American Jewry is under siege, ideologically and physically. In the media, on campuses, in the streets of major cities, now in high schools and in Congress, Jews and the Jewish state are smeared, hated, and attacked. This is a new time for Jews in America.
Jews cannot control the forces arrayed against us, but one thing we should be able to do is influence our own leadership. It is clear that the establishment Jewish organizations—ADL, AJC, Federations, the JCRCs, and most rabbis—have failed to respond effectively to these mounting assaults.
This special issue of White Rose Magazine explores the nature and extent of this failure of American Jewish leaders, including specific examples and an analysis as to why Jewish leaders are failing in their mission to protect the community.
Criticizing Jewish Leaders
This collection of essays is intended to publicly critique a failing Jewish establishment with the full understanding that many Jews view such action as divisive and that showing strength and unity may be more appropriate at this time. As a vulnerable minority, Jews have usually made public criticism of their leaders a near taboo. In recent decades, criticizing Jewish leaders has been acceptable, even common, when the target is “right wing” Jews. In addition, for many the democratically elected leaders of the Jewish state can be pilloried time and again, while criticizing undemocratically, donor-selected leaders in America, is derided as “breaking Jewish unity.”
We believe we have a duty to tell the community what we know from experience about the very dangerous consequences of the policies, thinking, and actions of the current establishment Jewish leadership. We know that there are many American Jews who think as we do, and many of them are working hard to make up for the failures of our leaders.
We have spent the last decades fighting our “external enemies,” but we no longer believe that the community can prevail against the surge of anti-Semitism without the full resources of the Jewish community.
This issue of White Rose Magazine will hopefully inspire many others to join us in challenging Jewish leadership, to change course, or encourage new leaders to do what must be done.
ANALYSIS: The first section seeks to describe the current Jewish predicament. We describe today’s state of affairs and shows how we got here. “The liberalism of the past that made long-standing Jewish policies sensible has been replaced by a radical and insidious ideology,” which has trapped most mainstream Jewish leaders, who are too blind, too conflict-averse, or too cowardly to think their way out of this trap.
Rebecca Sugar, noting how Jewish leaders flee from leftist anti-Semitism, asks if Jews are getting the leaders they deserve. “What most American Jews are really shocked by, but couldn’t see until it became inescapably obvious, is the fast-growing, unabashed anti-Semitism of the American political left, where they themselves reside.”
Jonathan Tobin explains how the ADL, the “Jewish Defense Department,” politicized by its CEO, has utterly failed to protect the community. “Are donors to the Anti-Defamation League,” he asks, “aware of what they are funding? Do they know that the organization created to fight prejudice and attacks against Jews is on the record supporting an ideology that grants a permission slip to anti-Semitism?”
Thane Rosenbaum writes that cowardice and comfort explain much of the failure. He points out “Leadership without exercising moral courage, without undertaking risks and performing selfless acts, is not leadership. The grogger that is so grating on Purim is reserved, one night, for Haman, but never for Hamas.”
Richard Landes analyzes the historical and psychosocial dynamics of failed leadership highlighting how “universalist utopianism” and a “malignant moral narcissism” have blinded Jewish leadership. For Jewish leaders, the problem of how to deal with radical Muslims was mostly ignored despite the fact that its Global Jihadi wing promoted a genocidal anti-Semitism, in some ways more virulent the Nazis (German priests and ministers didn’t preach genocide from the pulpit).
Richard Kronenfeld shows how our leaders, blinded by feel good altruism and addicted to virtue signaling are siding with minorities whose hostility toward Jews and Israel they ignore or excuse. All done by “invoking a 16th century Kabbalistic concept, tikkun olam, literally “healing/repairing the world,” thereby affording them a convenient way to escape the burden of being a Jew.”
PROOF POINTS: Rabbi Cary Cozberg tells of how he was forced to leave Reform Judaism, as it abandoned its own principles. He notes that today’s Reform leaders have increasingly embraced the values and worldview of contemporary progressivism, the “big tent” that once accommodated diverse beliefs and approaches has metamorphosized into a confining cement bunker of theological and political progressive orthodoxy. That orthodoxy has one objective: the promotion of “social justice,” which no one seems able to define.
William Jacobson and Johanna Markham show how defense-only strategies have lost the campuses. “After taking over as ADL leader in July 2015, Greenblatt doubled down on ADL outreach to the left, while his condemnations of anti-Semitism on- and off-campus have been mostly tepid. Under his stewardship, the organization largely ignored BLM’s anti-Semitism …
By contrast, he has turned the ADL’s ire on Jews and Jewish organizations that work to expose anti-Semitism on campus. During the summer of 2020, Greenblatt’s ADL redefined racism to include only white racism against people of color. Given today’s inclusion of Jews among ‘whites,’ the new definition appeared to deny the existence of anti-Jewish racism.”
Josh Ravitch and Amy Rosenthal showed initiative and courage in the face of JCRC cowardice—and won a fight in North Carolina. The lesson from Durham and Raleigh is clear: Where leadership is lacking, step up and lead. Our “leaders” might actually follow.
Karen Hurvitz reveals how the lame Boston JCRC strategy to shield the community from the K-12 anti-Semitic Critical Race Theory movement is bound to fail. She warns, “In California, the group responsible for the first version of the ethnic studies curriculum has established relationships with many California school districts, and based on this foothold, has managed to persuade schools to use its curriculum instead of the approved one.”
Reform Muslim leader Zuhdi Jasser explains how the ADL and other leading Jewish institutions minimize Islamist anti-Semitism and abandon legitimate Muslim reformers. “Groups like the ADL have sat on the sidelines as American Islamist groups born out of the Muslim Brotherhood have radicalized American Muslims and poisoned the discourse against reformist groups like the Muslim Reform Movement.”
Joanne Bregman shows that the national umbrella of the JCRCs undermines the Jewish community by promoting woke theology. In reality, the JCPA has become just another “woke” progressive organization whose political activism is abetted by the self-selected members of the local JCRCs.
Christian Zionist Dexter Van Zile shows us how Jewish leaders have enabled a hostile environment where “People are frankly less afraid of Jews and Israel than they are of the people who attack them. The hate was so manifestly ugly and virulent that only the most obtuse would say that the hate would be mollified by the dissolution of the Jewish state. This had to do with Jewish existence.”
Are donors to the Anti-Defamation League aware of what they are funding?
Do they know that the organization created to fight prejudice and attacks against Jews is on the record supporting an ideology that grants a permission slip to anti-Semitism?
Do they know that the group still considered to be the gold standard for monitoring hate crimes is promoting the notion that Jews should be divided along racial lines—an explicit acceptance of radical theories that categorize Jews and the State of Israel as a function of “white privilege”?
Do they know that the organization committed to support Israel has, in recent years, often joined with those sniping at it and hired vicious critics of the Jewish state as staff members, like Tema Smith?
Do they know that a group that prided itself on nonpartisanship and building bipartisan coalitions against anti-Semitism has cast those principles to the winds and become part of America’s political tribal wars?
Do they know that the organization that always considered defense of civil liberties essential to its mission has now joined hands with Big Tech companies to promote censorship of ideas and organizations?
Perhaps many of those still pouring money into the ADL’s coffers are aware of all this and are supportive of the sea change in the organization. The abandonment of core principles and its job of defending Jews places the ADL on the same side of those it is pledged to fight. This is one more casualty of the shift in culture that has produced toxic divisions tearing apart the fabric of American society.
Most of the many American Jewish organizations and institutions founded in the early 20th century have long since become obsolete. The Jewish hospitals created to find places for unhired Jewish doctors and the Jewish country clubs established to compete with the exclusionary non-Jewish facilities have long since become secular once those barriers evaporated.
Many national organizations that once were considered essential platforms for speaking up for a beleaguered community are now mere shadows of themselves as they struggle to find a purpose as their constituencies changed or disappeared altogether.
But there is still one national Jewish institution that not only still has a job but arguably is faced with an even more daunting task and bigger responsibilities than it did when it opened its doors: the Anti-Defamation League.
Outraged over the anti-Semitic hate that fueled both the wrongful murder conviction of Atlanta businessman Leo Frank and his subsequent lynching in 1915, the B’nai B’rith organization established the ADL to deal specifically with the plague of anti-Semitism. The daunting challenges of a century ago—in the form of hate sponsored by auto magnate Henry Ford or populist preachers directly invoking age-old stereotypes about Jewish “aliens and power brokers”—have evolved to reach even wider audiences on the Internet. The delegitimization of the Jews and the Jewish state is louder than ever, and now has become a feature of the increasingly influential left-wing of the Democratic Party, which has embraced radical notions like intersectionality and critical race theory, opening the door to anti-Semitism.
That makes the ADL, which has become not only independent of its initial sponsor, but an organizational powerhouse with a massive fundraising machine, more important than ever. Its infrastructure of regional offices and large staff perform the task of monitoring acts of anti-Semitism at a time when attacks on Jews are not only on the rise but essentially mainstreamed under the guise of “criticism” of Israel. As open calls for Israel’s destruction and the stigmatizing of its supporters as racists and oppressors have become commonplace, an effective Jewish defense organization with the clout of the ADL ought to be a vital tool in combating this problem.
But the ADL is failing.
That failure can’t be measured financially since it is raising more money than ever before. Nor is it a communication problem, as the ADL retains its status as a go-to source for comments about Jewish issues as well as the ultimate arbiter in determining what constitutes anti-Semitism.
Yet, its failure is palpable.
Ever since its current CEO Jonathan Greenblatt succeeded longtime head Abe Foxman in 2015, the former Clinton and Obama administration staffer has largely discarded the group’s non-partisan stance. Greenblatt has effectively turned it into just one more partisan advocacy group supporting Democratic Party talking points on a variety of issues, including those that have little or nothing to do with the defense of Jewish interests. As his grip on the organization solidified, the ADL also became an ally of ideologically driven Big Tech firms seeking to enforce censorship on the Internet. In this way, the ADL has fallen far short of the needs of an increasingly embattled Jewish community.
As worrisome as those actions are, in the past two years the problem has grown even worse. The ADL’s prioritization of its ties with left-wing allies has also led to decisions that not only undermine its core mission, such as the sanctioning of partisan weaponizing of the issue of anti-Semitism, but its willingness to endorse ideas that enable anti-Semitism and the delegitimization of Jews and Israel has, incredibly, placed it in the position of actually aiding and abetting the very forces it was created to oppose. As a result, it is not simply an example of failing Jewish leadership, but it is a group that now must be considered increasingly part of the problem rather than the solution to the dilemmas faced by American Jewry.
The organization that Greenblatt inherited from Foxman, the ADL’s venerable leader who worked for the group for 50 years and led it for 28, was politically liberal on many issues but still scrupulously non-partisan. Moreover, though it had long since branched out into the business of educating communities on the dangers of all sorts of prejudice, it was still focused on its primary mission of combating anti-Semitism, including that which is directed at the Jewish state.
Greenblatt immediately began re-orienting the organization to be more directly in line with his own partisan instincts. He had previously been a staff member of the Barack Obama White House, which was itself embroiled in a number of disputes with Israel and the Jewish community. President Obama’s determination to pursue a policy of appeasement toward Iran and its nuclear ambitions placed him in conflict with Israel—which viewed Tehran as an existential threat—and put him at odds with American Jews and certain members of Congress, who agreed with former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s opinion about the disastrous nature of the nuclear deal. In seeking to dismiss those arguments, Obama and his staff—including those who were orchestrating what former national security advisor Ben Rhodes called their media “echo chamber”—were at pains to spin the debate as one between a president pursuing his nation’s interests and a powerful lobby that was buying support in Congress, a trope of traditional anti-Semitism.
But far from seeking to confront his former colleagues, Greenblatt was more interested in using the ADL to critique Netanyahu. He went out of his way in 2016 to publicly oppose Netanyahu’s claim that the Palestinians’ desire to push Jews out of West Bank communities would amount to “ethnic cleansing.” According to Greenblatt, that was a wrongful use of Holocaust terminology. Yet he was guilty himself of using a similar analogy to criticize enforcement of American laws against illegal immigration.
There is, however, more at play here than mere hypocrisy. Though Greenblatt will occasionally criticize a Democrat for an anti-Semitic utterance or inappropriate Holocaust analogy, under his leadership, the ADL became focused on aiding the “resistance” to the administration of President Donald Trump, constantly accusing him of supposedly inciting or inspiring a rise in anti-Semitism on the far right. Indeed, the ADL became a prop for branding Trump a Nazi and/or anti-Semite.
While Trump’s intemperate and vulgar tone, as well as his willingness to attack opponents and critics was unorthodox, Greenblatt’s repeated attempts to connect the dots between his comments and far right extremists was rooted primarily in partisanship, not a defense of the Jews. That was apparent when it came to blaming the president for acts of violence against Jews, such as the attacks on synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway, California. But it was also the case with respect to Greenblatt’s willingness to lend the ADL’s prestige to the false claim that Trump had somehow endorsed or expressed moral indifference to the neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 because of a comment that was taken out of context about “very fine people” being on both sides of the barricades there. Trump said there were such people who disagreed about the need to clear public squares of all memorials to Confederates and those killed in the Civil War, not in the confrontation with neo-Nazis.
In doing so, the ADL aligned itself with the political views of most of its donors. But in addition to committing itself to a misleading partisan narrative about Trump, Greenblatt also pushed the group into a confrontation with the Trump administration over issues that had nothing to do with anti-Semitism. For example, Greenblatt tweeted his opposition to the nomination of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court within seconds of the announcement, signaling that ADL would oppose any conservative.
