Avoid Handing Out Labels

In the following letter, the Rebbe addresses a professor's concern of Chabad giving respect to a politician who was outspoken against certain Jewish ideals.

Towards the end of the letter, the Rebbe shares a thorough post-script explaining the importance of utilizing every “person of influence,” regardless of their ideology or beliefs, as well as the importance of not labeling them as anti-Semitic or the like.

Here is a preface to the letter, told by Prof. Alan Dershowitz:

I was involved in civil and human rights, and I considered Senator Helms to be the enemy of the Jewish people. At the time, he was not a friend of the Jewish people and not a friend of Israel. He stood against everything I stood for and against what many of my friends and colleagues stood for. In 1984, when I heard Senator Helms was being honored by Chabad at a reception in Washington, I was surprised and disappointed. In my naiveté, I had the “chutzpah” to write a letter to the Rebbe, respectfully asking why he chose to honor a man who was, in my view, against Israel, against integration, against social rights and equality for all.

The Rebbe replied with a very poignant and powerful letter.

He explained that Senator Helms was not singled out for honor but was simply one of many U.S. Senators and U.S. Representatives who came to the Education Day, USA reception.

The Rebbe then wrote a long and beautiful P.S., explaining how one influences other human beings. All people—especially politicians, who often act out of practicality more than conviction—should be engaged positively. That way, we can try to influence them. He said I should observe to see whether or not we have influenced Jesse Helms.

Sure enough, very shortly after he was honored, Senator Helms assumed a very influential role on the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee and became one of the strongest supporters of Israel and other Jewish causes as well. So obviously, the Rebbe had had an enormous influence on persuading Jesse Helms that, even with his very conservative values, he could become a beacon for the Jewish people and the Jewish state.

By the Grace of G‑d 5744 Prof. [Alan Dershowitz] Cambridge, Mass. 02138

P.S. I wish to refer to your characterization of the person as described in your letter.

I trust you will agree that in regard to persons of influence, whether in Washington or elsewhere, the first objective should be to persuade and encourage such a person to use his influence in a positive way on behalf of any and all good causes which are important to us. We should welcome every public appearance which lends public support to the cause, especially when there is a likelihood that it may be the forerunner of similar pronouncements in the future. A case in point is the public stance of the very person who is the subject of your letter, on a matter which is surely close to your heart, as reported in the JTA Bulletin_____ ( v. enclosure). I believe it is not the first of its kind, nor, I hope, the last.

My experience with such people — though I have never personally met the said person — has convinced me that politicians are generally motivated more by expediency than by conviction. In other words, their public pronouncements on various issues do not stem from categorical principles or religious imperatives. Hence, most of them, if not all, are subject to change in their positions, depending on time, place, and other factors.

I believe, therefore, that the proper approach to such persons by Jewish leaders should not be rigid. As a rule, it does no good to engage in a cold war, which may often tum into a hot war; nor does it serve any useful purpose to brand one as an "enemy" or an "antisemite," however tempting it is to do so even if that person vehemently denies it. It can only be counter-productive. On the contrary, ways and means should be found to persuade such a person to take a favorable stance, at least publicly. We haven't too many friends, and attaching labels, etc. will not gain us any.

Instances abound where the approach advocated above produced good results. To cite one well-known case - the leader of the Moral Majority has at times made highly unfavorable pronouncements, especially the one about missionary activities a few weeks ago. Yet the government in Eretz Yisroel made special efforts to gain his support, etc. etc.

There is surely no need to point out to you that responsible Jewish leaders consistently cultivated good public relations, indeed even cordial rotations, with Pres. Carter and his predecessors going back to FDR, regardless of their sometimes openly negative feelings towards Jews and Jewish causes.

The wisdom of the said approach is borne out also by the experience in regard to helping Jews behind the Iron Curtain. There are those who claim that anti-Soviet demonstrations and similar actions will induce the Kremlin to change its policy. Others, myself included, are convinced that "quiet diplomacy" has been effective, and certainly not counter-productive. I urged and pleaded - behind the scenes, of course for such an approach by Jewish leaders.

Unfortunately, my pleadings were unheeded.

This is one of the reasons why I write in reply to your correspondence this P.S., which has nothing to do with the person about whom you wrote in the hope that you may use your influence with your friends who are active in Jewish concerns, in the direction indicated above.