Led Astray

American Jewish institutions speak for a narrow few

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There is a disjuncture at the heart of the American Jewish politics. Most American Jews know very little about the institutions that claim to represent them, and the leaders of these institutions share few of the political and religious commitments held by most American Jews. Such a disconnect between putatively representative organizations and their constituents is hardly a uniquely Jewish phenomenon—indeed, it may be characteristic of the current political crisis more generally. It also is not new. In his 1996 book Jewish Power, former editor of the Forward J. J. Goldberg wrote of the “yawning chasm of ignorance and mutual incomprehension” that divided the “Jewish community’s leaders from their presumed followers,” separating “the activists who conduct the Jewish community’s business and represent its interests to the larger society, and the broader population of American Jews who are almost entirely unaware of the work being done in their name.”

Nonetheless, this chasm has become newly salient in the Trump era. The vast majority of American Jews not only greatly dislike President Trump but also believe he has made them less safe: according to a May 2019 poll, nearly three-quarters of Jewish voters believe American Jews are less secure under Trump than they were before, 71 percent disapprove of Trump’s overall job performance, and nearly 60 percent believe that he bears at least some responsibility for the synagogue shootings carried out by white nationalists in Pittsburgh and Poway. And yet such views put them starkly at odds with much of the Jewish institutional leadership, which has not only found common cause with the Trump administration on issues related to Israel but also lauded Trump for his approach to anti-Semitism. Establishment leaders like Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), have celebrated the Trump administration’s move of the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and praised measures like Trump’s anti-Semitism executive order, which codifies anti-Zionism as a form of anti-Semitism and designates criticisms of Israel as forms of anti-Jewish discrimination.

The disjuncture between American Jews and the self-appointed Jewish institutional leadership goes beyond perceptions of Trump. While groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) have long worked to ensure that there is “no daylight,” as Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer put it at AIPAC’s 2017 conference, between the positions of the U.S. and Israeli governments, the majority of American Jews support the U.S. government publicly stating its disagreements with Israel, according to a 2018 poll. Furthermore, a full 50 percent of American Jews support the U.S. government exerting pressure on the Israeli government, without equal pressure on the Palestinians, to achieve peace. And it is not only that the American Jewish institutions are out of step with the people they claim to represent; most American Jews report having little connection to them at all. According to Pew’s 2013 “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” the most recent major survey of American Jewish life, less than a third of Jewish adults say they belong to a synagogue; even fewer (18 percent) say they belong to other kinds of Jewish organizations.

There are, in effect, two distinct American Jewish worlds. There is the institutional Jewish world: an alphabet-soup of acronyms that includes better-known organizations like the ADL, the United Jewish Appeal (UJA), and AIPAC, as well as organizations like the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations (CoP). And then there is the world in which most American Jews live, where few could describe or differentiate the roles and mandates of these organizations.

You’d never know this from the press releases of the Jewish establishment organizations, in which they deputize themselves to speak on behalf of all Jews. Nor, for that matter, from mainstream publications like the New York Times, where right-wing columnists Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss reproduce the establishment’s conventional wisdom and are honored for doing so with book deals, awards, and Jewish Community Center speaking events. The persistence of this “yawning chasm”—its preservation, even—between the two Jewish worlds is not an accident, and it is not the product of the Jewish institutional leadership’s ignorance. On the contrary, these leaders know fully well what most American Jews believe: they are, after all, compulsive commissioners of surveys and polls. Rather, the disjuncture remains because the Jewish institutional leadership believes that most American Jews are wrong—about politics, about Israel, and, perhaps most significantly, about what it means to be a Jew.