The ADL condemned former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a man who was not only a friend to the Jewish community during his time in Congress and as director of the CIA but also helped to make historic breakthroughs for pro-Israel policies at the State Department. During his confirmation hearings, the ADL attacked him as a “bigot” for denouncing anti-Semitic Islamist radicals. That could be seen in the same context as Greenblatt’s reversal of Foxman’s opposition to the building of a Muslim community center and mosque in the Ground Zero area of Lower Manhattan where the 9/11 attacks took place. The ADL’s stance promoted the false narrative in which the real victims of the attacks were American Muslims, suffering from a mythical backlash.
The ADL also found itself closely aligned with Big Tech companies that it previously criticized for allowing anti-Semitism on social media. Though some of those firms, like Facebook, initially refused to go along with the ADL’s push for censoring hateful opinions, they soon found that the ADL was a willing partner when it came to justifying Silicon Valley’s shift toward censoring conservative opinions. The ADL’s efforts to steer those who logged onto hate websites to better sources of information actually led to another hate website that was spreading anti-Semitism. And its alliance with PayPal, intended to help weed out alleged radical groups, put it in the position of endorsing censorship more than actually fighting hate.
Despite the group’s claims to the contrary, the ADL’s leftist tilt caused it to be perceived as having shifted its priorities away from strictly Jewish issues. This led to even more dangerous problems than the disintegration of its gold-standard status as the ultimate authority on anti-Semitism. The spread of intersectional ideology—which lumps together all groups and peoples who claim to be oppressed because of their color or indigenous background and similarly views all of their opponents as linked by “white privilege”—has convinced many on the American left that the Palestinian war against Israel is somehow analogous to the struggle for civil rights in the United States.
This has led not only to attacks on Israel as a beneficiary of “white privilege”—the irony that a majority of Israeli Jews trace their origins to the Middle East or North Africa and are therefore “people of color” under the definition accepted by the left is lost on the Jewish state’s critics—but it has also provided fuel for a rising tide of anti-Semitism in which assertions of Israel’s illegitimacy are the primary line of attack.
This has proved troublesome for the ADL because of the way Greenblatt has helped to steer it into a position where it is an important ally for a party whose left-wing—including its young rock stars of the congressional “Squad”—are not only anti-Israel but in the case of Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), are open supporters of the anti-Semitic BDS movement, which seeks Israel’s elimination. The group’s defense of Omar and Tlaib against criticisms from Trump about their anti-Semitism undermined their credibility in speaking up against the BDS movement while simultaneously earning them brickbats from the left.
Just as important, when the Black Lives Matter movement rose to prominence in the summer of 2020 after the death of George Floyd, the ADL was swept along with the rest of the country’s leftists into supporting its demands. The anti-Semitic connections of the radicals behind BLM and the vicious attacks on Israel in its platform should have placed the ADL first among the movement’s critics. But in the moral panic about race that has infected America’s leftist elites, the ADL felt compelled to endorse the movement, defend it against its critics, and, crucially, take a supportive position about the critical race theory indoctrination that was linked to the protests.
In the past year, Greenblatt has felt compelled to note that anti-Semitism is a problem on the left as well as the far right, especially once incitement against Israel during the conflict with Hamas terrorists in May 2021 led to an outbreak of violent attacks against Jews in the United States. This incitement was led by left-wing Democrats like Omar, Tlaib, and their popular colleague Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who were appealing to intersectional ideology to justify their stance, libeling Israel and letting Hamas off the hook for firing thousands of rockets and missiles. The ADL was put in an awkward position, and was forced to push back against the delegitimizing smears heard on the floor of Congress, as well as from far-left and Islamist-friendly groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
Yet that didn’t cause Greenblatt or his group to rethink their endorsements of CRT. To the contrary, as was revealed after Greenblatt intervened to provide cover for “The View” host Whoopi Goldberg after she spouted racialist nonsense about the Holocaust in which she claimed it was merely a case of whites attacking other whites.
A definition of racism had been posted on the ADL website (in which racism was limited to prejudice against persons “of color”) that actually was similar to the gross comments for which Goldberg had to apologize with Greenblatt’s assistance. After the rise of BLM, the group’s definition was altered from one that stated that “the belief that a particular race is superior or inferior to another,” and that “a person’s social and moral traits are predetermined by his or her inborn biological characteristics.” The new definition held that: “The marginalization and/or oppression of people of color based on a socially constructed racial hierarchy that privileges white people.”
As soon as the Goldberg controversy occurred, the ADL scrubbed the intersectional definition from its website and restored the old entry, although appending to it a lengthy note reportedly by Greenblatt, claiming that the group’s focus on the racism of whites was “true but not the whole truth.”
This Orwellian turn on the part of the ADL is noteworthy. Yet it’s also an element of another controversy in which it has recently become embroiled when it hired activist Tema Smith as its new director of Jewish outreach and partnerships. Smith has a long history as a bitter critic of Israel and left-wing Twitter troll. In an earlier time, it would have been unimaginable for a group that was as solidly pro-Israel and reflexively centrist as ADL to hire such a person, but she was the perfect job candidate for the Greenblatt era.
The most serious problem with the hire is not what she might have posted on Twitter in the past but her current assignment. While outreach is important for the entire Jewish world in a time of rising assimilation and a Jewish population that is largely disconnected from the community and a sense of Jewish peoplehood, Smith’s brief is focused on “Jews of color.” That Jews who are not white sometimes face discrimination within the community is deplorable and should be condemned. Jews come in all different colors and from many places of origin (something that the non-Jewish Whoopi Goldberg doesn’t seem to understand). The idea of dividing Jews by skin color can never be accepted any more than bias against converts should be tolerated.
In its eagerness to get in on the fashion of racialist rhetoric on the left and in the Democratic Party, the ADL is embracing the cause of “Jews of color.” Yet in doing so, it and others on the left have lumped in a variety of communities including those Jews from Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, and North African countries, most of whom do not identify with the term. As such, the ADL is not only undermining a basic concept of Jewish unity, it is also utilizing the same intersectional playbook used by Israel-haters to brand the Jewish state and its supporters as possessing “white privilege.”
Jews should not be defined by skin color; no one should. The point of the civil rights movement was to discard the obsession with race that fueled segregation. America should aspire to a colorblind society, and yet CRT and intersectionality demand that it be treated as the most important element in defining any person. Joining with its left-wing allies to apply this idea to Jews across the board, the ADL is again undermining the cause for which it was founded and providing useful cover to those who are seeking to harm the Jewish people, here and in Israel.
At a time when both the statistics that the ADL compiles about hate and the tenor of the national conversation confirm that anti-Semitism is on the rise, the need for an effective Jewish defense agency focused on anti-Semitism is real.
The ADL now finds itself a rare Jewish organization with a mission that is at least as relevant to Jewish life today as when it was founded 109 years ago. That should make it a group whose continued efforts are not only necessary but deserving of support from the broadest cross-section of Jewish life.
Far more important is the way the ADL’s embrace of BLM extremists and CRT gives a boost to the very forces on the left, who, because of their influence in Washington and among a younger generation of Democrats, now pose the most important threat to Jewish life in America. That is not merely a setback for ADL. It is an abandonment of the very purpose of its existence.
It is ironic that this is happening at a time when ADL’s influence and financial clout are greater than ever. But it is also a paradigm of how Jewish leadership is failing American Jewry’s best interests all the while claiming to be defending them.
The ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu said, “Security against defeat implies defensive tactics; ability to defeat the enemy means taking the offensive.” In other words, you don’t win a war by playing defense.
Major Jewish and pro-Israel organizations have reacted to specific campus incidents of anti-Semitism (usually masquerading as anti-Israelism), such as student government boycott resolutions, but have consistently failed to counter the growing narrative that Israel and Jews are racist colonialists. That false narrative has now been joined by a related one, that Israel and Jews are white, anti-people-of-color oppressors, a narrative often promulgated by anti-Israel activists deeply embedded within “social justice” and Black Lives Matters movements.
Both narratives have become primary weapons against Israel. Rather than disarming the narratives, establishment groups too often simply deny the former and pledge support for the latter “anti-racism” movement out of a sense of progressive solidarity—solidarity that is not reciprocated. Below we explore the trajectory of these narratives, and how groups like the ADL, which promotes progressive solidarity, have made the problem worse instead of better.
The Problem – Durban Set the Formula for Delegitimizing Israel
After the 2001 Durban anti-racism conference was hijacked into an anti-Semitic and anti-Israel hate-fest, campus anti-Israelism soared and became ever more clearly anti-Semitic. The Durban conference “gave birth to the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement and marked the beginning of baseless comparisons of Israel to apartheid South Africa.” The century-old anti-Jewish boycott was repackaged in social justice language to appeal to Western leftists.
Since then, BDS ideology has increasingly pervaded American universities, where anti-Israel activists have pursued a no-holds-barred campaign to delegitimize Israel as a pariah state. Faculty, students, and administrators have treated unfounded smears against Israel as fact, while actively shutting down expression of actual facts and pro-Israel opinions. They also stirred up hostility against Israel supporters and Jews in general, hostility that occasionally erupted into violence:
The Problem Worsens – The Red-Green Alliance
Jewish organizations responded to Durban by working to correct factual inaccuracies about Israel and to expose problems on campus. Unfortunately, the problem got worse instead of better.
Following Israel’s 2008-09 Operation Cast Lead response to rocket attacks from Gaza, anti-Israel campus activists further ratcheted up their activities to stifle pro-Israel voices and advance their agenda. The various branches of the University of California (UC) were particular hot-spots.
After the spate of anti-Israel attacks on American campuses that accompanied and followed Operation Cast Lead, more Jewish organizations jumped into the fray, including both top-down branches of existing organizations and bottom-up organizations founded at the campus level.
However much good these groups have done, the problem worsened. The year 2014 was a watershed. That summer, in response to Hamas’ kidnapping three Israeli teenagers and firing rockets at Israeli civilians, Israel counter-attacked by invading Gaza. Predictably, the press focused on reporting collateral damage from Israeli attacks rather than Hamas’ war crimes in attacking civilian targets while hiding its personnel and military infrastructure in schools, hospitals, residential neighborhoods, and office buildings occupied by the press.
The same summer, Ferguson police shot and killed Michael Brown, sparking riots by people charging police targeted blacks for violence. Anti-Israel activists were deeply embedded in the riots and turned them into anti-Israel protests. Among other things, anti-Israel activists made anti-Israel invective part of the protests, offering advice to rioters and spuriously claiming that Israel promoted police violence in the United States by offering police training in anti-terrorism techniques. The narrative took hold.
Anti-Semitic attacks spiked after this double-whammy, both on and off campus. At both UCLA and Stanford University during spring 2015, the suitability of Jewish candidates for student government was challenged on the supposed grounds that they might show favoritism to Israel. Prominent figures like the late Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, spoke openly of the return of anti-Semitism. Jews warning about rising anti-Semitism were told Israel and Jews were to blame.
Sample Anti-Israel and Anti-Semitic Tactics
Israel-haters have actively promoted a narrative casting Israel in the role of villain. Professors like Columbia University’s Joseph Massad have long taught their personal political views of hatred for Israel as though they were facts, and persecuted and shut down Jewish and other students questioning their opinions or expressing different views. In 2018, two University of Michigan educators—associate professor John Cheney-Lippold and graduate student instructor Lucy Peterson—refused reference letters supporting study abroad for the explicit reason that the requesting students sought to study in Israel.
Anti-Israel activists have frequently prevented or shut down speeches by pro-Israel speakers, like Netanyahu’s planned 2002 speech at Concordia, Oren’s 2010 speech at UC Irvine, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat’s 2016 speech at San Francisco State University, and 2016 and 2017 pro-Israel events at UC Irvine featuring, respectively, a film about the Israel Defense Forces and a talk by IDF reservists. The 2016 event at UC Irvine, in particular, featured crowds chasing attendees and putting the latter in fear of their safety.
Since 2005, BDS advocates have organized an annual campus event called “Israel Apartheid Week,” designed to convince college faculty and students that Israel is a racist state that persecutes Arabs the way apartheid South Africa persecuted blacks. From its inception as a series of lectures at the University of Toronto, the hate-fest has grown into an annual event at dozens of universities. It features fact-free activities pushing a message that Israel is a Nazi-like, segregationist, racist, colonial, illegitimate state founded and maintained by oppressing Arabs—basically, that Israel is everything contemporary Americans and Western society loathe. These propaganda exercises have included:
Another tactic is pushing for passage of student BDS resolutions condemning Israel. The point isn’t just to win passage. Rather, it’s to raise the issue and offer opportunities to propagandize. To squelch opposition, anti-Israel advocates purposely try to schedule debates or votes on Jewish holidays, when many pro-Israel students are unavailable. Passover is a particularly popular time to push what is, in effect, a modern spin on medieval blood libels. Examples include:
Anti-Israel activists have also hijacked other movements into vehicles for castigating Israel and its supporters. The entire rationale of today’s BDS movement is to paint the current situation in Israel as a latter-day version of South Africa’s apartheid regime. BDS supporters also tied the Black Lives Matter movement to Israeli anti-terrorism police junkets, and to racism generally. Campus black activists (for example, at Hamilton College and Oberlin College) have tied racial demands to demands for divestment.
Besides these movements, anti-Israel activists have somehow managed to convince many LGBTQ activists that Israel’s positive record on gay rights, in sharp contrast to that of Palestinians and others in the Middle East, is mere “pinkwashing” designed to distract from Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. The pinkwashing charge is essential in enabling BDS activists to finesse the abysmally anti-gay record of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas on college campuses. Incredibly, they have succeeded in convincing gay rights activists—who face prison and death in Arab lands—to oppose Israel (even Israeli and Jewish LGBTQ groups) and support the anti-gay Hamas and Palestinian Authority.
