Over the past few years, I’ve been chronicling what I consider the slow demise of American Jewry. Or I should say the slow demise of the leading organizations and leadership of American Jews. I’ve written a chapter called, Israel and the Closing of the American Jewish Mind, for an essay collection, Israel and Palestine: Alternative Perspectives on Statehood. That lays out my argument concerning the bankruptcy of American Jewry’s leaders and organizations.
There once was a time when Diaspora Jews were led by visionaries; when we could look up to men (and a few women) unafraid to say difficult things; unafraid to speak truth to power. That was unfortunately a long time ago. There are no such leaders now except among the few dissident groups which challenge them for relevance. Now, our leaders hear Netanyahu say: Jump! And they say: How high? They are slaves to their Israeli masters. They have no independent mind; no independent agenda. They are clones, ciphers.
When these so-called leaders do project an agenda it is insufferably pro-Israel. And the worst part of it is that often they are so steeped in the rhetoric that they don’t even know how badly skewed their views are. Since I live in Seattle, let’s take a perfect local example.
The Jewish federation here has been obsessed for several years with the notion that communal discussion about Israel had to be “civil.” The concept of being polite trumped any discussion of real issues, values, or political concepts. And true to form, the federation is hosting a “debate” between what it calls “right” and “left” in Israel discourse. The evening’s title is Modelling Civil Discourse. J.J. Goldberg, who once was a bona fide Jewish student radical (circa 1968) will represent the “left.” Jonathan Tobin, a stridently right-wing former editor of the Philadelphia Jewish paper will represent the “right.” In truth, Goldberg does not represent the “left.” He hasn’t since he wrote Jewish Power: Inside the American Jewish Establishment over twenty years ago. And in truth, Tobin represents not the right, but the extreme right. He is the Jewish equivalent of a white supremacist.
But in their naivete, Seattle’s Jewish leadership thought it would permit a pleasant, civil airing of views and so acquit itself of having any serious substantive discussion of real issues. And if you want to include Israeli Palestinians in this debate, forget about it. They may be 20% of the Israeli population (and far more if you include those under Israeli Occupation), but this is neither the time nor place to hear about them. This is typical of the disappearance of Palestinians from both Israeli and Diaspora discourse.
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That is why groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now have grown by leaps and bounds. They appeal to a younger demographic of Jews who are increasingly secular, increasingly alienated from pro-Israel rhetoric and the obsession with Zionism as a guiding principle of Jewish life and identity. If there is any hope for American Jews it is that groups like these will grow and prosper; that they will offer a haven for discussion of troubling ideas around the Israel-Palestine conflict; that they will open toward other American minority communities pursuing social justice.
My generation of leadership has its eyes off the prize. It has lost its way. Organizations like the American Jewish Committee, Aipac, The Israel Project, Zionist Organization of America, etc. have lost their legitimacy and right to lead. Of course, they will not fade away anytime soon. But as the older generation dies away, there will be an increasingly small number of young Jews to take their place.
The General Assembly is opening in Israel this week. It is the annual gathering of American Jewish communal leaders and often features an address from Israel’s prime minister and president. This year’s theme is the truly odd, “We Need to Talk.” First, no one uses this phrase anymore. It was a TV fixture years ago. It use in this context merely emphasizes how culturally out of touch the organizers of the conference are. Second, the need for talk actually refers to the fact that Israeli leaders have largely abandoned Diaspora Jews. They’ve stopped listening, they’ve stopped negotiating, they’ve totally shut down. There was once a viable compromise offering non-Orthodox women an egalitarian site for prayer at the Western Wall. But the ultra-Orthodox raised holy Hell and there went that plan. Netanyahu scuttled it despite its backing from one of his key political allies, Natan Sharansky, then head of the Jewish Agency. Diaspora Jewish leaders may need to talk. But there’s no one to talk to on the other end. So this slogan is empty, just like the entire dialogue between Israel’s far-right leaders and American Jews.
UCLA Hillel Captive of Israel Lobby
Another example of the closing of the American Jewish mind is happening at UCLA. I was once a graduate student in Comparative Literature there in the late 1970s. We had a vibrant campus Jewish life with Havurah-style Shabbat services at the Hillel, an annual festival of Jewish culture, and charismatic rabbis who embraced progressive values. But those days are long over. Today, Hillel is a captive of the pro-Israel brigades. It centers much of its efforts on Israel advocacy. StandWithUs is a regular partner for its programming.
Perhaps the worst example of pro-Israel chauvinism is a recent alarming message sent by the chair of Bruins for Israel, the pro-Israel campus organization. Responding to a planned national conference by Students for Justice in Palestine, he sent out a statement that suggested that SJP was a threat to the safety and security of all Jews on campus. It echoes an even more alarmist portrayal by SWU which called SJP a “hate group.”
The Hillel statement doesn’t even mention SJP by name. It’s the hate group whose name you dare not speak. As if doing so will somehow unleash the bats of hell upon all of the Jews in west Los Angeles. The Bruins for Israel leader warns ominously that Jews on campus may feel frightened. They may fear for their safety. They may need support.
Here are a few key passages from the letter to Jewish students:
I know many of you are concerned about a national anti-Israel conference coming to campus in November, led by a group which espouses the delegitimization of Israel and seeks to dismantle it through Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). I am joined by the leaders of Students Supporting Israel (SSI) and many other groups here at UCLA in saying that we fundamentally reject this hateful attack on the Jewish homeland.
Over the past several months, we have been working closely with Hillel, UCLA administrators, and a group of 20+ national pro-Israel partners to ensure both the safety and security of students here on campus. We have also already begun to execute a comprehensive action plan…
Our programming is not intended to “combat” or “debate” the anti-Zionists. They don’t deserve that legitimization. They offer no path forward, no vision for a future that reconciles the reality on the ground. Their efforts are focused solely on demonization and disruption, and we will not dignify their rejectionism.
…This is not the first time we have seen their hate, and it will not be the last.
Talk about demonization! Count how many false adjectives are used in this passage to mischaracterize SJP, its platform, and the Palestine movement overall.
The Lobby is so obsessed by Palestine activism that it is willing to sacrifice our children on the altar of pro-Israelism: watch our kids suffer under the onslaught of anti-Semitism! There is a near-death wish in the need to invoke Jewish suffering in order to focus attention on the perfidy of our enemies. What suffering? Who is suffering?
This is an example of the infantilizing of Jewish youth by the Israel lobby. When I was a college student no one coddled us. No one asked if we needed comfort from the harrowing Jew hatred on campus. No one told us there were dangerous ideas from which we, as Jews, needed to be protected. Academia was a wide, clashing world of movements and politics. And we had to learn to navigate our way through it. Because our teachers and parents taught us to think for ourselves, we had the tools to do so. We didn’t need anyone tending to our Jewish psyches to ensure we felt safe. No one tucked us in at night or told us Zionist bedtime stories to make us feel protected. We didn’t need that. And I’d venture to say most Jewish students now don’t either.
I would venture to say that whereas Hillel in the 1970s hosted programming for a wide, diverse spectrum of Jewish belief, practice and ideology; today, Hillel probably attracts far fewer Jewish students proportionally to the overall number of Jews on campus. It has to, because it has shut down any discourse with Jews outside of the pro-Israel cocoon. If you support BDS you’re out of Hillel. If you consider yourself anti-Zionist, you’re out of Hillel. Today, I would not be welcome there. And this was one of the most important experiences I had while in undergraduate and graduate school. Think what a tragedy it is to deprive Jewish students today of engagement with the type of vital, probing Jewish programming we enjoyed virtually every day at Hillel.