Bunker Mentality

How, then, did this come to be? There has, of course, never been total agreement on anything among American Jews; argumentativeness, even fractiousness, has long been a part of Jewish culture (the well-known joke: two Jews, three opinions). And yet the current divide between American Jews and their institutional leaders has a particular history, one that is intertwined with the collapse of the postwar consensus in U.S. politics, the structural transformations of white flight and suburbanization, the backlash against the civil rights movement, the rise of neoconservatism, and the ongoing Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Despite their rapid ascent to the middle and upper middle classes—and much to the disappointment of the small coterie of conservative Jewish intellectuals—most American Jews have remained staunch liberals and supporters of the Democratic Party. That has not been the case with institutional leadership.

While jarring to those paying enough attention to notice, the American Jewish establishment’s alliance with the U.S. right—exemplified most grotesquely in its recent collaboration with the Trump administration’s multipronged efforts to shut down criticism of Israeli policies—has been many years in the making. It is not, nor has it ever been, simply an alliance of convenience, although the vicissitudes of Jewish history in the United States, like elsewhere, have sometimes required Jewish leaders to work with bad actors to prevent the worst outcomes. This realignment is, at least in part, the product of an ideological affinity: a shared suspicion of liberal universalism; a belief in the immutability of ethnic and religious difference; faith in the virtues of separateness and strong walls.

Abandoning the liberalism, even anti-racism, their predecessors once claimed, Jewish institutional leaders over the past several decades have moved to the right, embracing a Judeo-centrism, to borrow a term from the French-Jewish Marxist Maxime Rodinson, that views as naive anything but the pursuit of Jewish interests first and foremost; a Judeo-pessimism that views anti-Semitism as an eternal, trans-historical force in the world, with Jews embattled in both geopolitical and local struggles for survival; and a hardline pro-Israel politics that views Zionism as the natural telos of Judaism, a substantial revisioning of a religious tradition that long precedes the concept of the modern nation state.

Today, this survivalist politics is having a material impact from the United States to Israel-Palestine. As the Trump administration pursues a post-two-state agenda, with much of the Jewish establishment supporting Trump’s farcical “peace plan,” these same establishment organizations, in conjunction with the Israeli government, are working around the world to designate the demand that Israel democratize its multi-tiered regime of ethno-religious hierarchy an anti-Semitic act.

An Inward Turn

The period of the long 1960s saw both the zenith of American Jewish liberalism and its fall. Jewish organizations played active roles in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and early 1960s. The American Jewish Committee filed an amicus brief in Brown v. Board of Education. The American Jewish Congress worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference; and the AJ Congress president, the German-born Joachim Prinz, spoke at the 1963 March on Washington. In 1965, the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, and the Anti-Defamation League all joined the Selma-to-Montgomery march, where Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously walked side-by-side with Martin Luther King Jr.

Of course, as Michael Staub writes in his indispensable history, Torn At the Roots: The Crisis of Jewish Liberalism in Postwar America, the liberalism of these Jewish communal institutions was the product of self-interest as well as principle in a country where Jews were still relative newcomers. Intra-communal divisions over how to respond to the black freedom movement were bitterly evident even by the early 1960s. By the end of the decade, the balance of commitments within the Jewish institutional leadership had swung decisively away from a progressive universalism and toward a hard-headed particularism—what some commentators on post-Holocaust, post-Civil Rights Jewish politics termed “the inward turn.”

The vast majority of American Jews not only greatly dislike President Trump but also believe he has made them less safe.

Surveying this “inward turn” and its consequences in the winter 1974 issue of Dissent, Bernard Rosenberg and Irving Howe asked, “Are American Jews Turning to the Right?” After all, the postwar years had seen a dramatic material transformation of American Jewish life. “There is no longer a proletarian majority, even among immigrant Jews,” Rosenberg and Howe wrote. The once robust Jewish labor movement had withered. Jewish socialism as a mass politics was but a fading memory. Most of the newly middle- and upper-middle-class Jews had nevertheless retained their commitments to political liberalism, unlike many of their upwardly mobile non-Jewish counterparts. And yet Rosenberg and Howe, like many other left-liberal Jewish intellectuals, found reason to worry.