Ditto with “anti-fascists”: a 2017 anti-fascism rally at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign was converted into an anti-Israel rally, with activists chanting, “No Zionists, no KKK, resisting fascists all the way!” Activists have also tied women’s groups to hatred of Israel. Women’s March leadership has been explicitly tied to anti-Semitism, and the International Women’s Strike platform calls for “decolonization of Palestine”—in other words, the destruction of Israel. Both organizations have been active on campus.
Anti-Israel and Anti-Semitic Activists Largely Succeed in Neutralizing ADL
The Anti-Defamation League was a particular target of 2014 activists trying to tie Israel to the BLM narrative. An Ebony article published ten days after Michael Brown was shot already claimed a connection between the anti-terrorism training Israel has offered to American police departments (which activists dubbed the “deadly exchange” program) and the police shooting of Brown. The targeting of the ADL eventually led to a #DropTheADL movement to brand the ADL as racist and unwoke, a pariah with whom no woke person or organization should associate, but the broad outline was already visible back in summer 2014.
A wiser organization might have concluded that the supposed fellow-travelers condemning it were themselves prejudiced and discriminatory, but the ADL seems to have concluded that it needed to redouble its efforts to prove its heart was with the self-identified victims of racial violence.
Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s longtime leader, had given notice in February 2014 that he would step down in July 2015, and a search for his successor was underway. One of the candidates under consideration was Jonathan Greenblatt, then director of the Obama administration’s Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation in the Domestic Policy Council. As Greenblatt tells it, the ADL reached out to him rather than the reverse. His background was as a tech-savvy social entrepreneur, specializing in civic engagement and impact investing, and he was a professional left-wing partisan.
By November 2014, the ADL had settled on Greenblatt as Foxman’s successor. Why?
After taking over as ADL leader in July 2015, Greenblatt doubled down on ADL outreach to the left, while his condemnations of anti-Semitism on- and off-campus have been mostly tepid. Under his stewardship, the organization largely ignored BLM’s anti-Semitism; initially ignored Keith Ellison’s anti-Semitism while supporting his campaign to lead the Democratic National Committee; allowed the anti-Semites who ran the Women’s March to elbow the ADL out of participating in a Starbucks employee exercise in anti-discrimination—despite the fact that the ADL had helped put the exercise together and that Greenblatt used to be a Starbucks vice president—because the ADL was allegedly anti-Palestinian and “constantly attacking black and brown people”; ignored the anti-Semitism of Obama administration officials marketing the prior Iran deal; and ignored anti-Semitic comments by Democratic Party Young Turks like Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
By contrast, he has turned the ADL’s ire on Jews and Jewish organizations like Canary Mission, which works to expose anti-Semitism on campus. During the summer of 2020, Greenblatt’s ADL redefined racism to include only white racism against people of color. Given today’s inclusion of Jews among “whites,” the new definition appeared to deny the existence of anti-Jewish racism. (Greenblatt only tweaked the definition after Whoopi Goldberg made headlines by doing what ADL seemed to be doing—denying Jews were victims of racism because “they’re both white.”) Last fall, the ADL hired a new director of outreach (primarily to Jews of color) with a track record of blaming Jews first for black anti-Semitism and Palestinian terrorism.
At the same time that the ADL has done little to oppose left-wing anti-Semitism, which is what dominates college campuses, while criticizing the Jewish community for standing up to anti-Semitism, Greenblatt has turned the organization into an active political partisan. He actively opposed the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, opposed the right of religious foster agencies to choose parents based on their religion, offered to register as a Muslim for Trump’s non-existent Muslim registry, compared Donald Trump to Hitler, and apologized for opposing the building of a mosque at Ground Zero. Under Greenblatt, the ADL has promoted Critical Race Theory. It has advocated for transgender accommodation for minors, and for keeping late-term abortions legal. Essentially, Greenblatt has transformed the ADL from a non-partisan advocate for Jews confronting anti-Semitism into an advocacy organization for left-wing and culture-war causes.
Only in the summer of 2021 did Greenblatt publicly admit that “the left has an anti-Semitism problem.” Since then, he has mostly continued on his woke course, hiring blame-the-Jews-first outreach staff.
Still, even focusing some attention on left-wing anti-Semitism was a big step for Greenblatt, and he has taken small steps since then to grapple with that reality. In July-August 2021, the ADL teamed up with Hillel to conduct an online survey of Jewish undergraduates about campus anti-Semitism. The survey was published in October 2021. Last fall, the ADL, Hillel, and the Secure Community Network launched an online portal where college students can report anti-Semitic incidents on their campus and receive immediate support. This is in addition to the ADL’s December report about anti-Israelism on campus, which grudgingly allowed the fact that anti-Israel activists “occasionally” espouse anti-Semitic tropes, such as alleging Jewish or Zionist power control media and political affairs.
Given that the ADL reached out to Greenblatt, and the coincidence of his hire months after Ferguson and the 2014 Gaza War, it seems likely that he was hired for the explicit purpose of repairing ADL ties with the left. Perhaps we should be marveling that Greenblatt reached his epiphany about left-wing anti-Semitism at all, rather than complaining that he arrived so late and has yet to confront it in a serious way.
Jews Struggle to Address Campus Anti-Israelism and Anti-Semitism
As the campus atmosphere has grown more and more intolerable, Jewish and other Israel supporters responded by forming new organizations and increasing their own activities. Their tactics have included:
Tragically, some of the ever more rabid anti-Israel voices on campus have been Jewish. Anti-Israel Jewish activists, notably the misnamed Jewish Voice for Peace, have pressured Jewish groups on campus not to oppose anti-Israel activism, and even to support it. That has made it harder for campus Jewish organizations to provide full-throated support for Israel, and to oppose the growing anti-Semitism concomitant with anti-Israel activism.
A Reactive Approach is Not Working
The problem with pro-Israel Jewish campus organizations is less what they’ve done than what they’ve left undone. The actions they have taken thus far are all commendable and have been helpful in limiting damage. They’re necessary, but they’re not sufficient.
Currently, Jews are playing defense. By itself, that’s rarely a winning strategy. The false narratives that Israel is a racist colonial enterprise and that Jews are “white” oppressors are rarely addressed head on, because to do so would require taking on the progressive power on campuses.
Contrast this with campus anti-Israel activists. They have been playing offense against Israel, its supporters, and Jewish students generally for many years. Groups like Students for Justice in Palestine have pursued an organized campaign of shutting down debate about Israel, imposing a narrative making outrageous claims against it (such as accusing it of Nazism and apartheid), and hounding Israel’s supporters or presumed supporters into silence.
Their cause—destroying Israel and persecuting Jews—is unjust, and their tactics harmful to the very nature of the university. Nevertheless, their public relations has been wildly successful. They have controlled the narrative of converting Israel and Jews into pro-apartheid Nazi racists, and their opponents into persecuted underdogs. Jews have responded to attacks and challenged them, but have rarely set the agenda, or tried to reframe the narrative to expose their opponents’ blatant anti-Semitism and goal of annihilating the Jewish State.
Jews were not always so passive. The Soviet Jewry movement, for instance, gained much of its energy from resourceful and provocative tactics like protestors chaining themselves to the Soviet Embassy fence, releasing black balloons during a candlelit vigil outside the Moscow Circus, picketing the Bolshoi Ballet, or unfurling banners before TV cameras at the Flyers/Soviet exhibition hockey game. These actions may or may not have had direct political impact, but they effectively framed the issue as one of Soviet repression of Jews and kept it in the public consciousness. Activists reached out directly to Soviet Jews, visiting them and supplying them with religious materials and gifts, as well as moral support, and keeping their struggle in the public eye. They also employed more conventional tactics, such as lobbying for passage of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which conditioned trade benefits on increased freedom of emigration from the Soviet Union.
Jews could apply similar initiative to the current campus climate. For example, Jewish student activists could:
The student-founded, grassroots organization Students Supporting Israel has begun to use more offensive tactics. During so-called Apartheid Week 2022, SSI tested out messaging similar to the above suggestions. That’s an excellent sign. Hopefully, where they lead, others will follow.
The day before D-Day, General George S. Patton, Jr., explained his fighting philosophy to his Third Army. The gist (slightly bowdlerized) was this:
We are not holding a damned thing. Let the Germans do that. We are advancing constantly and we are not interested in holding onto anything, except the enemy’s b****. We are going to twist him and kick the living s*** out of him all of the time. Our basic plan of operation is to advance and to keep on advancing regardless of whether we have to go over, under, or through the enemy.
Unfortunately, much of what pro-Israel and Jewish groups are doing today is at best trying to hold ground. The many fine things Jewish and pro-Israel groups have done to counter increasing attacks on Israel and Jews should not be confused with taking the fight to the enemy, so to speak. Pro-Israel and Jewish groups today are still searching for a coherent strategy and appropriate tactics to change the anti-Israel narrative and win the battle for hearts and minds.
“I know the Zionist perspective,” a chorus of Jewish students at elite Jewish day schools across the nation continuously assure me. “We want to hear the other side. We want to know the Palestinian side.” Indeed, the tagline of one of the most virulent anti-Zionist Jewish youth groups, IfNotNow, is “no one ever told us.”
It was my latest visit to a prestigious Jewish day school in North America that prompted me to re-evaluate how it is that we got to a place where I question the efficacy of Jewish and Israel education in America. It was at one such lecture that I had given on anti-Zionism and antisemitism that students complained of my bias, presenting me with a plethora of grievances with Israel. In that moment, I decided to switch gears: “You have presented criticisms of Israel, and you claim that you come from Zionist homes and a Zionist school. So you tell me: why should Israel exist as a Jewish country?”
The Zionist challenge, as I have come to call it, was met with alarming rejoinders. One student proclaimed, “To be completely honest, as I am thinking out loud, I have to say, I would be willing to give up the land if human rights would be restored to the Palestinians.” Her friend further explained: “Yes, because I can pray and practice my Judaism here (America) without ever having to be there (Israel).” Another student stated: “I can’t trust Israeli courts when it comes to settling land disputes because they are majority Jewish and therefore, biased.” And finally, a student settled it all: “I don’t see a reason to call myself a Zionist. Zionism has fulfilled its purpose.”
How did we get here? How do our brightest and most dedicated Jewish students surrender the land, the trust in their people, and history?
It used to be that within Jewish families in North America, one sensible reason to send kids to Jewish day schools, and/or to Jewish youth programs was to avoid anti-Israel bias in the classroom. This strategy, however, has proven to not only be ineffective, but more alarmingly, produced a generation of anti-Zionist Jews or as Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy call them, The Un-Jews. Likewise, having Israeli parents or joining Israeli youth movements such as tsofim provide little to no real shelter from the dangers of radical leftism, which ushers in anti-Zionism, today’s most potent form of Jew-hatred.
A stark example is a graduate of K-12 Jewish day school, Simone Zimmerman, the founder of IfNotNow (INN), a Jewish organization whose goal is to oppose “Israeli occupation.” Zimmerman is but one, although a vivid, example of how Jewish education provides little refuge from an education steeped in Marxist thought. But the phenomenon of Jewish young adults graduating Jewish day schools and joining anti-Israel groups such as J-Street, Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), INN, and even Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) has been in the making for decades now. Indeed, Jewish day school graduates are at the helm of anti-Israel and anti-American movements on college campuses. They aren’t just members, they are leaders. How did this happen?
To help answer this question, I turn to a Soviet policy enshrined during the Stalin years: “socialist in content, national in form.” Having formed a nascent Soviet government in 1918, several ethnic minorities (i.e. Jewish, Ukrainian, Uzkeb, Armenian) found themselves under Soviet rule. Party officials had a problem to solve: how to unite these diverse ethnic minorities under the aegis of a common ideology.
What the central committee devised was ingenious: allow ethnic minorities to speak their native language, publish newspapers and books in their native language, and support the arts of the minorities. The only caveat: the content had to promote socialism. Indeed, in the 1920s and even in the 1930s, there was a burgeoning of Yiddish in the Soviet Union. This is why Jews scanning the globe in 1919 declared the Jewish future not in Palestine or America, but in the Soviet Union! How wrong they were is for another time (anti-Semitism returned in greater force in the Soviet Union with the murder of Yiddish poets, artists, and writers during Stalin’s last years in power).
In a rather twisted turn of historic events that would make Stalin chuckle, Jewish day schools in North America practice “woke in content, Jewish in form.” Indeed, all major Jewish groups that oppose the “Israeli occupation” or promote the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction movement (BDS) have been started by Jews who either graduated from Jewish day schools or were involved in Jewish youth groups:
This is not a coincidence. This is a pattern. And it comes from Jewish educational institutions that focus not on Judaism and anti-Semitism specifically, but rather promoting anti-racist education, restoring climate justice, gender and racial inequity. Moreover, at the root of it all, is discomfort with Jewish particularism: with a majority Jewish state, with borders and by extension, Jewish nationalism. Jewish mainstream institutions have abandoned Jewish particularism and gravitated toward universalism. Through universalism, we have re-written, so to speak, three major concepts in Judaism: Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof, Tikkun Olam, and Derech Eretz.
This phrase, taken from Deuteronomy 16:18-20, appears in most Jewish schools’ mission statements, at times even emblematized on the front gates of the school. The original text reads: “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that Adonai your God is giving you.” In its entire context, it is an imperative from God that the Jewish people occupy and settle in Eretz Yisrael by appointing magistrates and officials who will “not judge unfairly.” Willfully forgetting the remainder of the passage, Jewish educators apply these words, “justice, justice shall you pursue,” as an ethical permission slip to embrace social justice causes such as racial and gender inequity, inclusivity, and immigration reform, to name a few.
