It’s Harder to Hate Up Close

There is a story New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is fond of telling. He’s told it at town hall meetings throughout his governorship, especially when he was in an area that didn’t support him when he first ran. In this story, Christie’s old boss, a Republican who worked in the Justice Department in the Bush administration, came to visit him in New Jersey. Christie asked him what brought him up from Washington, to which he responded that he was going to meet with the editorial board of The New York Times. When the Governor expressed shock that his mentor would agree to this meeting, knowing the animosity The New York Times had toward the Bush administration, the answer he got became words he would keep with him for the rest of his life.

“You don’t get it,” he said. “I’m going over there because it’s harder to hate up close.”

Recently, Eliana Johnson of National Review Online wrote a piece detailing Sen. Rand Paul’s apparent shift on the issue of Israel. The Kentucky senator’s father, former Rep. Ron Paul, had strong borderline anti-Semitic views regarding the Jewish state and recently launched a think tank that includes a “NeoCon watch,” ostensibly there to keep a watchful eye over the devious dealings of Neoconservatives. Charles Krauthammer pointed out in an interview at the National Review Institute that he no longer sees himself as a Neocon. He continued that the reason why is that the term “is an epithet…Today it’s usually meant as a silent synonym for ‘Jewish Conservative.’”

Although he doesn’t want too much to be read into it, Rand himself says that a large part of this apparent metamorphosis was due to a January trip to Israel. The first paragraph of Johnson’s article has a direct quote from the senator, about an episode that obviously had a profound impact on him

“I went to a Shabbat,” he tells me. “It was the first time I’ve ever done that, and I had a wonderful time. I went to the yeshivah, and all the young men were singing and dancing. They had me dancing around the table. I hope I was singing something that was fine — it was all in Hebrew, so I had no idea what I was singing.”

One might think that the visit to a yeshivah was coincidental, but upon reading further in the piece about the trip, two names pop up which are familiar to many frum Jews. Rabbi Nate Segal of Staten Island and Dr. Rich Roberts of Lakewood both “made their mark on the adventure.” Besides this, Rabbi Segal is credited with arranging the meeting which led to the trip and Dr. Roberts for underwriting its cost.

While Senator Paul has his name consistently talked about in the context of running for president in 2016, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where he does win. What he has demonstrated, however, is a unique ability to shape GOP policy by staking out populist positions to make his argument. As a Gallup poll taken shortly after his 12- hour-54-minute filibuster showed, he is able to argue his case convincingly to the entire American people, not just Republicans. The senator spent that time arguing against the administration’s position that they had the authority to use drones to kill U.S. citizens on American soil. When he was done, only 13 percent disagreed with Paul’s argument while 79 percent agreed with him. Compare this with a Fox News poll taken right before his filibuster which showed 45 percent agreeing with the position of the Obama administration. Clearly, even without winning the presidency, he is a political force to be reckoned with.

One may argue, as a well-known askan whose achievements in askanus have earned him both respect and admiration told me during the 2012 campaign, that “… we really don’t have much influence in national politics, whatever people may like to think.” This story makes the inverse argument. As these two askanim have demonstrated, a real impact can be made in the arena of national politics as well, if we try.

And try we must. Many think our attention should be solely focused on local issues and races where the frum community is a larger share of the electorate. But they are mistaken. We have to recognize that things are different than they used to be, and states like New York and New Jersey — to a lesser extent — are overwhelmingly liberal. But we do, however, live in the era of “microtargeting,” where a presidential campaign tailors its strategy and message down to the lowest common denominator. (In the 2012 campaign, President Obama released a recipe for a homemade brew of beer, to appeal to the segment of the population that does that as well.) It also is the era of what we can call “trickle-down government” — not in the fiscal sense with which that term is usually associated, but on issues of morality and religious freedom. It’s no coincidence that at the same time the president stakes out a position on moral issues, the country tends to swing that way, unless a national campaign is fought against it. It’s also not a coincidence that at the same time the administration is waging war on religious liberty (albeit on issues that don’t affect our community), the mayor of New York wages his own war on the frum community and the mitzvah of bris milah.

Under direction of the Gedolim, the arena of national politics needs to be reexamined and reentered. It behooves us to recognize that most national politicians have never had extended exposure to our community, and may have misconceptions about us as a result.

We need to introduce them to all that is right about our communities.

There is no reason to expect them to know this.

This is something we can change, however, because, as these two gentlemen illustrated in the case of Senator Paul, it is harder to hate up close.