The tumult of the 1960s left a heavy mark on American Jewish politics. Under the shadow of racial unrest, American Jews with the means to flee the cities to new suburban enclaves did so, while those who could not stayed behind and clashed with their African American neighbors over school desegregation in places like Ocean Hill–Brownsville in Brooklyn, and Forest Hills in Queens. Vocal institutional Jewish support for the civil rights movement began to give way to suspicion, even outright hostility, to black power, accompanied by fears of rising “black anti-Semitism.” And the year 1967 witnessed not only the “Summer of Love” but also Israel’s surprise lightning victory in the Six-Day War. Jewish liberals born again as proud Zionists found themselves, seemingly overnight, pitted against the anti-imperialists of the student movement and the New Left.

Meanwhile, the structure of American Jewish life was changing. As Jewish communal institutions began to shift focus from providing mutual aid to fundraising for Zionist causes, the relative power of wealthy donors increased; the organizations began to focus less on social problems in the United States and more on support for Israel and other parochial Jewish concerns. “Certainly,” Rosenberg and Howe wrote, “we are witnessing a regrouping of forces within the Jewish world, which will result in a conservatizing of its dominant liberalism.”

Rosenberg and Howe were right, although in a very particular way. As historical processes go, this regrouping of forces happened rapidly, yet its conservatizing effects were felt unevenly. Among the broad American Jewish laity, there was no sudden mass conversion to political conservatism—and there has never been. In the last half century, no Republican candidate has won more than 39 percent of the Jewish vote—Ronald Reagan’s share in 1980. But where the conservative shift was felt, and felt quite acutely, was within Jewish communal institutions and among their leaders.

It was clear even by the early 1980s, less than a decade after Rosenberg and Howe’s report, that the politics of the Jewish institutional world had shifted dramatically. A 1981 survey of emerging local Jewish leaders published in the Journal of Jewish Communal Service described the “ascendency of ‘Jewish survivalism’” as the “reigning ideology in Jewish communal life.” The survey subjects named as their most serious concerns “the conflict between Israel and its neighbors,” “the treatment of Jews in the Soviet Union,” and “the high rate of intermarriage.” Asked to rank Jewish communal priorities, they listed “to provide financial support for Israel” as first and “to provide social welfare services for anyone in need” as second to last.

This was not merely a “turn inward,” but a turn away from the idea that Jewish organizations had an equal obligation to care for their non-Jewish neighbors—that there was a role for Jewish organizations to play in improving the overall conditions of American life. “Among communally active Jews today,” survey author Jonathan S. Woocher wrote, “there is substantial consensus that Jewish group survival and welfare, rather than integration within or modification of American society, are the primary collective tasks of the hour.” The Jewish survivalism that appeared in the 1981 survey results was a conservative, natalist, insular ideology that saw the Jewish people threatened geopolitically—vis a vis Israel’s wars against its Arab neighbors and the plight of Soviet Jewry—and existentially, by insufficiently high levels of endogamy in the United States. Survivalism provided a rhetoric that stressed the “paramount moral importance of pursuing Jewish self-interest and worked to make those who called for altruism or self-sacrifice not just ridiculous, and not even only obnoxiously self-righteous, but also genuinely dangerous,” Michael Staub writes. It enabled Jewish institutional leaders to frame the retreat from social justice as “not only appropriate but ethical in its own right.”

Abandoning the liberalism, even anti-racism, their predecessors once claimed, Jewish institutional leaders over the past several decades have moved to the right.