While tikkun olam is a signature theme of Jewish tradition in North America, somewhere along the way Jewish educators came to believe that the goal for the Jewish people was to help repair the world through solving world hunger, campaigning against occupations, ending gender wage gaps, and fighting climate change. However, in its original formulation, tikkun olam is achieved through ethical and ritual mitzvot such as keeping the laws of kashrut and observing the Sabbath. Similar to those who invoke tzedek, tzedek tirdof piecemeal, tikkun olam, which comes from the Aleinu, a seminal prayer in Jewish liturgy, appears in a passage that extends hope in “You, Adonai our God… to completely cut off all false gods; to repair the world, Your holy empire.” We make a grave error, therefore, in thinking that tikkun olam means embracing a woman’s right to choose, open immigration, or supporting equity of outcome policies.
Although the literal translation is “way of the land,” Jewish educators have applied derech eretz to embrace compassion, kindness, and “common decency.” The problem, however, is that compassion and kindness are universal values and to each person mean different things. I once asked my students to define kindness and received disparate responses. To one, kindness was taking something from oneself in order to benefit another person; to another, it was saying kinds words in order to make someone else feel better.
Derech eretz appears in several iterations in rabbinical literature. Take, for example, the midrash from Exodus Rabbah (Shemot Rabbah 35:2), wherein we are instructed to “refrain from using wood from a fruit-bearing tree to build a house and calls that rule a lesson in derech eretz.” Here, derech eretz is not a commentary on kindness, but rather a frame to help people make better economic and ecological choices.
But as I once heard among a cohort of Jewish senior educators at a conference, practicing derech eretz was finding a way to incorporate LGBTQ awareness into the Jewish middle school curriculum.
To return to the dictum “socialist in content, national in form,” Soviet officials relied on this policy in order to unite a society around a shared system of values. In its entirety, the slogan, taken from an essay written by Joseph Stalin in 1934 reads: “The development of cultures national in form and socialist in content is necessary for the purpose of their ultimate fusion into one General Culture, socialist as to form and content, and expressed in one general language” (Marxism and the National-colonial Question). This “one General Culture” was emblematized by the “new Soviet man”—novyj Sovetskii chelovek—an archetype of the Leninist-Marxist ideals. Regardless of the chelovek’s ethnic background, he was a highly conscious individual, hyper-aware of his role to oppose private property and the greed of capitalism, and to support the worker against the petty bourgeoisie. The policy to conform was a success. Within five to ten years, ethnic minorities touted the Soviet policy line; and within fifteen to twenty years, as was planned, the “national form” had disappeared. By the 1960s, Jewish homes in the Soviet Union saw a 66 percent decline in spoken Yiddish.
But at least in the Soviet Union, it was done for a cause, granted a rotten one. What is the reason—the cause—for Jewish educators to practice “woke in content, Jewish in form”? Certainly it is not due to external forces, as in the case of the Soviet government that mandated educational policy. In North America, we cannot point to a single leader, a legislative document, or unique event that demonstrates a widespread adoption of these principles. What we can do, instead, is look to the triad—tzedek tzedek tirdof, tikkun olam, and derech eretz—and find a common denominator: the removal of God from each of the Jewish ideas. In each invocation of the triad, God is not present. The consequences of an absent God is that man must step in to restore order. Therein lies the problem: the moral compass is thus defined by individuals and not the institutional codex from which the principles emanate. The lack of explicit theological grounding allows for individuals to sanction ideologies and policies they see fit to promote.
My recent encounter with young Jews demonstrates that in each of their articulations—from discomfort with a Jewish majority court system to enshrining human rights, and most significantly, finding no reason to be a Zionist since “Zionism fulfilled its purpose”— somewhere along the way, Jewish educators along with the institutions have dropped the ball on Jewish identity. It was most painful to hear a young Jewish student surrender one of the holiest pillars of Jewish identity, the Land of Israel, in order to restore justice and human rights to the Palestinians. And what is most painful is that behind her reasoning is a well-oiled Jewish education system that has taught this young lady that to be a Jew, she must repair the world, seek justice for the persecuted, and jettison her parochial Jewish nationalism. This young lady, therefore, surrenders the Land because she is a Jew, a Jew who has been taught social justice in content, while national in form.
What then is the answer? How do we treat this alarming malaise? First and foremost, we address the root cause: discomfort with Jewish nationalism. Next we unpack Jewish nationalism by reminding American Jews that we are first and foremost, a people, and not a religion. We are an indigenous people from the Land of Israel; the reason we have been dispersed around the globe is because we were exiled from our national homeland.
We need to stop capitulating to the zeitgeist, that is the desire to fit Jewish identity into a woke framework. Yes, Zionism is a movement of justice, yes Zionism sought to restore power to the persecuted Jewish people. But this is partial. We must inspire our Jewish youth in the idea that we are living in the most miraculous moment, a most supreme Zionist moment. Through Zionism, Jews have returned to history: we are not being written about, but rather are the scribes of history. What is Zionism? Zionism is a national Jewish movement: it is about returning the Jewish people to their homeland, with self-determination, with power, and with secure borders.
The first question any American Jew may contemplate asking me, an American Muslim activist is, how does this guy have the chutzpah to tell our diverse Jewish communities what we should or should not do vis-à-vis American Muslim communities, Islamism, and especially anti-Semitism? Anyone who has followed all of our public work in this area of expertise knows that we at the American Islamic Forum for Democracy and the Muslim Reform Movement are certainly not delusional and are fully aware and engaged with the hard work necessary to begin change toward long overdue reforms within the Muslim consciousness. We know that this road is arduous and may take a generation. But we also would have never guessed that some of our most significant obstacles to fighting against Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood would come from within the Jewish community.
We know that most, if not all of this work, can only be done by Muslims needing essentially nothing short of revolution after revolution against the Islamist establishments, theocrats, patriarchs, autocrats, and kleptocrats across the planet. However, no one should for a second believe that we can right this ship alone. Our non-Muslim and especially our Jewish community partners play an invaluable role in our success and failures obviously especially when it comes down to countering anti-Semitism. We understand that this condition of endemic bigotry against the Jewish community emanates from centuries old Islamist interpretations of Islam as well as pan-Arab racial supremacism to name a few root-cause afflictions of the majorities of almost a quarter of the world’s population who happen to Muslim.
The reality, however, is that if the Jewish community’s greatest allies within Muslim and Arab populations are in fact the “modern,” “liberal” reformers who stand up within our own faith and ethnic communities against the anti-Semitic, Islamist, and Arabist demagogues—then they must be supported and augmented, not marginalized. If any of us reformers are going to ever make any headway at all, then the leadership of leading Jewish political and religious organizations must make strategic alliances with—eyes wide open, please. The importance of those alliances cannot be overstated as it provides important legitimacy to American Muslim groups domestically and abroad and also contrarily what can be a very dangerous sense of complacency when it comes to Islamist dissimulation and their facades of reform. I am here to tell you that all too often leading Jewish organizations grossly underestimate the profound impact they have in marginalizing their real allies by lifting up the lowest hanging fruit of our faith community’s current Islamist leadership across mosques and activist Islamist organizations in America. The reason the Muslim Brotherhood and Deobandi legacy groups like the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), Muslim American Society (MAS), the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), and the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) to name a few have such a greater audience and bandwidth is because they have had a two-plus generation head start in the West organizing and also being funded by the worst government actors and terror-sympathizers in the Middle East, bolstered essentially across the greater “neo-caliphate” of today with the 56 nations of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
My goal here is simple. It is to shed the antiseptic of sunlight upon the relationships that many Jewish organizations make with American Islamists. It is one thing to proclaim that anti-Semitism is pervasive and Jewish leadership must make allies wherever they can. It is, however, quite another thing to fall for the dissimulation of Islamists and refuse to acknowledge their core ideologies as they tell groups like the ADL and AJC what they want to hear. It is not even a zero sum game. In fact, the elevation of Islamists by any leading non-Muslims in the West is just another nail in the coffin of reformers. Don’t be deceived.
It is important to truly understand the deep layers upon which the horrifically pervasive anti-Semitism of Muslim and Arab majority populations is based. As wise sages have said, the only way to prevent history from repeating itself is to truly understand it and learn from it. As a faithful Muslim, it is my obligation to be transparent about our own history and make sure that Muslims and non-Muslims alike learn from it and prevent the theocratic and ethnic supremacists from staying in power and ever gaining it again.
First, it is key to understand the history and ideology of Islamism or political Islam. The link between Islamism (also known as Islamist supremacism), and anti-Semitism is fairly simple. It is self-evident that supremacists from within a particular faith community will create and exploit hatred toward another faith community in order to collectively rally their own followers against a common enemy. Much as Jew hatred was a fundamental part of Christianity before the Protestant Revolution and the Enlightenment separated church and state, predominant interpretations of Islam, a much newer religion, promoted anti-Semitic imagery, profiling, and demonization of Jews as a tool for its devoted members’ own ascension into power among Muslim-majority communities and nations, or in Arabic, the Umma. My entire work and our mission at AIFD is founded upon the precept that the primary cancer from which all hate within the Muslim community emanates is the idea of the “Islamic State.” From that theocratic shariah “state” comes obligations to “jihad,” anti-blasphemy laws, and the current oppressive sharia legal system that puts Muslims above all others.
Understanding this inextricable connection between the demonization of Jews and the advancement of Islamist movements whether violent or not, lawful or not, (distinctions without a difference) is essential in order to break the link and finally give reformers the space to even begin the hard work of reforming various Muslim interpretations of the faith of Islam, as we have seen happen within Christianity. And yet, it breaks my heart to see so many in the Jewish community itself actively hampering and preventing such a positive change from occurring. We can all do better than this.
If the public goal is to simply fill dining halls with thousands of Muslim supporters and do “photo ops” with what appears to be large Muslim populations, then go ahead, the Islamist dissimulators of moderation are the only way to go and the only Muslim “partners” that can give you that today. They have summarily dismissed anti-Islamist dissenters from the ranks of the Muslim communities they control. But Muslims who may simply, for example, recognize the horrific realities of the Holocaust and condemn Holocaust denial while certainly exemplify a very good step forward, are far from reformational. That was the apparent low bar required by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) with their Islamist partners at ISNA. Sadly, many Islamists cannot even do that, but when they do, all they are doing is dismissing a radical conspiracy theory. It does nothing to treat the primary cancer of political Islam, the religious legitimacy of the Islamic state, and its theological underpinnings across all schools of current day Islamic jurisprudence in both the Sunni and Shia traditions. I would submit that such a low bar is insulting to those of us with the honesty to address the more deep-seeded fundamentals of Islamism and its anti-Semitic jihad.
Unlike the other Abrahamic religions, Judaism has always had a strong liberal streak running through it, encouraging questions and varied interpretations. The Talmud makes this fact crystal clear. And this liberalism has carried through into politics, with the majority of Westernized Jews voting Democrat. That liberal history influenced by query, reform, and the politics of immigration has had an impact on the partisanship of various Jewish organizations in America. As such, the tendency toward “politically correct” approaches with sensitive issues of race and identity even when Muslim leadership conflate Islamist ideologies with race and identity in such contrived notions like “Islamophobia” is mind-numbing. The avoidance by leftist Jewish communities of the pervasiveness of such deep-seated ideological threats like Muslim anti-Semitism has been at their own peril.
Instead of tackling the phenomena head on, acknowledging how widespread it is and how increasingly problematic it has become given the recent influx of millions of Arab and Muslim refugees into Western Europe, many leaders in the Jewish community, in line with the media, academia, and the majority of Western governments, have preferred the nebulous and generic concept of “violent extremism” in developing targeted solutions against this domestic and global threat. But programs that only counter violence address the means of those who threaten the Jewish community while wholly ignoring the ideology or the ends that their movements seek. The common ideological thread running through the security threat that comes from Islamist extremism is the inherent supremacism of Islamism or political Islam. As I’ve testified to Congress many times, our programs should be entitled “Countering Islamism.” Full stop. Legitimate partners of Jewish communities should be anti-Islamist at best and non-Islamist at worst.
Anti-Semitism should not be viewed as just another “radical” symptom that arises from the supremacist mentality of Islamism. It is far more than that. It is its foundation. Translations and interpretations of our Holy Qur’an and Hadith (sayings of the Prophet Mohammed) distributed by virtually all Islamist governments are rife with anti-Semitic narratives, including translations and interpretations of some of the most commonly recited verses. Educational materials teach blatant Jew hatred, with children throughout the Muslim world raised to believe that Jews are the enemies of the believers and the descendants of apes and pigs. For example, the most repeated verse in the Qur’an among faithful Muslims in their daily prayers is the short opening “Sura al-Fatiha.” It states, “Guide us in the straight path. The path of those upon whom you have bestowed favor, not of those who have evoked your anger or of those who have gone astray.” The only Saudi version approved by its Wahhabist regime footnotes the phrase in that Sura, “or of those who have gone astray” with *not like the Jews and Christians. Modern reformist Muslims interpret those in the “straight path” in an egalitarian way among all believers in God of all faiths. However, Wahhabists, Islamists, and other Muslim supremacists read this as exclusive to Muslims. This small example, repeated many times a day, is but one of thousands of examples of explanatory interpretations that radicalize Muslims away from more moderate interpretations and toward the supremacist Islamist ones. Genuine Muslim-Jewish discourse should demand transparency over apologetics about the grim realities of these interpretations and so many more.
