Q&A: Washington Post columnist discusses Jewish political values and the rule of law before UTC appearance

Staff photo by Andrew Schwartz / Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin poses for a photo in Chattanooga Thursday.
Staff photo by Andrew Schwartz / Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin poses for a photo in Chattanooga Thursday.

Columnist Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post delivered a talk Thursday evening at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga about the role of women in democracy.

In an interview prior to the event, Rubin discussed her decision to stop identifying as a conservative, how her Jewish faith connects to her politics and how she interprets a brutal Middle East war which has in less than two weeks reportedly left at least 1,400 people in Israel and 3,000 people in Gaza dead.

This conversation has been edited for concision and clarity.

Q: Were you raised as an observant religious Jew, or was it more of a cultural thing?

A: I was raised in a reform Jewish household. We celebrated all of the holidays. We belonged for a portion of my childhood to a synagogue, but not throughout. I was not bat mitzvahed. And although we continued to observe the holidays and read and discuss about Judaism, it really wasn't until I went to UC Berkeley that I became more observant as a Jew.

Q: What caused that change?

A: When you're in college in a big place, you look for the familiar, and if you find something that piques your interest, you look further. I joined a number of student Jewish groups. I attended Shabbat dinners and services at Hillel and began to read an awful lot on my own as well — Jewish history, Jewish texts, Jewish philosophy.

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When I got married, my husband had had a much more traditional upbringing. And soon after we were married, we joined a shul and began taking classes there. We sent our kids to Jewish preschool.

And then when we moved to the Washington, D.C., area, we were initially living in Virginia and joined a conservative shul, where both my boys were bar mitzvahed, and really enjoyed communal Jewish life. We have since moved into Washington, D.C., and I'm now a member of Adas, a major conservative synagogue in Washington, D.C.

Q: How do your religious commitments affect your writing or your political impulses? And how has this changed over time?

A: I tend to look at politics from a more moral standpoint. I look upon politics as not simply winning and losing but as the means by which a society perpetuates values. And I think the notion that we have an obligation to live a values-directed life comes directly from my Jewish faith.

I'm not only an American Jew, but I'm a lawyer. And if you know anything about Torah study and Torah texts, it's a lot of argument. It's a lot of perspective. It's a lot of turning over an issue from one side and the other. And I think both that and my legal training helped me to analyze policy issues, political problems in that kind of analytical way.

Q: If politics is a vehicle for enacting a certain moral vision of the world, what are some of the core moral tenets that constitute that?

A: One is the intrinsic value of every human being. That certainly has influenced my view on civil rights, on gay rights, my view that a single life is precious and that we need to protect innocents.

I take seriously the admonition in the Torah to welcome the stranger, which is, I believe, an admonition that is mentioned more than any other; it certainly has influenced my view on immigration, which I'm very supportive of. I think the tradition of Jews immigrating and finding a place of refuge in America has also influenced my view.

And I think, quite frankly, the appreciation for the rule of law comes from a Jewish perspective — that we have people with very good instincts, people with very bad instincts, but we don't leave our futures and our lives to the whims of individuals, that the greatest protection for Jews, and for all people in a civilized society, is the rule of law.

That was one of the first things that tipped me off, if you will, to Donald Trump: His very cavalier, dismissive attitude — insulting attitude — toward judges, toward courts, his willingness to induce and incite violence.

I take seriously the admonition that we should be a light unto other nations — both America and the Jewish people. So I look upon our foreign policy as one that should be values-based, protective of human rights, engaged in the world, a force for democracy and for self-autonomy.

  photo  Staff photo by Andrew Schwartz / Columnist Jennifer Rubin speaks at an event at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga on Thursday.

Q: You had this long, well-known period of writing from a conservative viewpoint. As you have left that identity behind, what from that period have you retained, and what have you concretely left behind, if anything?

A: There are two ways in which I think I carry that with me. From a policy standpoint, I believe in many of the things I always did. It's simply that the Republican party doesn't anymore. It was a pro-immigration party. It was a rule of law party. It was a limited government party. It was the party of Lincoln and equal rights. I've always believed in those things. Free trade. They don't believe in them anymore. I still do.

But more importantly, I think some of the habits of mind of conservatives, I still retain. I am wary of unintended consequences. I prefer incremental over dramatic change. I think civil society has a very big role to play in our politics and in positive change.

Incidentally, on foreign policy, I am exactly where I always was. I've always been an internationalist. And I've always been someone who was very concerned about human rights. That party is clearly now the Democratic Party, and it's not the Republican Party.

