Look Who’s Speaking for America’s Jews

Good Fences

By J.J. Goldberg

Published April 28, 2010, issue of May 07, 2010.
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The easing of the current Washington-Jerusalem face-off — may it come speedily — could lead to numerous possible combinations of winners and losers. President Obama could squeeze Prime Minister Netanyahu until his government falls. Netanyahu could drag his feet until 2012 and hope Obama isn’t reelected. They might even agree on a peace formula that satisfies the Palestinian Authority, keeps Hamas quiet and makes everyone a winner. You never know.

There is one certain loser, though: the American Jewish community. However things turn out in the Middle East, we are going to end up looking silly.

As a well-organized community with a big footprint on the national stage, we have developed a habit of staking out firm positions on abiding principles of fair play that have an unfortunate tendency to change while we’re not looking. Israel, like most countries, makes policy on the fly, bobbing and weaving daily in response to pressures from Washington, rockets from Gaza or domestic coalition politics. And yet, whatever word comes forth from Jerusalem, we adopt it as holy writ. You’d think somebody would be embarrassed by now, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Here are some of the abiding principles spoken of late in the name of American Jewry:

Item: Israel’s security is a vital American national interest, except when Israel’s security troubles have no connection whatsoever to American interests. When Israel is secure, America’s position in the region is strengthened. When Israel is beset, America’s position in the region is curiously unaffected.

Item: The so-called moderates of Fatah have no intention of reaching an agreement with Israel; their aim, just like that of their Hamas brethren, is to destroy Israel. Besides, if Israel does make a deal with Fatah, Hamas will promptly seize power because Hamas hates Fatah’s moderation.

Item: Israel offered the Palestinians everything they wanted, including a piece of East Jerusalem, proving that the Jewish state will make painful sacrifices for peace, but the Palestinians turned it down, proving that they don’t want peace. Also, Israel will never give up any part of Jerusalem because that would be the end of the Jewish state.

Item: Judaism has a healthy tradition of argument and talmudic debate, and the Jewish community embraces a wide diversity of beliefs, but there are some ideas that are simply beyond the pale. Lots of them, in fact. Remember the old joke about two Jews and three opinions? Well, we’ve got a howler: six million American Jews and one (legitimate) opinion.

Many readers are shaking their heads at this point, adamant that this is not the Jewish community they’re part of. They’re half-right. There are hundreds of synagogues around the country where this sort of talk doesn’t resound from the pulpit week after week. Many synagogues actually welcome dissenting views (though that often means welcoming only the dissenting ideas, not the ideas they dissent from).

For that matter, most Jews are happily oblivious to the convolutions of Jewish politics. For most of us, the Jewish community means the synagogue we rarely attend, or perhaps a community center, book club or preschool. Sure, we read about those self-styled Jewish leaders who get themselves photographed with the president, but that has nothing to do with us. Right?

Wrong. We may experience the Jewish community as a local congregation or club, but there’s a larger community, more than the sum of all those small communities, that operates on the national and international plane and involves us all, like it or not. It consists mostly of a handful of big-budget organizations and assorted tycoons and activists speaking in our names and defending what they think are our interests.

And while we may not pay them much attention, others do. They’re recognized in Washington, Berlin, Cairo and beyond as the representative voice of America’s Jews. Princes and prime ministers continually beat a path to their doors, seeking to trade favors. In the last month alone they have variously hosted America’s secretary of state, national security adviser, White House chief of staff and chief of the Central Command, the celebrated General David Petraeus, all coming to pay court and seek their — and presumably our — good will.

How do the leaders of this network decide what to say? It’s a mixture of expressing their own beliefs, following Jerusalem’s lead, consulting their boards and big donors, and — here’s the kicker — listening to the Jews. That is, they read their mail, take phone calls and address gatherings.

The people they hear from, naturally, are the ones who show up. And since most of us don’t bother, their public tends to be a self-selected group of the angriest, most frightened and most insistent among us. They hear from folks who are itching to warn them of the devious Arab mind, the evils of France, Europe and liberals and, lately, of Obama’s Muslim roots and nefarious designs.

I don’t know about you, but I find at least a dozen e-mails a day in my mailbox along those lines, plus another dozen or so from familiar organizations reciting the abiding principles itemized above. These messages add up. Bit by bit they become the visible face of our communal culture. It’s not a face that wins friends for our beleaguered tribe, and it surely won’t rekindle the loyalties of our skeptics and young folks.

It’s a pity. Once, not so long ago, our community was a fierce voice for justice in America’s ongoing public dialogue. Lately we’ve let ourselves be reduced to a vaudeville slapstick character, the guy who walks on stage, delivers a gag line and then gives or gets a smack in the face as the crowd laughs. It’s the new Punch and Judaism show.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com and read his blog at www.forward.com

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