FRIDAY, June 22

This week, KI joined with the Orthodox Union and dozens of other synagogues and Jewish communal organizations in signing a letter condemning the separation of children from their parents at the US border. Thanks to God, and to the pressure exerted by individuals and organizations across the political spectrum, the President agreed to cease separating children from their parents, though much remains to be done, both to reunite families that have already been split apart, as well as to develop and implement immigration policy which is both just and humane.

Kenesset Israel Torah Center has been a member congregation of the OU, the Orthodox Union for many years. We proudly display the OU logo on our letterhead and our shul website, as a symbol of the OU’s commitment to promoting Jewish education and Torah values and advocating on behalf of the Orthodox Jewish community. Recently, the OU came under fire for its decision to host Attorney General Jeff Sessions at its annual Leadership Mission to Washington. In the days leading up the meeting, the OU heard from a number of Jewish leaders and concerned members, myself included, urging them to use their meeting with the Attorney General to address the so-called “Zero Tolerance” policy on immigration under which US government officers have forcibly separated thousands of children from their parents, ostensibly to deter future asylum seekers and immigrants.

The OU, like right-thinking people and organizations across the political spectrum, opposes /> this brutal policy, and the leaders who met with the Attorney General, to their credit, privately used that opportunity to voice their opposition to the policy. However, they chose not to raise the issue publicly during the Attorney General’s address to the organization, a choice for which they have faced much condemnation.

They also presented the Attorney General with a plaque bearing the biblical injunction “Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof (justice, justice you shall pursue),” which, as OU president Moshe Bane explained in the presentation, is understood by the Sages to mean that justice must be pursued through means which are themselves just. In other words, ends do not justify means. The choice of this verse was intended as a subtle critique of policies implemented by the AG in the name of justice which are not themselves just (such as the Zero Tolerance Policy). However, the subtlety of this rebuke was lost as the image of the presentation spread on social media, with many mischaracterizing the plaque as a “justice award.”

Surely, as we advocate for justice for ourselves and for others, there is room for divergent strategies. We can choose to meet and lobby powerful people who are doing injustice in order to influence them to change their policies, as the OU chose to do with the Attorney General. We can also protest and decry those policies in the streets and various media in the hopes of shaming their authors into changing or, barring that, influencing the outcome of future elections.

Each of these strategies has value, but each carries risks. When we pursue a strategy of lobbying and negotiating, we risk legitimizing the very policies we are opposing by giving kavod to those who implement them. This is what happened when the OU initially made their public critique so subtle that it was perceived by many as praise, creating the misleading and deeply damaging impression that the OU approved or at least accepted what was happening at the border.

The opposite strategy also carries risks. When we protest against not only policies but the people behind them, we risk demonizing our opponents. When we make our opponents out to be monsters, with whom any dialogue or negotiation is impossible, then we close the doors to very real opportunities to make change. This is what happened when certain commentators called the OU leadership “morally bankrupt” (and worse) for even being willing to meet with the Attorney General.

Whatever our political ideology or affiliation, I encourage all of us to continue working to build a just world, where children are not separated from their parents and where all can grow up in freedom and security. As we pursue that goal, whether we do so by lobbying inside the corridors of power or protesting in the street, let us engage in the rhetoric of constructive critique and shun the rhetoric of insult. Let us also exercise judgment by avoiding well-intentioned actions that might look like something inappropriate (maris ayin) when viewed from the outside. And when we see others doing something that doesn’t look right, instead of reacting with instant outrage, let us take the time to investigate further.

When we do all of this, we will be fulfilling the verse Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof, pursuing justice through means which are themselves just.