Shabbat candles carved from wood, and CUFI’s signature mezuzot—the small box-bound scrolls that Jews traditionally affix to the doorposts of their homes. A vial of “anointing oil for the royal priesthood” costs six dollars.

When I visited last July, during the morning speeches, women walked by in church clothes, wearing Star of David necklaces. At one point, there was a short stretching-and-praying break, and a woman wearing a purple Jewish prayer shawl lifted up a shofar made from the horn of an African antelope and blew a long, deep note.

This philo-Semitism has tangled origins. One important thread is a nineteenth-century theological movement called premillennial dispensationalism, developed by an Irishman named John Nelson Darby. A few decades before the emergence of Zionism, Darby predicted that Jews would return to the Middle East and form a state, initiating the second coming of Jesus. Darby’s theology was prescient, and it remains influential. Among other things, it is the basis for the popular Left Behind series.

Today, the caricature is that evangelicals love Jews because they want to convert them, and that they love Israel because it will play a role in the Second Coming. In some cases, that caricature is accurate. But the picture is often more complicated. Hagee, for example, really does seem to avoid evangelizing to Jews, a position that has drawn criticism from other evangelical organizations. Asked about his support for Israel, he typically cites Genesis 12:3, in which God tells Abraham that “I will bless those who bless you, and curse him that curses you.”

In a 2008 book, Evangelicals and Israel, the scholar Stephen Spector points out that American evangelicals cite all sorts of reasons for their support of Jews and Israel. These range from guilt for past Christian anti-Semitism to a belief that God will bless those who bless Israel. Even evangelicals who are focused on the Rapture, Spector told me, may argue that their eschatological beliefs are separate from their day-to-day political positions. “They know God’s plan, but they don’t know God’s time,” he said.

Then there’s a distinctive narrative of Jewish weakness. Hagee’s rhetoric about Israel consistently draws on Holocaust imagery and depicts the weakness of the embattled Israeli state. In this genre, Jews play the role of virtuous victims—the perpetual underdog whose survival is a testament to God’s grace.

Like anti-Semitism, philo-Semitism can seem unconcerned with the lives of actual Jews, and very interested in the abstract historical role that the Jewish people play in the unfolding pageant of Christian history. This is a peculiar kind of affection. Not surprisingly, it mostly goes in one direction. In 2014, when the Pew Research Center asked people to rate other religious groups on a “feeling thermometer” (0 is the coldest, 100 the warmest), evangelicals gave Jews an average score of 69 degrees—one of the warmest reactions recorded by the survey. Jews responded by only rating evangelicals at 34 degrees.

Undeterred, thousands of conservative evangelicals attend the CUFI Summit each year. On the second morning of the summit, the roster of speakers included Hagee, Riskin, and Yoram Hazony, the president of the Herzl Institute, an academic center in Jerusalem. Benjamin Netanyahu was supposed to come in for a few minutes via a video link (“My people are often late,” explained CUFI director David Brog, who is Jewish, while everyone waited for the prime minister, who ultimately failed to show up).

Riskin received a warm welcome, but his speech was a boilerplate invocation of the special relationship between Jews and Christians. The morning’s most popular speaker, without question, was Hazony, a Princeton-educated, American-born, Modern Orthodox Israeli. Hazony told the CUFI crowd that “your blessings are being heard by God.” He depicted Israel as a kind of fantasyland for the American Christian right. “In Israel we teach the Bible in every school,” he said at one point, to enormous applause. (Hazony did not mention that nearly half of Israeli Jews are not observant).

CUFI is press-shy. The organization declined to make Hagee available for an interview, and I was not allowed to speak with attendees or visit the conference floor without a handler. When I dropped by the summit outside the hours specified by my press pass, I was escorted off the premises by a CUFI staffer.

Hoping to chat with a few summit attendees outside the orbit of the convention center, I visited Capitol Hill after the morning speeches. CUFI members were there lobbying congressional staffers. Wearing brightly colored badges that featured images of the Dome of the Rock and the U.S. Capitol, they weren’t hard to pick out.

On the steps of the Capitol Visitor Center, I spoke with Madison Styles and Pedro Mateo. At the time, both were undergraduates at North Greenville University, an evangelical Christian school in South Carolina. Mateo was President of the CUFI on Campus chapter there, and Styles a chapter member.

Mateo explained that he had not know much about CUFI or Israel until the organization approached him about getting involved the year before. This was his second time at the summit, and Styles’ first. The two were earnest about Israel and eager to be interviewed. It was quickly apparent that they knew nothing about the region besides the talking points provided by CUFI, though Mateo was scheduled to travel to Israel in a few weeks on a CUFI-sponsored trip.

I asked Mateo if he personally knew any Jews in Greenville. “I haven’t been able to reach out to them,” he said. “I do know a couple of them that own stores in places downtown, and one thing that I can say, from those that I do know, is they are excellent businesspeople. They are excellent businesspeople. They always find a way to be able to survive.”

Mateo added that Jews have “always been rich people.” Then he caught himself: “Not in the sense of having tons and tons of money. But their communities have always been good communities for people.”