The Jewish institutional world of today has been shaped by more than three decades of survivalist ideological hegemony. After the crest of the movement to free Soviet Jewry in the mid-to-late 1980s—which fused the new Jewish survivalism with a militant, conservative anti-communism—the 1990s saw the peak of the “Jewish continuity crisis,” provoked by the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) finding that more than half of American Jews who married chose a gentile spouse. Jewish demographers and institutional leaders warned of impending cataclysm: without intervention on a massive scale to combat intermarriage and assimilation, American Jewry was poised to disappear. The paradigm for addressing the crisis would be increased Jewish “engagement”; the priority, as now-disgraced Jewish sociologist Steven M. Cohen described it, would be “creating more Jewish marriages and filling more Jewish baby carriages.” Right-wing Jewish mega-donors, such as hedge fund manager Michael Steinhardt (who has faced multiple sexual harassment accusations) and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, responded generously to the call, funding the creation or renovation of much of the Jewish engagement and outreach infrastructure that exists today—perhaps most significantly, Birthright Israel, the ten-day free trip to Israel for young Jewish adults created in partnership with the Israeli government. But while Jewish institutional leaders continued to bemoan high rates of intermarriage into the new millennium, most American Jews paid them little notice: according to the 2013 Pew survey, nearly six in ten Jews who married since 2000 married a non-Jewish spouse.

Loyalty Tests

The worldviews of the men, and they have almost all been men, who have led the Jewish institutional world over the past several decades were forged in the post-1960s conservative retrenchment, racial backlash, and the “continuity crisis”—men like former ADL CEO Abe Foxman, AJC CEO David Harris, and Conference of Presidents executive vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein. Foxman, who headed the ADL for nearly thirty years before stepping down in 2015, reshaped the organization in his own vituperative, ultra-particularist image, spending the late 1980s and 1990s fighting the specters of “black anti-Semitism” where he could find them while making overtures to the Christian right. By 2010, Foxman had joined the ranks of the Islamophobic campaign to block the construction of a mosque two blocks away from Ground Zero and had become a defender of U.S. government spying on New York’s Muslim communities. Though his successor, the former Obama staffer Jonathan Greenblatt, does not share his style, he has held the Foxman line in substance: pressuring Airbnb to walk back its decision to delist rentals in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and directing much social media vitriol toward leaders of color, especially women like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib, who publicly criticize Israeli policies.

Harris—who rose to prominence as a leader of the campaign to free Soviet Jewry, organizing a two-hundred-fifty-thousand-person-strong rally in Washington, D.C., in 1987—has led the AJC for thirty years. Comparatively more focused on foreign policy, he has taken an organization that once played an important part in the struggle against racist segregation and transformed it into a lobby supporting a range of hawkish foreign policy positions, from opposing the Obama administration’s Iran nuclear deal to combatting the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, which employs the very same nonviolent tactics as the AJC’s erstwhile allies used in the civil rights movement. The AJC under Harris has also worked with far-right anti-Muslim politicians in the United States and Europe—such as the Danish politician and former member of European parliament Anders Vistisen, who has advocated building a barbed wire fence along Denmark’s border with Germany to keep out refugees, and whose party leader has proposed shooting at migrants attempting to reach Denmark by boat.

Hoenlein, like Harris, rose to prominence during the campaign to free Soviet Jewry, and has led the Conference of Presidents for more than thirty years, working to keep the little-known yet powerful umbrella organization in lockstep with successive right-wing Israeli governments. While he has preferred to keep a lower profile than some of his peers, he has stepped into the limelight on occasion, for example, to publicly criticize Barack Obama—the president who enjoyed consistent support from the majority of American Jews, and for whom Hoenlein made little effort to hide his deep dislike.

The contrast between postwar Jewish leaders like Joachim Prinz and the contemporary Jewish institutional leadership illuminates the latter’s Judeo-centrism, conservatism, and narrowed moral vision. In the summer of 1963, at the March on Washington, Prinz, a leader of Berlin’s Jewish community during the 1930s, told the crowd assembled in front of the Lincoln Memorial that “the most important thing” the rise of Nazism teaches is that “the most urgent, the most, disgraceful, the most shameful and most tragic problem is silence.” Comparing the conditions of the American South to Nazi Germany, Prinz warned, “America must not become a nation of onlookers.” In the summer of 2019, when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez referred to the ICE detention camps—where tens of thousands of people are imprisoned, children separated from their families—as “concentration camps,” Jonathan Greenblatt of the ADL chastised her for it, urging “caution when drawing comparisons to the Holocaust.” The Jewish Community Relations Council of New York (JCRC), an umbrella group of the city’s Jewish organizations, condemned Ocasio-Cortez more forcefully, saying they were “deeply disturbed by the language” and calling her remarks “regrettable.”

