One of the marks of true leadership, celebrated in legend and drilled into every schoolchild, is the courage to defy the crowd and follow the dictates of conscience. In exceptional times, the exceptional leader knows when to do what’s right, not what’s popular.
The flip side, too often overlooked, is that this sort of behavior is supposed to be the exception. The rest of the time, leaders are called on to display other qualities that are every bit as essential, including responsibility and accountability. They’re supposed to know their constituents, respect them and — when they’re not busy being smarter than them — trust them. That’s how they earn the trust of their constituents. That’s how they win followers.
It’s been apparent for decades now that America’s Jewish community does not have leaders as most people understand the term. There are those who run institutions, chair committees and deliver sermons, but few can be called leaders in the normal sense, because there’s nobody following. This anomaly has been raised to crisis level of late as the community’s deep thinkers agonize over where their flock went.
Some useful hints might be found in the new survey of Jewish opinion released this week by the American Jewish Committee. The most notable finding is a sharp drop over the last year in Jewish support for President Bush, as Ori Nir and E.J. Kessler report on Page 1. Also plummeting is Jewish support for the war in Iraq; Jews now oppose it by a margin of more than two to one. Most disapprove of the way the administration is conducting the war on terrorism. Fully 57% think terrorism has gotten worse as a result of the administration’s actions. Only 7% think it’s gotten better.
You would never guess American Jews’ opinions from listening to the groups that speak for them publicly. The main agencies are nearly unanimous in their support for the administration and its posture on the world stage. Their newsletters and press releases continually heap praise on the president for his determination and question the motives of his opponents. Attacks on the key theorists of the administration’s anti-terrorism policies, the so-called neoconservatives, are demonized as veiled antisemitism, putting critics on the defensive and skewing the debate.
Critics of the establishment like to blame its disconnect from the grass roots on things like money and power, but the survey points to a subtler cause. The most vocal Jewish voices in America are those who see Israel fighting for survival and Jews as duty bound to defend it at all costs. Most American Jews view themselves as an American constituency with its own interests, closely linked to Israel’s but not identical. The key polling number, then, is not about Bush or Iraq, but about the “quality” that respondents “consider most important to your Jewish identity.” A plurality of 43% chose “being part of the Jewish people,” while religious observance, social justice and “something else” scored between 14% and 20%. “Support for Israel” came in dead last at 6%.
This isn’t news. Surveys have shown the same thing consistently for decades. Jews feel close to Israel (75% in the new survey). They even say that “caring for Israel is a very important part of my being a Jew” (74%). But it isn’t their only or main priority. Like any normal political constituency, American Jews worry first about their own safety and that of their families.
They deserve a leadership that cares about them. And it’s just possible that such a leadership would find it had some followers.