Saturday, 25 April 2020

Led Astray: American Jewish institutions speak for a narrow few

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?

Find out from Joshua Leifer @ The Baffler.

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