I recently found myself in a small conference room with a number of key figures of the “American Jewish establishment.” Around the table was the chief executive of one of the major Jewish defense organizations, several high-level Federation representatives, and leaders of mainstream Israel advocacy organizations. We were not conducting a secretive strategy meeting on maintaining a single public stance on Israel. Far from it. We were at the J Street U conference, waiting to speak to student breakout groups.
This gathering would have been unthinkable five years ago when the mainstream Jewish organizations still fancied a united front on Israel. In the past several years, however, the mindset has noticeably shifted. Notwithstanding all the handwringing about the establishment’s propensity to stifle diverse opinions on Israel, the precise opposite is happening: the establishment is opening up to variation in the ranks of the Jewish community, and the rancor is simply a passing backlash.
Days after the J Street U event, a young professional working in the Jewish community came to see me. “The establishment has reached a new low,” he said. “I’m not sure I can continue to do this work.” He was especially disgusted by efforts to call out Simone Zimmerman, the hired and then suspended Jewish liaison for the Bernie Sanders campaign who had cursed Israel’s Prime Minister on Facebook. “She’s one of the most committed Jews and Zionists I’ve ever met,” he insisted.
His take on the establishment was understandable but, I think, mistaken. There was no unified campaign to push out Simone Zimmerman. That a few voices chose to make an issue out of her social media posts does not reflect on the entire establishment any more than a single Jewish critic demonizing the Jewish state reflects on every Jew who ever uttered a critical word about Israel. The establishment is not only embracing more diversity. It is diverse.
I recently met with a Jewish philanthropist who has invested millions of dollars in Jewish and Israel related causes, particularly on college campuses. “I’ve been a big critic of the non-mainstream Israel groups,” he related to me. “But I had a conversation with a group of Jewish students at my alma mater, and I realized that my stance would only alienate them. These kids are our future.”
Like so many others, this philanthropist has recognized that it’s destructive and even suicidal to deny the legitimacy of younger Jews who publicly challenge the Israeli government. It’s destructive because it makes the mainstream community look small and intolerant. It’s suicidal because many of the most ardent young Zionists share this perspective and, pushed out of the tent, may be permanently turned off.
Some cite as evidence that the establishment is becoming less open and more hawkish the thunderous applause for Presidential candidate Donald Trump’s red meat speech at this year’s AIPAC policy conference. I’ve been to AIPAC policy conferences on and off since I was a college student in the late 1980s. Never has there been such varied expressions of support for Israel. AIPAC’s student forums have long allowed for and encouraged diverse perspectives on Israel. The lobby group has made a significant investment in cultivating progressives, which showed up in the eclectic agenda.
The applause for Trump did not, in fact, represent a mainstream sensibility. AIPAC’s reach has far outgrown the establishment. Thousands of people take the pilgrimage each year to Washington, many of whom have not been active in mainstream Jewish civic life. Many of these neophytes to Jewish political theater were blissfully unaware of the disastrous optics of their misplaced enthusiasm for Trump’s words. A more authentic representation of the establishment was the tearful reprimand and apology delivered by AIPAC’s President Lilian Pinkus to the very crowd that had applauded Trump the day before.
The reason that it appears that the establishment is circling the wagons is that some of the people who don’t want change see the change happening and are making a last-ditch effort to stop it.
They think that if they push back, the community will continue to toe the line on Israel. They fear a loss of power and status. They worry that in welcoming such diversity, the pro-Israel community will not be able to muster the united front capable of maintaining two party support for Israel in Congress.
As a card-carrying member of the establishment, I share some of these fears and understand the impulse to try to stem the tide. But, unlike those digging in their heels, I’ve come to recognize, amid all of the diversity, particularly among young Jews, that we can no longer maintain such public unity.
So the old guard fights an unwinnable battle, inflicting casualties along the way. Their opposition makes it seem like things are getting worse when, in fact, they are getting better.
The debate is not over. There will be other public fights. Those looking for evidence that the establishment is shutting down alternative views will be handed plenty of fodder. But like all change, the debate always intensifies right before one party comes out on top.
David Bernstein is President and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @DavidLBernstein
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