The importance of the underlying role of anti-Semitism and its rot in our communities here cannot be overstated. A Pew poll confirmed that “Anti-Jewish sentiment” is endemic in the Muslim world. If Islamists are a plurality, upwards of 30 to 40 percent of the population as was proven in the Arab-Awakening, pan-Arabist supremacists are another 30 to 40 percent giving many of these nations astronomical rates of anti-Semitism—up to 80 to 90 percent plus when their theological and racial hatred is combined. “In Lebanon, for example, virtually all Muslims and the majority of Arabs say they have a very unfavorable view of Jews. Similarly, 99 percent of Jordanians have a very unfavorable view of Jews. Large majorities of Moroccans, Indonesians, Pakistanis, and six-in-ten Turks also view Jews unfavorably.” As many of these nations slide back and forth from one fascism to the other, from secular fascism to Islamist fascism or theo-political fascism, one has to plainly see how the anti-Semitism long fueled for generations by Arab dictators like Hosni Mubarak, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Saddam Hussein, Bashar Assad, Muammar Qaddafi, or King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz was a harbinger of the type of violent and hate-filled societies they were sowing. These predominantly secular fascists and kleptocratic monarchs effectively used national media to propagate anti-Semitism in an “us versus them” mentality. They also effectively demonized Zionism in order to lift up pan-Arabism as a Machiavellian tool to keep the masses from questioning their authority. Their media propaganda machines made this happen.
For example, and there are thousands, under Egyptian President Mubarak, Egypt annually aired the virulently anti-Semitic and czarist Russian forgery, Protocols of the Elder of Zion. State media regularly denied the Holocaust while at the same time irrationally labeling Zionism as a new Nazism. Conversely, in April 2001, the government-sponsored newspaper Al-Akhbar published a paragraph extolling praise on Hitler for the Holocaust and complaining that it did not go far enough stating: “Thanks to Hitler, of blessed memory, who on behalf of the Palestinians, revenged in advance, against the most vile criminals on the face of the earth. Although we do have a complaint against him for his revenge on them was not enough.”
That propaganda and threat continues today in state-run media throughout the Middle East including the Al Jazeera media group. During the Obama administration, Qatar state media purchased potential access to more than 40 million American homes through its acquisition of Al Gore’s Current TV for $500 million. Only a few years later that venture, Al Jazeera America, failed miserably and is now defunct unable to get high-level journalists or viewer traction. However, their goal of influencing the American government, media, and academia continues unabated. Their strident Islamist correspondents like Mehdi Hasan are now anchoring leftist news media like MSNBC. When one of the Al Jazeera Arabic journalists posted a horrifically anti-Semitic “news report” in April 2019, rather than deal with the root cause, Al Jazeera Arabic unleashed its lawyers across the planet to threaten anyone who hosted the video, claiming they “fixed the problem by suspending the rogue journalists.” Our American Islamic Forum for Democracy was one of the sources that broke the story and still has its translation online.
The hate created by the Arab secular fascists also tellingly fueled a mass exodus of the Jewish people that began in 1948 at Israel’s founding when there were over 800,000 Jews living in Arab lands. Today, it is believed that there are less than 20,000 remaining. That exodus has carried over to the Christian community where it is believed over two million Christians have fled the Middle Eastern Arab community in the last 20 years. This vacuum of religious diversity only feeds the Islamist supremacist mentality.
The exploitation of Israel among Islamists is also virtually a litmus test for anti-Semitism. Apparent is the use of conspiracy theories by Islamist demagogues to portray a false narrative and fiction against Israel and thus by association all Jews. These conspiracy theories then spread like wildfire and are exploited by fellow global Islamist movements of all stripes in order to broaden the conspiracy against all Muslims and provide more excuses for the failures of Muslim-majority nations. When the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the neo-caliphate umbrella group of 56 Muslim majority nations, met in Malaysia, Prime Minister Mahatir told the crowd, “The Europeans killed 6 million Jews out of 12 million, but today the Jews rule the world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them.” Reports were that the crowd responded with a “resounding ovation.” This is consistent with the Pew opinion polls in nations like Malaysia. Nothing short of revolutions will change this entrenched bigotry. Muslims who are anti-caliphism, anti-Islamist, and anti-jihadi should be the only partners that rise to an acceptable level of reform, modernity and respect for their Jewish brothers and sisters to embrace.
Yet, sadly, apart from the Israeli government, virtually nothing is said to Muslim audiences by the Jewish diaspora about the central need to combat the institutional ideas of anti-Semitism. In fact, far-left progressive Jewish groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace, IfNotNow, and Bend the Arc, have expressed sympathy and made common cause with anti-Semitic Muslim groups such as the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) or murderously hateful regimes such as Iran. These groups go so far as to partner with and regularly feature anti-Semitic speakers at their webinars, conferences, or national conventions. Except for notable exceptions due to how rarely they happen, larger groups like the ADL have sat on the sidelines as American Islamist groups born out of the Muslim Brotherhood have radicalized American Muslims and poisoned the discourse against reformist groups like the Muslim Reform Movement. Choosing party over substance when it comes to combating Islamist anti-Semitism, the likes of Keith Ellison (D-MN), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) receive little to no critique while instead their bandwidth is filled with other priorities like attacking the American right.
Nothing epitomizes the damaging nature of their silence more than the response of Democratic Party leadership to Rep. Ilhan Omar’s (D-MN) and Rep. Jan Schakowsky’s (D-Il) deceptive “Combating International Islamophobia Act,” which just a few months ago was a patently obvious Islamist influence operation to put into place a legislative proposal that sought to establish in the Department of State the “Office to Monitor and Combat Islamophobia.” A more appropriate name for this proposed legislation would have been “The American Caliph Act.” They simply wanted to empower a government official with the ability to label criticism of Islam hate speech—basically an anti-blasphemy czar in our own government. The endorsement of this legislation by groups like the ADL and silence from established groups like the AJC says everything one needs to know about how far off the mark so many American Jewish organizations are from identifying what is the best interests of America, modern American Muslims, and dare I say, their own Jewish communities.
And it was not just about this one act. Since day one, the Biden administration began peppering its rolls with Islamists and their sympathizers in all its corners with Palestinian Islamist sympathizer Reema Dodin at the White House to CAIR fundraiser Khizr Khan at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), and now even an attempt to place the long controversial Rashad Hussain as Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom at the State Department. All of these appointments are flagrantly pro-Islamist and thus by definition facilitating anti-Semitism.
What these groups dominated by universalist and collectivist Jews fail to understand is that to patronize Muslim societies and communities with a different set of human standards than those embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a moral relativism that insults every Muslim and citizen inclined otherwise in those nations. It also expects less of Muslims living in the West who remain silent against the obvious intimations of anti-Semitism that beset so much of the Arabic and Muslim-dominated media.
Tough love is the highest form of respect. Demanding a minimum standard of nonviolence is by no means enough.
Moral relativism is exactly what the theocrats of the Muslim Brotherhood want in order to widen rather than close the divide between the ideas of liberty and Islamism.
That the Jewish community does not confront the scourge of Muslim anti-Semitism also makes it more challenging for those few Muslim imams, scholars, or activists with the courage to publicly take on the anti-Semitism of Islamist leaders. When these brave reformers arise, instead of being embraced by their Jewish brothers and sisters, they are either silenced, or not given sufficient attention or support. The examples of Islamist-inspired anti-Semitism leading to terror against Jews are sadly too numerous to list.
Common among Islamist thought of all stripes is the utilization of hatred of Jews to marginalize their antagonists from within and thus avoid substantive debate about their own theological authenticity within Islam. Islamism depends upon conspiracy in order to explain the weakness of the Muslim condition and the need for Muslim collectivism and Islamic statehood and, ultimately, neo-caliphism.
Anti-Semitism has long been a tool utilized by Islamists in order to invoke common sympathy from secular nationalists, who also fostered a hatred for Jews, in order to avoid national introspection. In fact, anti-Semitism is the one ideological litmus test shared by both secular autocrats and Islamists across Muslim-majority nations. At the UN, the radical far Left and the Islamists work hand in hand to turn the world community of nations against Israel and all Western values. When Venezuela, China, and Russia work together with Iran, Syria, and Qatar, this is the global version of the Red-Green Axis.
And at home, the Red-Green Axis is epitomized by the likes of radical progressive Rep. Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) working together with radical Islamist Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN). They normalize anti-Semitism and its anti-Zionism. Through 2020 and 2021 too many American Jewish organizations stayed silent as the Black Lives Matter movement used the politics of identity and race in order to stifle free speech and destroy the foundations of America, essentially lifting a page right out of Islamist movements across the Arab world. Rewriting history is their goal. Whether it is the Taliban destroying statues of Buddha in Afghanistan or BLM rioters destroying statues of our founding fathers in the U.S., the goals are similar. The affiliation of BLM leaders with deeply anti-Semitic movements like the Nation of Islam and the Blank Panthers is hardly a coincidence. How can we Muslims, ready to combat them within our communities, do so when they are blindly tolerated or even endorsed by essentially everyone on the American Left, including leading Jewish organizations?
And despite all of this, too many American Jews have failed to develop the understanding and conviction to directly confront the anti-Semitism of global Islamist movements and unravel the very fabric and platform through which Islamist leaders spread their ideas. Because where anti-Semitism thrives, so too does the eventual threat against other faith minorities and the very foundations of democracy. Only with bold new partnerships that lift up honest allies and confront the dissimulators will our chances of victory against Islamists be realized.
Here are a few obvious things that Jewish leaders who care about the threats to their community (and to America) from Islamist anti-Semitism should do:
On Sunday, July 11, 2021, an impressive array of more than 100 Jewish and interfaith organizations concerned about the rising tide of anti-Semitism in America held a rally at the U.S. Capitol. Hoping to match the success of a rally for Soviet Jewry organized by famed Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky that drew more than 250,000 American Jews, the organizers even provided free bus transportation for people to come from Baltimore, Boston, New Jersey, New York, and Philadelphia. Sadly, their good intentions weren’t amply rewarded. Estimates of crowd size ranged from 300 by the ever-hostile media to 3,000 by the organizers, who consoled themselves that it was a hot summer day and millions of viewers watched via Zoom.
Other Jewish activists saw it differently, however. Foreign policy analyst Mitchell Bard summarized as follows: “The country’s largest and most active organizations, which are spending millions of dollars to fight anti-Semitism, failed to convince their members it was worth their time to show the American public that Jewish lives matter.” Jonathan S. Tobin, editor-in-chief of the Jewish News Syndicate, noting the difference in support of Israel from the politically and religiously liberal majority of the community versus those who are Orthodox, politically conservative, or pro-Zionist, questioned whether American Jews are really united against anti-Semitism. CUNY Professor Dr. Phyllis Chesler questioned whether rallies have any effect.
Respected commentator Jonathan Rosenblum observed: “The fecklessness of American Jewish leadership was on full display at the recent rally. The organizers felt the need to emphasize that the rally was ‘against all hatred,’ not just anti-Semitism. That message both distorts and trivializes anti-Semitism…. The speakers at the anti-Semitism rally were carefully mooted to exclude any ardent advocates for Israel or anyone who might be charged with Islamophobia… No speakers were called upon to demonstrate the absurdity of claims of Israeli apartheid and genocide or to explain why they are anti-Semitic.” His conclusion: “The failure of the ‘No Fear’ rally represents the failure… of American Jewish leadership.”
How did we reach this point where political ideology outweighs what should be unified Jewish support for Israel? For answers, we can look back at our history. To begin, consider the interpretation of Isaiah 1:10-17, in which the prophet castigates Israel, saying that because of their sinful behavior, God finds the people’s offerings worthless, rejects their prayers, and concludes, “Learn to do good, seek justice, vindicate the victim, render justice to the orphan, take up the grievance of the widow.”
The simple meaning of these verses is to observe both the particularistic ritual commandments between the Jewish people and God and the universalistic commandments for ethical behavior toward people. A deeper meaning can be inferred: the two sets of commandments have equal standing. Thus, when the Enlightenment swept across Europe and many Jews came to regard the ritual commandments as archaic, the ethical commandments, which later came to be known as “social justice,” became the core of their Jewish identity. They justified this substitution by improperly invoking a 16th century Kabbalistic concept, tikkun olam, literally “healing/repairing the world,” thereby affording them a convenient way to escape the burden of being a Jew in Europe without converting to another religion. While Chabad, for example, regards tikkun olam as a basic religious obligation of everyone to bring the world closer to the state of perfection that God wants, the newly secularized Jews began to equate it with socialism, and in 20th century America with New Deal liberalism, so during the Holocaust, they largely kept silent to remain under the radar.
After the Holocaust, even Reform Jews, who had been reluctant to embrace Zionism, initially supported the new State of Israel. As the ideology of progressivism supplanted liberalism, however, and as Israel and its supporters were increasingly slandered with the bogus charge of “oppressing poor, darker-skinned, indigenous [so they falsely claim] Palestinians,” secularized Jews began distancing themselves from Israel. Under the rubric of tikkun olam, they instead embraced progressivism as a universalized view that allowed them to disassociate themselves from mainstream Judaism and Zionism, which they could then disparage as being too parochial as opposed to their wider vision of caring for all of humanity.