At the end of our conversation, I gave Mateo my contact information. He read my last name and paused.

“Schulson. Do you have, uh, ethnic ties to Israel?” he asked.

I told him that my paternal grandfather was born in Jerusalem.

“Awesome,” said Styles.

“The name says it all,” said Mateo.

 

WHEN SHLOMO RISKIN gets annoyed with you, he refers to you as “my dear friend.” For example, when I pressed him about some of John Hagee’s comments about the Holocaust, he called me “my dear friend,” and said he didn’t think there was a Jew or thinker anywhere that he didn’t disagree with from time to time.

Riskin invoked our warm friendship again a few weeks later, during a follow-up phone conversation, when I started to read him a quote from John Hagee’s 2006 book, Jerusalem Countdown. In the book, Hagee predicts that an impending civilizational war between the West and the Muslim world will precede the Rapture.

“Many times have I stood on the very ground in Israel that will one day soon be covered with the blood drained from the veins of the armies of the world,” the pastor writes.

That didn’t seem like a great outcome for Jews, and it indicated that Hagee was not committed to a peace process in Israel. I began to read Riskin the quote. Somewhere around the phrase “covered with blood,” the rabbi began saying “my dear friend” insistently enough to drown me out.

“My dear friend, all the questions you have, ask him. Why are you asking me? I know him as a very sincere and wonderful human being,” the rabbi said. “He stands for what I stand for, and it’s wonderful to have his help, and I appreciate it tremendously.”

CUFI declined to make Hagee available for an interview, but Ari Morgenstern, CUFI’s communications director, issued a statement, saying, “Pastor Hagee’s beliefs about the Tribulation and the Rapture have no connection whatsover to his skepticism of the modern peace process.”

Is Riskin’s relationship with Hagee just a calculated strategic alliance? I ran that possibility by Hirschhorn, the Oxford scholar. She said that it was, and then immediately qualified the statement. “I have to say, maybe that’s a bit cynical. There probably is something more ideologically rooted,” she said. “I do think that Riskin, for the most part, is an ideologically driven person. So I would not just put it down to being some sort of very cynical, strategic alliance between people who have the money and public relations and support in the Diaspora, and the beleaguered—or perhaps not so beleaguered—settlement movement.”

Like the settlement movement itself, Riskin’s ideology has drifted rightward in recent decades. “I think that he tacked to the left initially when he came to Israel,” said Hirschhorn. But, she continued, “Especially after the First Intifada and the Second Intifada, he has increasingly moved to the right.”

Samuel Heilman, a scholar of Orthodox Jewish movements at Queens College who has known Riskin since the 1950s—the rabbi officiated at his wedding—told me about an especially hawkish comment that Riskin had made in a recent conversation. “The Shlomo Riskin I knew in America would never say that,” Heilman said.

For all their differences, Hagee and Riskin share a profound conviction that radical Islam is the principal threat to Jewish and Christian safety. “Islamics do not hate America because of our support of Israel. They hate us because it’s their religious duty to hate us,” Hagee writes in Jerusalem Countdown. (CUFI’s Morgenstern said the quote refers only to radical Islam, not to all Muslims). In Hagee’s 2015 Rapture-oriented docudrama, Four Blood Moons—which features a long interview with Riskin—swarthy, robed Muslim warriors, cast from Hollywood stereotypes, consistently threaten cowering Jewish women and children.

Hagee’s rhetoric about Muslims has made some Jewish leaders hesitant to work with CUFI. In 2008, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the then-president of the Union for Reform Judaism, gave a speech to the Central Conference of American Rabbis in which he urged Jewish organizations against partnerships with Hagee and CUFI because of the organization’s Islamophobic rhetoric.

Yoffie told me that CUFI had seemed to respond to these criticisms. “They stopped saying anti-Muslim things, pretty much, to the best of my knowledge,” he said, but he noted that he hasn’t recently monitored them. Since then, Yoffie has encouraged organizations to exercise discretion but to make their own calls. (While Hagee’s statements about Islam have seemingly become more diplomatic in the past decade, the tone of his rhetoric has not, and CUFI has invited the anti-Islam activist Frank Gaffney to speak at its annual summit as recently as 2013).

“As Jews, we don’t work with people who attack other religious traditions, and we don’t work with people who take Islam as being somehow evil or contrary to God’s will, or whatever. That was an absolute red line,” Yoffie said.

Earlier, Riskin had told me his main criterion for interfaith partnership: “If you are trying to convert me, I will not deal with you.” Did he have any other conditions? “That’s the only red line I know about the Christians.”

 

A FEW WEEKS before he spoke at CUFI last summer, Riskin flew to the West coast to speak at El Shaddai Ministries, an evangelical church in Tacoma, Washington. El Shaddai has hosted CUFI events, and its pastor, Mark Biltz, is the organization’s Washington state director. In a video of the event, the congregation sings a brisk rendition of Hinei Ma Tov, a simple Hebrew prayer that’s taken from the Psalms. Riskin, standing at the edge of the stage, waves his hand awkwardly along with the melody. Before the rabbi’s speech, Biltz reminds the congregation that they are not trying to convert any Jews. Then Riskin gives a short speech about that week’s Torah portion, the closeness of Jews and Christians, and the dangers of jihad.

