The news media has been full of stories recently about the man-bites-dog story of the self-proclaimed atheist who was recently named chief chaplain at Harvard University. This matters not because more members of Congress attended Harvard Law School than any other law school and more American presidents were educated at Harvard than at any other university. This chaplain, Greg Epstein, will have an outsized role in life on campus. He has repeatedly illustrated radical ideas regarding not just G-d, Judaism and Torah, but also related to Israel, terrorism and the Holocaust. For example, Epstein has referred to Israelis as “Jewish supremacists,” a slur cribbed from white-supremacist leader David Duke.
Greg Epstein is Jewish and a graduate of the rabbinical ordination program at something called the “International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.” This minuscule and little-known school shows just a dozen alumni on its website other than Epstein.
Whether he will influence Jewish students’ religious beliefs remains to be seen.
But where Epstein’s influence may well be felt even more strongly, I fear, is on Jewish students’ perceptions of Israel, the Holocaust and anti-Semitism.
Because he is Jewish, often uses the title rabbi and because of the power of his new position, Epstein will have significant new platforms from which to share his views on Jewish issues—at campus events, in the news media and well beyond. And his views on Jewish issues are disturbingly extreme.
A Tweet from Epstein on April 28 employed the ugly term “Jewish supremacists” to demean Zionist activists who were marching in Jerusalem. That slur was coined by neo-Nazis and then more recently adopted by the radical left. Writing in Newsweek on June 25, Gil Troy explained, “In 2003, on his way to becoming America’s leading white supremacist, David Duke also adopted this theme [in the book] Jewish Supremacism: My Awakening to the Jewish Question.”
One indication of Epstein’s shallow understanding of the Holocaust was his 2019 tweet calling American detention facilities for illegal migrants “concentration camps.”
If you think I am exaggerating—and that Epstein could not possibly have meant literally that those facilities are similar to concentration camps—note that he wrote they “can LITERALLY [his caps], in a historically accurate way, be called concentration camps.”
No, they can’t be, which is why the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and other scholarly Holocaust institutions have strongly denounced such comparisons.
As for Israel—when Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, Epstein was part of a group of left-wing rabbis who rushed to urge former President Barack Obama to refrain from rejecting the terrorist victors. “We urge you to maintain a cautious approach” towards Hamas, in order to advance the goal of a Palestinian state, they wrote to the president.
Epstein is a longtime member of the J Street Rabbinic Cabinet. J Street—the controversial Jewish pressure group that was created to lobby for a Palestinian state and consistently supports Palestinian Arab demands against Israel. The leaders of J Street always seem to blame Israel for what goes wrong, no matter how extreme or violent the Palestinians are.
The problem is not that Epstein is an atheist; that’s his business. The problem is more than just that he presents himself as a rabbi, even though his core belief system is rejected by every Jewish religious denomination of note: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist.
The power of the “rabbi” title is that it confers Jewish legitimacy and respectability on whatever the rabbi, even a self-proclaimed one, says. Jewish students at Harvard who don’t know any better will hear that “the rabbi” said something and assume that what he said represents Judaism, not just a tiny fringe element on the Jewish spectrum. The Association of Humanistic Rabbis has just 14 members in the United States besides Epstein.
Those American Jews who are concerned about anti-Israel bias on college campuses must endeavor to monitor not just the actions of extremist student groups and hostile professors, but campus clergy as well. As alumni, donors and parents of students, we can do much to show we care.
Moshe Phillips is a commentator on Jewish affairs whose writings appear regularly in the American and Israeli press. He was a U.S. delegate to the 38th World Zionist Congress in 2020.