This process is discussed in much greater detail by Jonathan Neumann in his book To Heal the World? How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel. He asserts that the Jewish left has effectively hijacked Judaism and misused tikkun olam, which he categorizes as having no place in Judaism, to conflate the religion with their social justice agenda, which is political, not religious. Charity and good works are not the same as tikkun olam, nor is tikkun olam a commandment. Mr. Neumann further asserts that “Not only has tikkun olam enabled the misappropriation of Scripture, but its stridently universalistic aspirations undermine Jewish Peoplehood and in so doing give sanction to anti-Zionism and assimilation. This state of affairs is not sustainable.”
We can now analyze why, as well as how, established Jewish leadership went astray. As compassionate people with a history of persecution, as well as a Divine injunction to pursue justice, we’re naturally drawn to the cause of civil rights and internationalism, both of which have been pre-empted by the left. Consequently, our leadership sides with minorities and ignores or excuses their anti-Semitism, while concentrating on anti-Semitism from the far right fringe, which, while their propensity for violence makes them a threat, is small in numbers and has little popular support. Adding insult to injury, one man, Arab-American activist James Zogby, outsmarted the entire American Jewish establishment by portraying Palestinians as the victims of Israeli oppression, which enabled him to enlist first college students and then the media to support the Palestinian cause.
Thus the ADL, the longtime lead Jewish defense organization, convened a summit conference, ostensibly to fight anti-Semitism, featuring radical leftist speakers but no supporters of Israel, which claimed that fighting anti-Semitism requires Jews to confront our own “racism.”
Daniel Greenfield hypothesizes that “the ADL is careful to cultivate an imaginary distinction between good leftist hatred of Israel and bad leftist hatred of Jews so as not to offend its political allies.” The ADL endorsed Black Lives Matter and critical race theory, despite their ideology identifying Jews as having “white privilege” — even Israeli Jews, the majority of whom are people of color from North Africa and the Middle East. It also adopted a definition of racism under which only whites can be racist, namely, “The marginalization and/or oppression of people of color based on a socially constructed racial hierarchy that privileges white people,” which it had to withdraw after a wave of objections, and then hired left-wing activist Tema Smith, who has a long history of criticizing Israel, as its new director of Jewish outreach and partnerships.
The same pattern of siding with the “progressives” predominates at the local level as well. For example, Patti Munter cited her local Rochester, New York, Jewish Federation as consistently inviting anti-Zionist, pro-BDS activists to speak while ignoring Zionists. She observed, “Rochester’s community leadership has become so wedded to the new ‘progressive’ ideology that it forbids community discussions, inquiries, or challenges to it.” Moreover, “[r]adical anti-Zionist activists and their allies are building a new religion inside of Judaism, and it has seeped inside the Jewish community’s mainstream organizations…. An increasing number of us see that Jewish organizations have been enabling and even promoting groups …which are now so visibly our foes.”
More disturbing yet is a developing trend for states, starting with California, to require ethnic studies courses in the public schools that are anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist, with support from the teachers’ unions. Although Governor Newsom vetoed the first version of such a mandate that openly advocated for BDS (Boycott, Disinvestment, Sanctions) against Israel before signing a second version that toned down the anti-Semitism, educational consultants with the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Coalition (LESMC) have made inroads with major California school districts, starting with Castro Valley, to adopt the original version. Even worse, the University of California is considering a mandate that would force every student in the state, even those attending Jewish day schools or other private schools, to take a course using the LESMC curriculum to qualify for admission to the University of California.
Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) now mandates a curriculum to be used in all public schools whose lesson plans about the Arab-Israeli conflict have been rewritten to exclusively reflect the Palestinian point of view. While there was opposition in California, CAMERA (the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America), reported that “Boston’s ADL, Federation, and JCRC failed to properly vet these materials. They have been informed, and yet we see no evidence they will act. In a previous case in Newton, Massachusetts, they betrayed the community and defended anti-Israel curriculum. Jewish leadership seems conflicted between their progressive “woke” ideology and their fiduciary responsibility to the community. Instead of doing their job, they pretend that their political ideology is consistent with the best interests of the Jewish community.”
To summarize, the American Jewish community is threatened collectively as never before. Last fall, in an interview with The Jewish Press, Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein made an ominous statement: “The only prediction I make, despite my abhorrence of such predictions, is that the noose is tightening around American Jewry.”
Especially frightening is the situation at America’s universities: the more elite the college, the more intense the anti-Semitism. It is chilling to think that these campus bullies will be the next generation of America’s leaders throughout society. A majority of Jewish college students have felt the need to hide their identity, and Jews are increasingly being excluded from student government and other campus activities.
As we have seen, the response of mainstream Jewish organizations has been inadequate. If that continues, they may spawn new, competing defense organizations (which is already happening) and/or a “revolt of the masses.”
Domestic anti-Semitism is linked to international anti-Zionism, which has reached the point where Palestinians gleefully anticipate that their ludicrous charges that Israel is an apartheid state (which grossly insults black South Africans who experienced real apartheid) will succeed in delegitimizing Israel, whereupon the dictators’ club that is the United Nations and its “Human Rights Council,” supported by mendacious reports from Amnesty International and other so-called human rights groups, will call for global BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) and for arresting and trying Israelis for alleged war crimes. While their tactics succeeded with South Africa, as it is said in physics, a good idea works only once.In this trying time, we need to remember being delivered from slavery in Egypt, from Haman’s plans of genocide in Persia, and from the Seleucid Greeks’ plans against Judaism. It is beyond the scope of this essay to discuss possible courses of action for us. Suffice it to say, in the words of the philosopher Yogi Berra, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
Thanks to the man on a blue notebook, I became a rabbi instead of a doctor.
That blue notebook was called a machberet, and it was given out to students in afternoon Hebrew Schools during the 1950s. On the front was the likeness of Maimonides, the renowned 12th century rabbi. Until I was a freshman in college, my total knowledge of Maimonides was the little I remembered from Hebrew School: he was a famous rabbi, philosopher, and physician who lived in medieval Spain.
Until I was a freshman in college, I had planned to become a doctor. My high school and college freshman course work included the required math and science courses. But because a high GPA was a requirement for acceptance into medical school, I searched for electives that would help me maintain at least a 3.5 GPA. I heard about a course entitled “The History of the Jews in Spain,” which was reputed to be “an easy A,” requiring only class attendance and a term paper.
Planning to become a physician, I decided to write my term paper on “Maimonides as Physician.” As I began my research, I discovered an abbreviated translation of his most famous philosophical work, A Guide for the Perplexed.
It was 1970, and the political and social upheaval occurring in this country at that time was causing a lot of people to be “perplexed.” That perplexity was echoed in a popular song of the time: “There’s somethin’ happenin’ here/What it is ain’t exactly clear.” My biggest concerns at the time were getting good grades, getting through my fraternity’s pledge program, and getting dates for Saturday night. When it came to “perplexing” questions, I was like the son at the Passover seder who doesn’t even know how to ask.
The writings of the man on the blue machberet changed all that. I began to ask questions I had never even considered—questions that people had been wrestling with for millennia, but were a jolting “wake up call” to this 18-year-old kid: Why are we here? Why is there evil? If there is evil, how can God allow it? What exactly is God’s role in this world, and what is ours?” Realizing that what I was reading was offering answers to these questions made them all the more compelling.
I was raised in home that was a kind of religious “mixed marriage.” My dad’s parents were Orthodox immigrants from Russia; my mother’s family was totally assimilated and she had no Jewish education. The compromise was joining a Conservative synagogue where my dad could pray in Hebrew with his head covered, and there was enough English to keep my mother’s attention. Our Jewish observance was limited to Shabbat candles, a fairly strict Passover observance, and observing two days of Rosh Hashanah and of course Yom Kippur. I looked forward to my Bar Mitzvah but chose not to continue my formal Jewish education after Confirmation. All my friends were Jewish, but the Jewish youth organization we belonged to did not really stress Judaism per se. In short, Judaism to me was more of a somewhat cherished hobby, and not the life commitment that it would eventually become.
With the encouragement of my rabbi, I spent the summer of 1970 at a summer program for college students at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Returning from that summer, I came home more religiously observant and eager to begin pre-rabbinic studies. I changed my major from Biology to Hebrew Studies, with the hope of entering JTS’s rabbinical program after college graduation.
But a funny thing happened on the way to becoming a Conservative rabbi; I became a Reform rabbi.
Back then, JTS expected prospective students to have a minimum of Talmud knowledge before being accepted into its rabbinic program. Those lacking this knowledge had to take an extra year or two of preparatory work. I was prepared to make the commitment, but then a recruiter from the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion came to my campus. Out of curiosity, I met with him. When I told him of my background and journey, he assured me I was the kind of student HUC was looking for. When I asked if my newly acquired level of religious observance might not make me such a “good fit” in a movement that had jettisoned so much of traditional Jewish practice and belief, he assured me that the Reform movement was “re-forming” itself in some significant ways. He pointed out that:
* The “classical Reform” familiar to many non-Reform Jews (e.g., services reminiscent of church worship, yarmulkes/head coverings and tallesim/prayer shawls discouraged, dietary laws rejected) was becoming less the norm. Yarmulkes were showing up in Reform synagogues, and guitars were being introduced to supplement—or even replace—the Protestant-sounding organ.
* The Reform movement’s historical ambivalence regarding a Jewish state had significantly changed after Israel’s victory in 1967. Reform rabbis were now preaching full-throated support of Israel, and many were introducing more Hebrew into worship services.
* Many HUC students were also becoming more religiously observant—covering their heads during prayer, keeping kosher, even putting on t’fillin/phylacteries. Some, he assured me, were even more observant than I was. (Several fellow students eventually joined the Conservative movement; one went through HUC’s five-year rabbinical program while living as an Orthodox Jew. He eventually became a Chabad rabbi.)
Finally, he added: “In order to strengthen their Hebrew skills, our students are now required to spend the first year in Israel. We don’t have a ‘prior knowledge’ requirement to be accepted into our program, but we’ll give you the skills to learn as much Talmud and other traditional texts as you want.”
This was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
To be sure, everything he told me during that conversation was true. During my time at HUC, my level of religious observance never made me feel out of place. Back then, the Reform movement was committed to true religious diversity, and to creating a “big tent” that included different approaches to Judaism, from “radical” to “classical” to “traditional.” This diversity became evident when the new Reform prayerbook Gates of Prayer—with its ten different Erev Shabbat services—replaced the Union Prayerbook.
During my time at HUC, I gravitated to those teachers whose understanding of Reform Judaism was more committed to holding onto traditional Jewish beliefs and practices. They themselves had been raised as Orthodox Jews (some with Orthodox s’micha/ordination), but their exposure to 20th century modernity had led them away from their Orthodox roots. Nevertheless, unlike advocates of “classical Reform,” their embrace of modernity had not erased their commitment to traditional core beliefs and practices. Acknowledging that “personal autonomy” was the watchword of enlightened Western culture, they sought to create a synthesis of personal autonomy and commitment to the requirements of the Sinai Covenant, as delineated in the teachings of the Torah and the Sages. From them I learned that:
* An authentic Reform Jew was an informed Jew;
* While personal autonomy is a positive value, Jewish religious choices are authentically “Jewish” only if they are demonstrably connected to the Covenant our people made with God at Sinai;
* “God, Torah, and the people of Israel” were still at the heart of Reform Judaism and nothing in Jewish tradition should be a priori foreign to a Reform Jew;
* Struggling to maintain a dynamic balance between covenantal commitment and personal freedom is the challenge a serious Reform Jew faces daily.
Throughout my rabbinic career, I believed that these are what defined me as a Reform Jew. Since my ordination in 1977, I’ve served as a rabbi in both Reform and Conservative congregations, a campus Hillel director, and a health-care chaplain. Although most of my work has not been in Reform congregations, I continued to belong to the Central Conference of American Rabbis (the professional organization of the Reform rabbinate). I always considered myself a Reform rabbi and a Reform Jew.
That is, until a few years ago.
A few years ago, it became apparent that Reform Judaism—through the efforts of its rabbinic and lay leaders—was moving away from these core Jewish beliefs. Although the words “God, Torah, and the people of Israel” were still invoked, they were now equivocal terms, with meanings very different from the traditional ones. It was reminiscent of 1885 when Reform Judaism set down its principles in the Pittsburgh Platform. That statement affirmed a decidedly progressive approach to religious belief and observance, one that called for adapting to “the views and habits of modern civilization.”
Once upon a time, that approach encouraged creating a “big tent” in which debate and discussion would help modern Jews better understand what G-d wants from us.
But as today’s Reform leaders have increasingly embraced the values and worldview of contemporary progressivism, the “big tent” that once accommodated diverse beliefs and approaches has metamorphosized into a confining cement bunker of theological and political progressive orthodoxy. That orthodoxy has one objective: the promotion of “social justice.”
The notion of “social justice” is not an organic Jewish concept, but rather has its beginnings in Catholic theology. Nevertheless, progressive Jews have “Judaized” it by identifying it (albeit inaccurately) with the rabbinic notion of tikkun olam. Literally meaning “repair of the world” and identified with inaugurating the Kingdom of the Almighty (malkhut Shaddai) here on earth, tikkun olam was understood by the Talmudic Sages to be efforts to make the world more humane, more “menschlikh.” Today, tikkun olam is promoted 1) as a mitzvah given at Sinai that virtually trumps all other mitzvot—including the ones Reform Jews usually ignore; and 2) often without any reference to the Kingdom of the Almighty. Moreover, tikkun olam/social justice is the larger rubric under which other “adjective-added” justices are promoted (environmental justice, transgender justice, restorative justice, etc.). This is at odds with Jewish teachings, because nowhere in Jewish religious texts are adjectives ever used when “justice” is discussed.