Sherry Lush handles media, advertising, events, and school administration for El Shaddai. Lush and her husband lived in Israel for a while during the 2000s, until the Israeli government kicked them out (it’s not easy for non-Jews to keep residency visas). While there, they got to know David Nekrutman, and, through Nekrutman, Riskin. “We just love them. We consider them family,” Lush said of the two men. She added, “I’m having a hard time finding the words to tell you how much I love these people.”

We started talking about politics. “It’ll be Middle East-centered from here on out,” Lush predicted about the upcoming period that, she believes, will precede the Rapture. She doesn’t believe that Israel should give up any land in a peace deal, because God gave the land to Jews. She also doesn’t believe that politics can ever achieve peace. The messiah, she said, will do that. But before that, there will be severe pain. She compared the process to childbirth.

In a sense, Lush was describing an outcome in which the country she clearly loved would undergo terrible warfare before its inhabitants converted to Christianity. Lush said that the rabbis she knew in Israel agreed with her: The end-times were approaching.

Riskin didn’t endorse that idea, but his tone in our conversations was certainly apocalyptic. “It’s the third world war,” he said: “the free world and Europe” pitted against “almost all the countries” where there are large Muslim populations.

After the September 11th attacks, President George W. Bush insisted that the United States was not at war with Islam. Not everyone agreed. Groups of conservative Christians, observant Jews, and political hawks have found common cause in the idea that the United States is locked in a civilizational war with radical Islam, a term that often seems to elide into “all of Islam.”

With Donald Trump’s ascent to the presidency, that idea now has representatives at the very highest echelons of power. White House senior advisor Stephen Bannon has talked about “the beginning stages of a global war against Islamic fascism.” Outgoing national security advisor Michael Flynn has written about “a world war against a messianic mass movement of evil people.”

Both Riskin and Hagee expressed support for Trump. Hagee publicly backed the candidate in May, and, after the election, said that Trump won “because he was the only one that was blessing Israel.” Riskin described Trump’s victory as “good for America and good for Israel” in an interview with The Jerusalem Post shortly after the election.

That Israel, founded in the aftermath of the Second World War and peopled by refugees, could become a flashpoint in another global conflict is a distinct possibility. Not surprisingly, Jews today are deeply divided over how to respond to that lingering sense of threat. For some, such as Riskin, Muslim regimes (especially Iran) and militant groups that invoke Islam (especially Hamas) are the overriding concern.

Other Jews, while recognizing that militant Muslim groups pose a profound threat to Jews, would reject the idea that the West is at war with Islam, or that we are in the middle of World War III. And, in fact, the conservative reaction to that threat brings its own dangers, in the form of nativist leaders who stoke anti-Semitism or escalate tensions in the Middle East. Through this lens, religious extremism of all kinds looks dangerous, and it seems possible to take the threat to Jewish lives seriously while staying committed to moderate, compromise-oriented diplomacy.

There’s a profound divide in the Jewish world today between people who think that first perspective sounds more true, and those who relate more to the second. That division was on display during an election in which roughly one-quarter of American Jews—including many American settlers in the West Bank—voted for a candidate that many other American Jews considered a direct threat to their safety and future in the United States. Those tensions have been particularly sharp in the American Modern Orthodox community; Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, who both play significant roles in the administration, identify as Modern Orthodox.

If anything, Riskin’s alliance with Hagee is the union of two kinds of apocalypticism: one oriented toward a literal Rapture, and another, consumed by visions of global struggle, that is increasingly tolerant of violence.

During my first conversation with Riskin, he mentioned a recent case in Israel where the Israel Defense Forces court-martialed a soldier for shooting and killing a young Palestinian attacker who was wounded and on the ground. Riskin saw the incident as a clear case of self-defense. “Someone who’s coming to kill you, you better kill him first,” he said, citing Jewish law.

“I don’t think he should have been court martialed,” Riskin added. “I think he should have been given, you know, a slap on the wrist.”

I looked at the rabbi, surprised. Here was a Modern Orthodox leader, a proponent of women’s rights, who was once a peace marcher for Civil Rights.

“It sounds so far from Selma,” I said.

He stared at me in silence for a full four seconds.

“In what way?” he asked.

There was another pause, and then he continued. “It’s not far from Selma at all,” Riskin said. “You can’t fight for the rights of the underdog unless at the same time you are willing to fight against the people who are making them the underdog. You can’t enthrone the just unless you dethrone the unjust. Otherwise you’re leaving the world open for destruction. Not far from Selma at all.”

 

Michael Schulson is a freelance journalist covering religion, science, and technology. He lives in Durham, N.C.

*Correction: The sentence has been updated to reflect the fact that John Hagee Ministries, not Christians United for Israel, donated to Ohr Torah Stone.

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