Something broke this week, and American Jews own it. The cascading blows of Israel’s decision to ban Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar from entering the country at President Trump’s behest, Tlaib and Omar’s subsequent posting of an anti-Semitic cartoon, and Donald Trump’s accusation of disloyalty against Jews who vote Democrat have left American Jews ravaged, tense, and acrimonious. The right blames the left, and the left despises the right. And the side you’re on will determine your view entirely.
Israel follows America too slavishly, or it disrespects it flagrantly. Trump is the most philo-Semitic President in American history, or the most anti-Semitic. It is easy to blame the other side, the self-proclaimed “King of Israel ” who demands the loyalty of a stiff-necked people — or the Congresswomen peddling poison disguised as progressivism.
The truth is much more depressing. We, American Jews, the late-coming dilettantes of Jewish history, are the guiltiest of all.
Our sins are too numerous to count, and we stand in judgment before the opportunities we have squandered. Years of neglecting Jewish literacy have resulted in a Jewish conversation that is thin and impoverished, and too reliant on political faddishness.
We have outsourced our moral and political compasses to politicians who hurt us casually and thoughtlessly, or else calculatingly, to reap rewards.
We fetishize dissent and argument as Jewish values but possess none of the underlying foundations and commitments that made those disagreements so vital. Hillel and Shammai, we are not. Our disagreements are not for the sake of heaven, and this has made the Jewish American conversation hellish. Twitter is not Torah, and Jews have never #StoodWithTheirEnemies, but sat with their texts.
Our organizations, which we built for the precise purpose of navigating moments like these, are to a large extent inept, managing to be both mediocre and feckless in equal measure. Too many are possessed of selective hearing, responding only to one half of our crisis.
In ways large and small, we are complicit in our own humiliations; making excuses, throwing in our lot with our favored half of the political system instead of acting with one eye peeking towards eternity, as Jews have always done.
It is easier to be outraged over accusations of disloyalty than to do the hard work of remembering that Jewish loyalty is what has kept us here this long. The casual willingness of American Jews to make their support for Israel conditional, to pile on rather than pull together, shows that Jewish loyalty is just another capacity we have forfeited.
Some will say this is not unique to our time, and it’s true that there have always been Jews who underwrite our people’s future or undermine its survival. The diversity of views in Jewish history does not mean that they were all correct. Herzl was right. His opponents were wrong.
Anyway, being correct is by itself little consolation. The crisis is here, and we are in no way equipped to confront it. We’ve hardly been in America for a minute; many of us have grandparents who came from elsewhere. Jewish communities far stronger than ours are now whispers, memories, and memorials, though they were far richer in memory and learning and the basic understanding that to be Jewish is nothing more than to be loyal to particular people and ideas. Jewish history is a whirlwind, and our virtue is no guarantee of survival.
But what is happening in America right now is different. We are coming apart at the seams, and we are complicit in our own unraveling. Perhaps this is the denouement of a group of Jews who have extended their vacation from history long past when they should have gotten back to work, who have trafficked for too long in posturing and symbolism and self-effacing solidarity instead if tending to their own vitality.
Our ancestors would have recognized everything about the current state of affairs; a Jewish minority occupying a disproportionate role in an increasingly toxic political conversation, how Jews have increasingly become politically homeless, the ways their isolation is compounded by both the powerful and the powerless, the invention of new fashions of thinking and speaking that isolate them from circles of care and concern.
But they would have been puzzled, too. How have the luckiest Jews in history done so little with that luck, or been so derelict in ensuring that it persists? How can it be that the return to sovereignty after two millennia of dreaming is a source of division and discord? Why do we mount an inept defense of our rights and our story rather than relentlessly prosecute those who would erase us?
“What were you looking at,” those who have seen worse than we will ever know will ask, “when the jewel slipped through your fingers?”
The Great Jewish Diaspora of our age is over. This is not a catastrophe on the scale of the destruction of a Temple, or the fall of Masada. Jewish life will continue, and we’ve suffered too much to not say a small blessing over continuity.
But we’ve failed our own high aims and will have to ply our trade in silver and bronze rather than gold. Our maneuvers will be rearguard actions rather than daring advances. The gate is rickety, and there are barbarians within and without. Some of them, we let in. Others, we failed to stop.
Our small numbers will start to feel like vulnerability rather than virtue. Our artists and writers have failed us to such an extent that we no longer look to them with any hope of clarifying our situation.
Our leaders are themselves followers, of brute crowds or donors whose money subsidizes a slow-motion car wreck that is accelerating just when we are approaching a hairpin turn.
Of course, there are emergency strategies that must be pursued — finding allies, naming those who do us harm and shunning them, creating groups of the like-minded to write, build, and strategize. But first, break the glass, not in memory but in desperate warning, and pull the fire alarm. Act as if it is already ringing in your ears. Because it should be.
A flourishing community fractures not from one crack, but from a thousand.
Ari Hoffman is a writer and lawyer. He holds a Ph.D. from Harvard in English Literature and a J.D. from Stanford. He writes widely on culture, Jewish ideas, law, and politics. His first book, This Year in Jerusalem: The Israel Novel and Why it Matters, is forthcoming from S.U.N.Y. Press.