From my perspective, it is Reform’s singular devotion to this tenet that has caused it to be a movement in which noun and adjective are reversed: whereas Reform Judaism used to be a synonym for “progressive Judaism,” now it is a religion of “Jewish Progressivism.” And that greatly concerns me.
It greatly concerns me that the age-old, honored rabbinic methodology of discussion and debate to learn and deduce holy behavior is no longer encouraged. Indeed, Reform rabbis who dissent and challenge progressive (“woke”) wisdom discussed in online chats have been admonished, personally attacked, sometimes suspended, and even excommunicated/expelled from the conversations.
It greatly concerns me that a Reform rabbi would tell an adult Bat Mitzvah student that, despite Hebrew’s use of masculine pronouns when referring to God, she had to remove them from her speech because the synagogue only permitted “gender-neutral” language be used when referring to the Deity.
It greatly concerns me that rather than teaching her students that “nothing in Jewish tradition should be a priori foreign to a Reform Jew,” the teacher of that same class told her students that when it comes to certain commandments/observances, “we Reform Jews don’t do that.”
It greatly concerns me that during an online Shavuot discussion about the meaning of the covenantal obligations originating at Sinai, an HUC faculty member would declare categorically “but we Reform Jews have been given autonomy.”
It greatly concerns me that there are Reform rabbis who discourage brit milah, declaring that circumcision is “barbaric.”
It greatly concerns me that Reform’s commitment to social justice promotes universalism and “inclusivity” over Jewish particularism and the mandate that we Jews remain “a separate people” and focus on caring for our own before caring for others.
It greatly concerns me that the invited speaker at an HUC rabbinic graduation ceremony would call for an end to endogamy (marrying within one’s own group), with the response of “academic freedom” in response to criticisms of the speaker’s remarks.
It greatly concerns me that the singular focus on “inclusivity” now allows non-Jews to take leadership positions in synagogues and has resulted in some Reform synagogues removing all references to “chosen-ness” from worship services, lest guests and non-Jewish family members be offended.
It greatly concerns me that, rooted in progressive political ideology:
* Reform clergy—rabbis and cantors—are increasingly becoming “anti-Zionist,” publicly labeling Israel an “apartheid state,” and continuing to engage in actions that help and support Israel’s implacable enemies.
* Rabbis are preaching from their pulpits the doctrine of Critical Race Theory, which includes the nefarious lie that Jews, by virtue of sometimes “passing as white,” are automatically racist.
* The Reform movement’s political lobbying organization, Religious Action Center, invited the well-known and unapologetic anti-Semite Al Sharpton as a keynote speaker.
* A Reform rabbi, choosing to virtue-signal “welcoming the stranger” and throwing caution to the wind, invited a terrorist into his synagogue and almost got himself and his congregants killed.
* A member of URJ’s board expressed on social media his wish for the painful death of a sitting President and was not removed from his Board position, but merely “reprimanded.”
These are specific examples of how Reform Judaism is embracing the values and teachings of political progressivism, while moving away from Jewish values and teachings derived from Jewish texts. They are examples of a massive failure of Jewish moral leadership from spiritual leaders, too many of whom are rarely “spiritual” or “leaders.” Their teachings and actions have weakened our people and our people’s commitment to our unique covenant with God, at a time when we need more, not less, spiritual strength and confidence in that legacy bequeathed to us by our ancestors.
But what most concerns me is not just how they have moved us away, but how far they will move Reform away before it is no longer recognizably a Jewish movement.
It’s happened before.
When Jews lived in the Greco-Roman diaspora around the Mediterranean Sea, there were different Judaisms (sic) practiced, many significantly influenced by the cultural Hellenism of the time. Those Judaisms ultimately disappeared on their own or became so inundated by members and influences of the outside culture as to break with the Jewish community and its traditions, evolving into faith systems that sought to eclipse the mother faith.
Fast forward 2000 years and it is easy to see the circumstances in which history could repeat itself. Should that happen, God forbid, wherever the man on the blue notebook is—he will be very, very blue indeed.
As will so many of us.
Editors’ Note: Dexter Van Zile, an activist and defender of the Jewish people and Israel, agreed to let us re-publish this article to inform American Jews and the American people in general about the decline of the Jewish condition since he, as a Christian, began working in the pro-Israel field in 2005.
“Things have gotten worse,” Dexter said. “That’s undeniable. The spirit of Haman has gotten stronger over the years and it’s a stain on the honor of the American republic and a threat to our future. We’re at a ‘We know not Joseph’ moment.”
This piece is worth reading closely in its entirety, but there’s one passage that stands out: “People are frankly less afraid of Jews and Israel than they are of the people who attack them. People implicitly know that standing in solidarity with Jews makes them a target for hostility, which helps explain why we see a softening of support for Israel on the part of young Jews in the United States.”
Dexter’s warning is clear. The well-being of the Jewish community in the U.S. is under threat.
I’ve been struggling to understand a troubling phenomenon manifesting itself in American public life. For the life of me (and during my tenure at the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis—CAMERA–which I held for more than 15 years), I haven’t been able to understand why many progressive Jews in America express shame over the actions of Israel, while so many young Arabs and Muslims in the United States—who drape themselves in the mantle of progressivism—are so confident and aggressive in their support for the cause of Palestinian statehood, which by most objective measures is one of the more retrograde movements on the global agenda today.
I say that as a pro-Israel Christian who hopes that the Israel-Palestinian conflict will ultimately be ended through the application of a two-state solution.
Israel is by no means a perfect nation, but it treats its own citizens, minorities, dissidents, and even its adversaries who seek its destruction, better than any other country in the Middle East.
I’ve also had a tough time understanding why pro-Palestinian activists have been so much more confident, and frankly aggressive, in their activism over the past few years.
This puzzlement came to an end on Thursday, June 24th, 2021.
This was the date when I was mobbed by a group of anti-Israel protesters at a rally organized and promoted by the University of Massachusetts chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), which is part of a network of anti-Israel organizations that have a well-earned reputation for inciting hostility toward the Jewish state and violence toward Jews on college campuses in the United States.
The details are straightforward. Two of my former colleagues and I attended an anti-Israel rally organized by SJP that began on the steps of the Massachusetts State House, then went to the offices of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and then to the offices of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC). It was at the ADL offices where I was mobbed.
It was caught on video. After I was singled out by two speakers at the rally, who both proclaimed their rights to free speech, I was the target of repeated chants of “Zionist go home,” to which I responded with two or three iterations of “Am Yisrael Chai.”
In what I’ve called the longest seven minutes of my life, I was shouted at, spit at, had water thrown at me, and was shoved by a rally marshal who was ostensibly supposed to keep order at the event. The hate and hostility with which they targeted me was a profound and life-altering shock.
I was able to keep my cool, stand my ground, and by doing nothing more than carrying a pen and a notebook, elicit a public and undeniable expression of the hate and hostility that has been part of the anti-Israel movement since its founding.
These folks weren’t about peace or justice, but about inciting hostility on the part of their supporters and fear on the part of people who believe in the right of the Jews to have a state of their own. The hate was so manifestly ugly and virulent that only the most obtuse would say that the hate would be mollified by the dissolution of the Jewish state. This had to do with Jewish existence.
To be fair, a few people—heroes actually—stood in solidarity with me and tried to get the mob to settle down. These people called on the crowd to leave me alone. “He’s done nothing wrong.”
One Zionist is Not Worth It
Sadly, it wasn’t an appeal to people’s higher angels that was decisive in bringing the mobbing to an end. It was a young kippah-wearing man who warned the crowd, “They will use this against us,” and declared “One Zionist is not worth it,” that was able to get them to move on.
In the months since, colleagues who were with me that day have joked with me, asking, “Sooo, how many Zionists would have made punching you ‘worth it?’ Would three have been enough? Five? How about 10?” It was a parody of Abraham’s argument with God over the number of righteous people in Sodom.
There is one more thing I must report. In response to my two or three chants of “Am Yisrael Chai!,” the rally marshal who shoved me—whose Facebook page indicates he is a member of the Nation of Islam, or in his words, “A soldier of Farrakhan”—told me I had insulted the crowd by merely saying the word “Israel.” Israel has been turned into an epithet.
In the days after the mobbing, I spoke to an Orthodox Jew. I told him about having been pushed, spit at, doused with water and verbally abused. His response was quick and brutal.
“Welcome to Judaism!”
I could only laugh sardonically in response. My spiritual director said about the same thing after I told him what happened, declaring, “It’s good that it happened because you have an inkling of what it’s like to be a Jew.”
But my status as a pariah lasted only seven minutes. I was assailed for my beliefs, which can change, but Jewishness is what Hannah Arendt called an “existential given.” It is not something that can be abandoned, even by those who want to.
This was something Jean Amery understood when he looked at the Nuremburg Laws passed by Germany while sitting at a café in Vienna in 1935. Amery, who lacked the cultural heritage and religious belief that would make him a Jew in his own mind, realized that by passing the Nuremburg Laws, Nazi Germany had, “formally and with all possible clarity […] just made a Jew of me.”
Having read the Nuremburg Laws, I was no more Jewish now than I had been half an hour earlier. My features had not become more Mediterranean or Semitic, my range of associates was not suddenly filled with Hebrew references, the Christmas tree had not been transformed in an instant into a menorah. The verdict society had handed down to me, if it had any tangible impact, could only mean that I was henceforth given over to death.
By mobbing me that day in front of the offices of the ADL in Boston, the crowd was sending a message to the Jewish community in the area. “We will suspend the death sentence that has historically been directed at Jews as Jews, but only if you abandon any hope of sovereignty and self-determination. We will tolerate your existence, but don’t expect to exercise any agency or power in our presence. Look what we can do to your friend with impunity.”
But let’s be clear, the animus toward Jewish sovereignty is ultimately about Jewish existence. As Amery wrote in 1969: “Anyone who questions Israel’s right to exist is either too stupid to understand that he is contributing to or is intentionally promoting an über-Auschwitz.”
The Role of Fear
I can’t help but think that some people conclude that I am somehow in the wrong—and that while the crowd did some bad things, the people at the rally can be excused for what they did. I get the impression that some people believe that by attending the rally and introducing myself to one of its participants, I somehow invited the abuse heaped upon me.
People would not arrive at these conclusions out of moral or ethical reasoning, but out of a quick calculation of who represents a greater threat to their well-being: the eccentric looking guy with the pen, notepad, and three-day beard wearing a New England Patriots cap, or the mob of young people in keffiyehs and traffic vests heaping abuse on him.
For people whose lives are governed by such calculations, it’s better to ignore the event altogether and when forced to address the issue, concoct and promote a narrative in which the less threatening party is culpable for the disruption to peace and tranquility. Blame the weaker party because it’s the safer thing to do.
That is how many people analyze the Arab-Israeli conflict and threats to Jews in general — through a lens of fear and a misguided sense of self-preservation. They look at Israel and at Jews and see that the Jewish State and the Jewish people are the more reasonable party, less likely to perpetrate acts of violence against them than their adversaries.
The jihadists who attack Jews in Israel and elsewhere in the world are more likely to engage in acts of violence against people outside the region than Israeli and diaspora Jews. Consequently, it’s easier and safer to lambaste the Jews and their state for the continued existence of the Arab-Israeli conflict than it is to hold the Palestinians accountable for their misdeeds, and condemn them for their decade-long attempt to deprive the Jewish people of their sovereign state. As I have said many times before, make Jews unhappy, they’ll send letters. Offend the sensibilities of Islamists, and you might get killed.
This also explains why we see a lessening of support for Israel on the part of young people in Evangelical Protestantism in the United States. In short, when it comes to changing people’s opinions, violence, intimidation, and the threat of isolation work.
Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann wrote about this process in her book, The Spiral of Silence:fear of isolation is one of the primary drivers of public discourse. When people perceive a threat to their well-being and safety as a result of their political opinions, they will stop expressing those opinions in public. In sum, people are more afraid of being isolated than they are of being wrong. And when they choose safety over truth, they will rely on propagandists to give them the misinformation they need to kid themselves and others into thinking that they are in the right. When people experience isolation and intimidation as a result of their beliefs, they fall silent.
The impact of Noelle-Neumann’s spiral of silence can unfold quickly and dramatically. In 1976, Jean Amery reported:
Only a moment ago, it seemed natural to support the Israelis’ right to their own state. Suddenly one is struck by the fact that this support has become a veritable test of courage. Indeed, tomorrow it might well be considered offensive.
Tell me about it.
In light of the mobbing, I have concluded that the dictum that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” is simply false. The quality of life that we enjoy and the life circumstances enjoyed by the people who live after us is largely a consequence of the purpose, courage, and agency that we show in the face of historical challenges. We don’t have absolute control over our circumstances, but if we behave properly, with prudence and courage, we can expect things to be well for ourselves and our children.
But if we behave in a fearful and unprincipled manner, the quality of life we enjoy, and the quality of life enjoyed by those who come after us will decline. It will deteriorate.
There is no guarantee, providential or otherwise, of human life improving and moving upward in a positive, blessed spiral. The notion that it does is simply a lie, a nice pious lie that contradicts a Biblical truth, “Where leaders lack vision, the people perish.”
Now I Get It
The upshot is that I no longer have any difficulty understanding why many young Jews and Christians in the U.S. are starting to distance themselves from Israel. They have been bullied and intimidated into remaining silent. When that crowd shouted “Zionist go,” they were sending a message to anyone who would dare to speak in defense of the Jewish state in their presence.
But it won’t end with Jews or Israel. Just as lies about Israeli use of force against the Palestinians have been used to portray the Jewish state as an evil country with no right to exist, lies about American history have been used to justify the same message about the United States, with terrible effect.
