Editorial: Designated Hater

Reigning National League Most Valuable Player Ryan Braun reportedly failed a drug test for banned substances taken during the 2011 playoffs (See p. 7A).  It looks bad for the Hebrew Hammer – despite his protestations of innocence, 13 players have appealed their positive results since the current Major League Baseball testing program was instituted in 2004, and 13 have lost.

But then something happened, just a little, mostly unnoticed something, that put an entirely different gloss on the matter. Something that is relevant especially in the context of our Can We Talk? focus this month on the changing face of our Jewish community.

David Bedein, director of the far-right “Israel Resource News Agency” and  “Center for Near East Policy Research,” saw fit to weigh in after JTA reported the Braun story. He didn’t have a substantive comment about Braun’s drug test, or about the impact on the game of baseball.

And what he really didn’t have was compassion for a self-proclaimed Jew in his time of need.  Bedein’s terse observation, in an email apparently sent to the JTA support desk and copied to the Jewish Light, comprised 10 words:

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“Ryan Braun was not Jewish. His mother was not Jewish.”

Braun’s father is Jewish and he identifies as Jewish, despite not leading an observant Jewish life as a kid. Here’s what the JTA story reported that Braun has said about himself:

“I am Jewish,” Braun said last year. “It’s something I’m really proud of. But I don’t want to make it into something more than what it is. I didn’t have a bar mitzvah. I don’t want to pretend that I did. I didn’t celebrate the holidays.

“It’s a touchy subject because I don’t want to offend anybody, and I don’t want groups claiming me now because I’m having success. But I do consider myself definitely Jewish. And I’m extremely proud to be a role model for young Jewish kids.”

So Braun has affirmatively and publicly embraced his Jewish roots without being disingenuous about it.  And while we fully appreciate and respect that different movements within Judaism have different standards and tests for Jewish identity, the timing and tone of Bedein’s approach lends the proverbial insult to injury.

This month in our Can We Talk? series we’re examining Jewish identity and peoplehood.  How Jews between childhood and parenthood are finding new ways to connect Jewishly through portals such as Next Dor and Moishe House.  How the community’s fabric is changing and finding places for those who have felt isolated from Jewish institutions. How those who grew up with a less observant Jewish background choose to seek something more as their lives evolve.

Whether you happen to recognize Braun as Jewish within your own movement is about as irrelevant to this discussion as whether he will be found to have passed or failed his drug test.  What’s important is how we learn to have a constructive and empathetic dialogue about the breadth and scope of Jewish identity.

We have a modern Jewish community not because of one person’s or group’s definition of Judaism but by virtue of a complex fabric of people and institutions. Multiple religious movements. Social welfare organizations. Philanthropic foundations and Jewish Federations. Communal gathering places in person, in print and online.

This web of inclusivity is broad because it needs to be. Because if we all retreated to our corners and refused to accept each other as Jewish, we’d be a fragmented, dissociated lot with little to connect us, little to sustain us.

And we need that support structure the most when times are the toughest. When folks are out of jobs. When they are in trouble in their lives. When they feel the pain of personal tragedy or public condemnation. Yes, we as a news organization have to report on such matters, and recognize diverse viewpoints about them. But we do so from a position within the community, not from outside. And to us, that makes all the difference in the world.

Braun’s in a tight spot, and it may well turn out that his actions cost his employer, the Milwaukee Brewers, a third of a season of MVP-level performance.  But for an outspoken Jewish voice to shun him, particularly at this time, shows how fragile things can quickly become if we focus on our differences to the exclusion of commonalities. That’s the sad lesson of Bedein’s ill-founded and untimely comments.