By: Caleb Mills

Here’s a story whose cast of characters couldn’t be more odd: The Washington Post, “America’s Rabbi”, and Lorde. Even though it may sound like the beginning of a bad joke your uncle would tell (The Washington Post, a Rabbi, and the ‘Lorde’ all walk into a bar…) the spat between the singer and the rabbi is actually a perfect encapsulation of a serious problem in contemporary political discourse.  

“Lorde”, in case you didn’t know, is the stage name of the up-and-coming pop star Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor, who’s been smashing records and climbing charts since she first burst onto the musical scene in 2012-2013. Her newest album is called “Melodrama,” and, in an ironic twist, her world tour promoting the record led to some melodrama of its own.

Lorde was scheduled to perform in Tel Aviv. But faced with an open letter of protest from two fans – Jewish activist Justine Sachs and Palestinian activist Nadia Abu-Shanab – calling on her to join the “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions” movement (BDS), a pro-Palestinian group trying to raise awareness about the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians, she announced she would cancel that concert.

Needless to say, not everyone was pleased with Lorde’s decision. Especially not the Religious Right, including Shmuley Boteach, the aforementioned Rabbi.

Unlike his Monotheistic cousins in the practice of streamlining religion, the uniquely American-styled Evangelical televangelists, Shmuley Boteach has never shied away from tackling subjects considered too taboo even for his brothers in Abrahamic faith. For a man of God, he clearly never employed a broad interpretation of the more pacifist parts of the Torah.

The popular Right-Wing Orthodox Rabbi has hosted TV shows, used his wealth to push for conservative causes, and most famously published books popularizing religion. Some of his bestselling works include “Kosher Sex; A Recipe for Passion and Intimacy”, “The Kosher Sutra: Eight Sacred Secrets for Reigniting Desire and Restoring Passion for Life”, and “Kosher Jesus”

He’s called America’s Rabbi for a reason. Not that his generic, even stereotypical, blend of religion and commercialism does much for the reputation of either America or American Judaism.

Boteach bought an ad in The Washington Post shortly after news broke about Lorde cancelling her Israeli performance, claiming the artist was acting in an anti-semitic manner, and that “21 is young to become a bigot”. The reasoning behind the attack was that Lorde was acting hypocritically, as she would be performing in Russia, which supports the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, a brutal leader responsible for the deaths of thousands of his citizens throughout the country’s civil war. The ad also claimed that the BDS movement was fundamentally racist, and her actions represented what the Rabbi claimed to be growing intolerance within New Zealand’s youth.

There are a few things to consider here.

On the one had, Rabbi Boteach makes a valid and thought-provoking point about double-standards. While Lorde’s decision to boycott the Israeli government’s actions reflect a powerful sense of independence and moral awareness among today’s youth, Lorde—and others making similar stands–need to follow through and apply the same logic to other nations who have blatantly violated the values, including the Russian Federation.

But other than that, this bullying of a 21 year old for standing up for her values is a perfect example of why the Religious Right is a perfect representation of everything wrong with America.

Lorde’s decision was based on her moral code. She decided performing in Israel would implicitly be supportive of actions taken by the Israeli government, and decided to withdraw that support. That’s an ethical choice, and even if you disagree with her moral code, you should respect her decision to follow her conscience. Tossing aside differences of opinion, there’s an institutional value in respecting others’ peaceful protests, even if you disagree with their intentions.

But the Rabbi, ironically for a man claiming to fight racial bias, immediately jumped behind his ethnic background, and that of Israel, to frame the debate in terms of race and identity. It mattered little to Boteach that BDS, an organization that has faced political persecution in Israel, is a group dedicated to equal rights for both Jews and Palestinians (and in fact counts some Jewish groups among its supporters). Or that Lorde herself was clearly not at all motivated by racial animosity.

Without a second thought, Boteach resorted to taunting the young artist with accusations of bigotry, and his over-reliance on such a serious accusation to prove a point illuminates the immature and dangerous nature of his campaigns.

If we are at a point in society where difference of opinion is equated to bigotry and racism, without sufficient evidence, we are lost. Discussion of moral principles becomes impossible if we treat opinions we believe are misguided as if they are synonymous with evil itself.

And, just as the boy who cried wolf in Aesop’s cautionary tale discovered, trust and integrity quickly corrode even at the perception of less-than-truthful claims. Racism, in today’s modern and rapidly socially progressive world, is seen as detestable, backwards, and immoral. But frequent employment of it as a political catchphrase or unwarranted attack, will rob it of its sting. It will be confined to the generic paragraphs of a freshman congressmen’s C-SPAN speeches or mission statements on websites of organizations with unpronounceable names.

That is the inevitable consequence of a reckless routine of attack ads or NYT op-eds where you consistently misuse a term that represents as actual problem; you kill the phrase.

While the Rabbi might declare in an awkward attempt at oratorical flair that “21 is young to become a bigot”, perhaps he should heed counsel from history as well logic and take note of this one-liner: “51 is old to become juvenile.”


Caleb Mills is a writer, analyst, and commentator from the American Midwest.

Image: Lorde, photo by Krists Luhaers, @Kristsll (cc-by-2.0)