Q: There's this brush-up you had with The Washington Post ombudsman 12 years ago. Just to summarize — and feel free to interject if you feel like any of this isn't quite right — basically, there was this post on Twitter about the Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, who had been released after several years in captivity in exchange for about 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.

And the tweet — this wasn't yours, it was from a blogger — it said: "Gilad is free and home. Now round up his death-worshipping captors and turn them into food for sharks."

And you retweeted this. And then in the subsequent conversation with The Washington Post ombudsman, you said a retweet isn't an endorsement but in this case, even if you might have used different language, you agreed with the basic sentiment that was being expressed there.

Looking back, do you feel the same way about that? And is that a sentiment that you feel toward Hamas right now?

A: There were a number of conflicts I had with that ombudsman. I'm still at The Washington Post. He's not. That's all I'll say.

Q: But the more concrete thing is that basic sentiment — again, what the tweet said was, "Let's round up his death-worshiping captors and turn them into food for sharks" — which I think is a mindset that is pretty common among a lot of people right now. I'm just wondering, as a prominent columnist, what your relationship to that kind of sentiment is today.

A: My sentiment is that Hamas is a brutal, blood-lusting, terrorist organization. The only thing that I can analogize the recent massacre to was either the mobile units during the Nazi regime or the pogroms of Eastern Europe. So I believe Hamas needs to be rooted out, and I do believe that it needs to be removed as a player in the region.

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Hamas is not Gaza. Hamas does not represent Gaza. It doesn't represent the Palestinian people. In fact the Palestinian people have been victimized more than any, perhaps, by Hamas because they live in a virtual hellhole. Aid and other assistance has been taken from them and used by Hamas. The outside world has been compelled to enact a stiff embargo and restriction on what can be brought into Gaza because of the terrorism, and that obviously has effects on their lives.

So I think the current situation is heartbreaking. There are innocents on both sides.

Israel is morally and politically obligated to defend itself. And it should do so, as President (Joe) Biden urged, respecting the law of war.

Q: Do you think it has been doing that? A lot of people have argued that it has been violating international law.

A: From what I have seen, it has been making efforts to avoid civilian casualties. It has agreed to allow humanitarian aid in. It has issued an evacuation order, which is directly compliant with the obligation to warn civilians. That is straight from the rule of law books.

It has not targeted civilians. It's targeted Hamas leadership, Hamas-run communications and other appropriate sites. So from what I have seen, I think they are trying their best. They will make mistakes. They will see a balance in ways that those who do not face life-and-death decisions don't see.

The decisions that have to be made in a moment's notice — when you have a legitimate target, and perhaps a very potent target, but nevertheless have civilians who could be harmed — is one of those life-and-death decisions.

The law of war does not say that you have to get it right every time. It says that you have to, whenever possible, ensure proportionality. That doesn't mean proportionality to what was done to you. It's proportionality that the military objectives that you are seeking are sufficient to warrant what consequences may result.

READ MORE: Some Chattanoogans see deep biblical themes in Israel-Gaza war; for others, it's political)

The obligation to civilians is to avoid, where feasible, civilian casualties. It doesn't mean you have to be perfect. It doesn't mean you always have to err on the side of avoiding a legitimate military target. But from what I have seen, so far, Israel, under the circumstances has been following the advice of the Biden administration.

Q: It's a very interesting job to be an opinion columnist, a prominent one, for The Washington Post. When you go in on a day-to-day basis and do your job, how do you understand your task? And how do you understand your responsibility?

A: I have the dream job. I write mostly about whatever I want. No one has ever told me what to write or how to write it. Like any columnist, I have editors, thank goodness, who are very good and very talented and make me the best version of myself that's possible — and save me from myself many times.

But my job, I think, is to inform, to educate, to analyze in a way that I think is enlightening and that causes people to perhaps rethink or reconsider ideas, positions, influences that they might not have otherwise done.

I tend to use a lot of references from history, from foreign policy from other intellectual disciplines to try to make the reading experience richer, more interesting. I tend to use humor in what I write. And I think the obligation from my standpoint is to help Americans and our readers around the world to explain what's going on, and to help them make sense out of this, and to put things in context and perspective.

And the latter is perhaps the weightiest obligation, and the obligation which the mainstream media doesn't always uphold — that we are not reinventing the wheel every day, that there are historical precedents for right-wing fascist movements, that there are precedents for human rights advances and then human rights backlashes, there are precedents for periods of time when we have very convulsive economic and social change.

If you can put that in perspective and help people understand the patterns, the associations, the motivations, perhaps they will be more thoughtful citizens, more thoughtful voters, more thoughtful advocates for their own points of view.

Contact Andrew Schwartz at aschwartz@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6431.

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