The liberalism of Jewish communal institutions was once the product of self-interest as well as principle in a country where Jews were still relative newcomers.

It would be inaccurate to attribute the rightward turn of the American Jewish institutional world solely to the personal philosophies of its individual leaders. The shift is overdetermined. The tremendous power of the mega-donors—who, according to a 2018 study, account for between 80 to 90 percent of Jewish institutional funding—has pushed them ever-further to the right. Demographic shifts have also played a role: the disaffiliation of many liberal Jews from the Jewish institutional world has increased the relative political power of the Orthodox, the only Jewish denomination whose members lean Republican, and who are significantly to the right of most other Jewish communities on matters related to Israel. In turn, this has emboldened the far-right fringe of Jewish politics, where the mainstream institutional leaders are seen as too liberal, too conciliatory, and insufficiently defensive of the tribe.

This more assertive, strident Jewish far-right has proven adept at navigating the new terrain of the Trump era. Right-wing and Orthodox Jewish groups have successfully pursued a post-two-state, territorial-maximalist agenda in Israel-Palestine with the Trump administration, in some instances sidelining the larger, more liberal religious denominations. They have also mobilized the politics of fear to attack the left, most recently in the wake of a spate of anti-Semitic attacks on Haredi and Hasidic communities in the greater New York metropolitan area. After a stabbing at a rabbi’s home on the last night of Hanukkah in late December, just weeks after two assailants opened fire on a kosher grocery in Jersey City, right-wing and establishment Jewish figures linked the attacks to “the left” and “intersectionalism,” even though the alleged perpetrators appear to have acted without any clear or coherent political ideology. Right-wing pundits and politicians seized on the attacks to push back against criminal justice reforms like the end of cash bail and gun control. At a rally intended to show solidarity with the affected Haredi and Hasidic communities, Greenblatt, Harris, and Hoenlein all used their platforms to criticize left-wing activists and politicians.

The Jewish institutional leadership, with the help of pundits, has created a kaleidoscopic reality in which nonviolent protest and criticism of Israeli policies is portrayed as equivalent to right-wing, white nationalist violence and criminal attacks on Orthodox Jews; in which Donald Trump is laudable for his pro-Israel policies but Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is condemnable for suggesting that the memory of the Holocaust compels us to fight contemporary injustice. The perversity of this reality can be overwhelming. At an event hosted by Sheldon Adelson’s Israeli American Council, Trump received a round of applause when he told the Jewish audience, “A lot of you are in the real estate business because I know you very well. You’re brutal killers, not nice people at all, but you have to vote for me, you have no choice . . . You’re not going to vote for the wealth tax.” Neither Greenblatt nor Harris was willingly to unequivocally criticize Trump in response. “Dear @POTUS, Much as we appreciate your unwavering support for Israel, surely there must be a better way to appeal to American Jewish voters, just as you did in Florida, than by money references that feed age-old and ugly stereotypes,” Harris’s AJC tweeted. “Let’s stay off that mine-infested road.” Greenblatt similarly tweeted praise of the president for opposing BDS before adding, “it’s essentially undone by his own trafficking of #antiSemitic tropes: questioning American Jews’ loyalty to Israel and asserting that Jewish voters only care about their wealth.”

Unlike President Trump, Jewish presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has run afoul of the American Jewish establishment. Sanders has been criticized by many within the Jewish institutional world for being, at best, insufficiently proud of his Judaism and, at worst, a self-hating Jew who has thrown in his lot with anti-Semitic Palestine solidarity activists. Right-wing media outlets Commentary, Tablet, the Washington Examiner, and The Federalist have run articles accusing Sanders of having an “anti-Semitism problem” or “blindspot” because of his endorsements from Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour and Congresswoman Ilhan Omar—both of whom have been the targets of consistent, harsh criticism from leaders like Greenblatt and Harris. Of course, as Peter Beinart observed, not one of these articles point to a single anti-Semitic remark the senator had made. Sanders’s only offense: advocating for Palestinians’ rights.

Liberalism and Loss

In an earlier time, an essay like this one—a critique of the American Jewish establishment by a left-wing Jewish writer—would likely end with an exhortation to the silent liberal majority of American Jews to return to the Jewish institutional world, retake control of these institutions, and redirect them in a more progressive direction. But the liberalism of most American Jews today is not a fighting liberalism. It is a late, ossified liberalism, ill-prepared for the current moment of gaping economic inequality, surging white nationalism, and impending climate catastrophe. It is a liberalism inclined more toward the restoration of a less polarized, less fractious politics than toward the drastic political transformation the status quo demands. Having now spent several generations outside of the Jewish institutional world, mainstream Jewish liberalism would be no match for the current institutional leadership: it would prove unable to argue on their terms.

American Jewish politics today is characterized more by conflict and contestation than by consensus.

The Jewish institutional world has also worked hard to immunize itself to change and challenges, from within as well as without. In 2014, the Conference of Presidents rejected the liberal Zionist lobby J Street’s bid for membership. On college and university campuses around the United States, Hillel International, which funds and operates Jewish student centers but also functions as an on-campus Israel advocacy organization, excludes any group or speaker that supports BDS, forcing non-Zionist and anti-Zionist Jewish students to seek out community elsewhere. In Los Angeles, Seattle, and Philadelphia, local philanthropic foundations operated by the Jewish Federation have blocked donations by constituents to groups like the anti-occupation movement IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace, one of the largest Jewish groups supporting BDS. And the efforts to shut down anti-Zionist and Palestine solidarity activism extend beyond the Jewish institutional world’s walls. The past several years have seen a significant rise in attempts to censor critics of Israel and Zionism—teacher firings, civil rights investigations, public shaming and intimidation—on college campuses and in high school classrooms, as well as in the halls of Congress.

To an extent perhaps not seen since before the postwar period, American Jewish politics today is characterized more by conflict and contestation than by consensus. Ironically, as the Jewish institutional leadership has pursued its hardline survivalist, Likud-style Zionist line, it has widened the longstanding chasm between its insular world and the people it claims to represent. And yet, beyond the boundaries of the Jewish institutional world, and in response to its exclusionary intransigence, older, subversive forms of Jewish politics are in fact being rediscovered, refashioned, and repurposed. Among the growing ranks of alienated and excluded American Jews, something “exciting and rebellious,” as Jacob Plitman wrote in Jewish Currents, “is beginning to emerge.” In this sense, the end of consensus politics suggests great possibilities—for new forms of Jewish collectivity, of Jewish political, spiritual, and artistic expression—as well as great peril.

Part of what is so frightening about the present, what makes despair seem so reasonable, is that there is no guarantee this emerging rebellion successfully emerges—or that, if and when it does, the rebellion succeeds. In the meantime, the much better funded Jewish communal institutions operate with hardly any competitors on the national political stage. Having anointed themselves the sole arbiters of what it means to do Jewish politics, even what it means to be Jewish, they are engaged in a historic task of reshaping the contours of Jewish life—in ways that are barely perceptible to the vast majority of American Jews but will have dramatic implications for the future.

Joshua Leifer is a staff writer for Jewish Currents and has contributed essays and reporting to Dissent, +972, the Guardian, and n+1.

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