In response to this dishonest narrative, elected officials have struggled to maintain the monopoly on force in American cities with disastrous results for the people who live in these cities regardless of their skin color. Murder rates have skyrocketed in large cities throughout the country, which has been destabilized in part by attacks on the Jewish people and their institutions.
One week after I was mobbed, I sat in the lobby of a police station in Boston to talk with a detective about what happened. As I waited, I got a text from my wife telling me that a Chabad Rabbi had been stabbed across the street from the Shaloh House in Brighton.
The attack was perpetrated by an Egyptian national who was in the United States on an education visa. This attack generated a huge outcry on the part of the powers that be in the metro-Boston area, which is reassuring.
But this attack, and the many others that have taken place since last June, have driven home a troubling reality: we are confronting a pinch point in American public life.
The Jews are at the center of that pinch point, and the destiny of our republic is right in there with them.
It’s difficult enough to fight anti-Semitism. It’s that much more challenging when Jewish leaders work to silence those who want to fight, who favor creative approaches, and who think “outside the box.”
“Deadly Exchange” is a campaign of Jew hatred that blames Israeli and American Jews for police assaults on American black people. It promotes the false claims that American police departments that take part in counter-terrorism and leadership training in Israel are actually trained to “terrorize black and brown communities” here in America. Even a cursory glance at the syllabi for these training courses should put these malicious lies to rest. Yet a campaign to push city officials to boycott the Israeli training succeeded in Durham, NC, when on April 16, 2018, the city council voted to ban that city’s police department from participating in the Israeli programs. Durham thereby became the first, and to date only, American city to acquiesce to a Deadly Exchange campaign.
Those who led the “Deadly Exchange” campaign were affiliated with Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), an anti-Israel, pro-BDS organization that has partnered with Jew haters like disgraced former Women’s March leader Linda Sarsour, and convicted terrorist Rasmea Odeh. By explicitly promoting anti-Semitism—particularly in black and brown communities—their efforts encouraged other haters to come out en masse, including a member of Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, Fariq Zaidi, who called attention to the “Synagogue of Satan that’s always lingering in the background” and the “inordinate [amount of] control that some Jews have over the political system in this city.”
The people behind the Durham victory were encouraged to bring the campaign to its sister city, Raleigh.
We, co-founders of the Jewish advocacy organization, North Carolina Coalition for Israel (NCCI), were appalled to learn that Raleigh was now being targeted. There had been plenty of opportunity to see the damage done in Durham, both to the Jewish community and to the overall safety and security of the city. We were part of a group that met with two Durham council members to declare our case just days before their vote, and seeing the belated, appeasing response of local Jewish institutions and the damage that resulted inspired us to form the NCCI. Following approval of the “Deadly Exchange” resolution, Durham was inundated with vile anti-Semitism, as posters, fliers, and swastikas popped up all around town. When NCCI board member Deborah Friedman discovered a petition for a “Deadly Exchange” campaign in Raleigh that had more than 700 signatures, NCCI activists felt that our Jewish community had to work together to do everything we could to avoid replicating the Durham fiasco. We reached out to other community members to bring awareness of the motion and to coordinate our efforts.
What we learned was that the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) and at least one other local Jewish group were, in fact, aware of the Raleigh petition, but had not shared this information with the community. Several of them had met privately with two of Raleigh’s seven city council members. When asked about the meetings, they told us, “If I had to guess, it’s not going to pass.” However, we knew that city council members in Durham had been dishonest with us when we met, including with some of these same Jewish community leaders, providing reassurances that the council members would not be voting to approve a resolution, then promptly voting very shortly after to approve the measure. We therefore found the guessing part to be less than reassuring.
One key lesson we’ve learned from our experiences with combating anti-Semitism is that no single approach is a surefire solution. If dealing with reasonable people, then quietly listening to and reasoning with them may be effective; at other times, exposing the situation to the glare of the public forum is essential, especially for elected government officials; and sometimes “calling out” and shaming particularly adamant anti-Semites is effective.
One of our NCCI members, Kathryn Wolf, was an especially strong advocate for a robust, proactive response to prevent Raleigh from following in Durham’s footsteps. She wanted us to speak at the Raleigh City Council meeting. The NCCI board wholeheartedly agreed. We informed other local Jewish leaders of our plans to speak at the meeting to try and coordinate activities. The pressure to silence us was acute, particularly from the local JCRC and a very small local Jewish education group that has a board member in common with them. There were phone calls and emails almost daily, telling us not to speak, some of them angry and threatening. We were told that if Raleigh were to pass the boycott, the fault would be deliberately and publicly laid on us. We were told that the mayor was angry that NCCI planned to speak. We were told that the JCRC didn’t want us to speak or be involved in any way. We were told that it was none of our business since many of our supporters don’t live in Raleigh. We were told that it shouldn’t look like one fringe group battling against another. We were told we would be giving JVP undeserved press.
This response from local Jewish leaders was especially intense, but otherwise not unusual; they insisted that they were the experts when it came to handling these things. We were seen as impolite loudmouths who should stay out of “their” business. But of course, continue to send those donations!
While we appreciated that several other Jewish institutions were working behind the scenes, we believed that speaking publicly about this issue was critically important. “Why not,” we argued, “get the pro-Israel narrative out first publicly so that we don’t play defense as we did in Durham?” The Raleigh “Deadly Exchange” petitioners were running a stealth campaign, we explained, just as they did in Durham, so why let them control the rules of engagement? As exemplified by James Garfield: “Light itself is a great corrective. A thousand wrongs and abuses that are grown in darkness disappear like owls and bats before the light of day.”
The pressure on NCCI to be silent continued, from a variety of directions. “If you decide to speak up, all you will be doing is opening up opportunity for JVP to present their case to the media. No one knows about the issue, so why bring it up? I see nothing good that can come out of you coming to speak up. Creating a brouhaha over a non-issue is a mistake.” Another of our critics cited the Torah portion of the week, the story of Korach, who led a rebellion against the leadership of Moses, in an effort to stop us, implying that speaking publicly would divide the community.
There were efforts to demoralize us. Someone with a large distribution list let people know that he had decided to lay low. Therefore, he didn’t think his people would be coming to support the speeches, so NCCI should “not expect a turnout from my list.”
The attacks on NCCI from so many directions were difficult to bear and took a toll. After all, there is no science to fighting defamation. Each case needs to be assessed separately. Surely there are times when not responding turns out to be the wiser path, but we were firmly convinced that in this case, given what we knew about what happened in Durham, we needed to be more proactive and public in our efforts. It also saddened us to realize that if these same people had put as much effort into defending our people in public as they did in attacking us, both Durham and Raleigh would be the better for it.
In the end, we pushed forward. A nice crowd came out to support NCCI at the June 15, 2021, city council meeting. We all had to endure a three-hour session together. Four of us — Amy Rosenthal, Deborah Friedman, Josh Ravitch, and Kathryn Wolf —passionately and eloquently presented our case to the council. Kathryn ended her talk with George Washington’s famous promise to the Jews:
“In 1790, a promise was made to us. President George Washington sent a letter to the Hebrew congregation in Rhode Island: ‘May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants and there shall be none to make him afraid.’ You will have a choice. You will uphold Washington’s promise or you will break it. Raleigh will judge you by your decision. America will judge you by your decision, and history will judge you too.”
We were pleasantly surprised to learn that the chair of the JCRC had signed up after realizing that we were not to be deterred, and he too spoke effectively at the council meeting.
Afterward, one person who had stridently opposed us graciously reached out to congratulate us. Others who had tried to intimidate us calmed down, and we renewed most of our usual relationships. The chair of the JCRC expressed the desire to work with us in the future.
It’s now been more than eight months since NCCI went public with our concerns. The “Deadly Exchange” petition is stagnating online, and no police training boycott has been proposed to the Raleigh City Council. Our hope is that the old guard institutions are learning that today’s formidable challenges demand more varied and vigorous approaches in defense of our Jewish people. Jewish activists across the country must begin to challenge inadequate, misguided, and unimaginative Jewish leaders. The lesson from Durham and Raleigh is clear: Where leadership is lacking, step up and lead. Our “leaders” might actually follow.
The Jews of Massachusetts are facing a storm of institutionalized enmity as anti-Israel curricula are spreading to public schools statewide. On February 1, 2022, I published an article describing how state-wide guidelines on teaching the Middle East had been changed in 2018 to tilt heavily against Israel. Massachusetts public school teachers were told to instruct their students about “Palestinian loss of land and the creation of refugees by Israeli military action” and that there had been a “diverse mix of cultures (e.g. Jews, Palestinians, and Arabs of Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Druze backgrounds) in the region in the late 20th and early 21st centuries,” among other things.
In their opposition to a case I filed to take anti-Israel bias out of the curricula in Newton, MA, lawyers for the Massachusetts Teachers Union argued that these lessons were taught pursuant to the state’s standards and that they are required by law. If indeed the standards are followed, they will ensure that children across the state are indoctrinated to believe that indigenous Palestinians were driven out of their homes by the Israeli army, and that Israel is continuing this “ethnic cleansing” today. It was disconcerting to learn that when asked about how to fix these standards, Jewish leaders in Boston said they were not aware of the anti-Israel changes.
Yet it was pursuant to this state-sanctioned, agenda-driven version of history, that children in a Newton high school were shown the film Ismail on the school’s “Middle East Day.” The film’s opening scene depicts Nazi-like Israeli soldiers in 1948 force-marching Palestinians, with only the belongings they could carry, to refugee camps all the while ordering them, imitating the Nazi “macht schnell,” to move faster, mocking them, and striking them with the butts of their rifles. Newton students have been taught that Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine and Tel Aviv the capital of Israel, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is definitively not a clash of civilizations or religions, but merely a border dispute (heavily hinting that it could easily be settled by risk-free Israeli concessions), and that the Palestinians—and not the Jews—are the true indigenous people of Israel. The Jews’ ancient, historical connection to the land has been obscured, and Palestinian terrorism, as well as their leaders’ repeated rejection of the Jewish state, has been obfuscated. These false and deceitful lessons are the new standard.
On January 17, 2022, I wrote to Massachusetts Jewish leaders—the ADL, Federation, AJC, and the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC)—pleading with them to take action against this hateful indoctrination being taught under the guise of education, but they have not responded. They have, however, communicated with other members of the Jewish community who were alarmed by my article thanking them for “sharing their concerns,” assuring them that they “consider any and all allegations of anti-Semitism in Massachusetts’ curricular content with the utmost of gravity,” and that they are “actively investigating.” Follow-up letters to these organizations asking about what they are doing to investigate and exactly what they advise the community to do, however, have been ignored. It is important to note that the revised anti-Israel standards that I discovered can be verified with a click of a mouse on the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s website, and going to page 158; any common citizen can easily “investigate.”
In 2021, in order to put a halt to the rising incidents of anti-Semitism in Massachusetts and the anti-Semitic lessons being taught in Massachusetts schools, Representative Steven Howitt introduced an amendment to the budget, “Condemnation and Definition of Anti-Semitism,” which would have adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism. Espousal of this definition would prohibit 1) comparing Jews to Nazis and 2) denying the Jewish right to self-determination. Claiming that the existence of the State of Israel is a racist endeavor and ahistorical and propagandistic lessons would also have been blocked, but both the ADL and the JCRC refused to support the amendment. Jewish Voice for Peace, the Alliance for Water Justice in Palestine, and the Unitarian Universalists for Justice in the Middle East, among others, organized to oppose the bill. The amendment was subsequently removed.
As if this were not enough, Massachusetts Jews are now facing yet another educational onslaught in the proposed ethnic studies bill, entitled “An Act Relative to Anti-Racism, Equity and Justice in Education.” The preamble to the bill states that,
Whereas the events of 2020…including…the murder of George Floyd have elucidated the emergent nature of the social, economic and health disparities caused by racial inequity, including but not limited to: police brutality, profiling and murders of Black and brown people, anti-Asian violence…[T]he insurrection of January 6, 2021 revealed the imminent danger posed by rampant disinformation and white supremacy to the safety and integrity of our nation… [W]hite-centric history ha[s] fostered lies, systemic inequality and outright violence, it is in the best interest of the Commonwealth that education in dismantling racism be taught to all students…, that truth and reconciliation regarding slavery, genocide, land theft and systemic racism is centered, that students of color and students from immigrant and indigenous communities may find their rightful place reflected in the history they learn….
This type of legislation was just passed in California with very negative consequences for Jews. The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) has alerted the community to the dangers this legislation presents. CAMERA’s analysis shows how an ethnic studies curriculum in Massachusetts will likely have the same anti-Israel and anti-Semitic content as the California one, and how this will put a target on the back of every Jewish child. As we have all come to expect with woke-inspired efforts, anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish violence are not mentioned in the bill’s preamble. The woke movement that has captured academia has already evoked far more anti-Semitism than is actually being reported by the media.
The Jewish Community Relations Council of Boston (JCRC), instead of fighting back, seems eager to align the Jewish community with an ideology that is inimical to Jewish interests. Relieved to have the only Jewish seat at the table of the Commission for Anti-Racism in the proposed bill, the JCRC—in testimony submitted to the Joint Committee on Education—glowingly endorsed identity pedagogy, and did not comment on the problem that this approach creates for the Jewish community. They wrote only that they are “aware that research has shown that students are empowered when they see themselves and their history reflected in their school curriculum, leading to better grades and higher graduation rates.” (The only study on the effects of an ethnically oriented curriculum that I am aware of evaluated a pilot program in San Francisco, which improved attendance rates and grades for at-risk Hispanic students and boys.) The JCRC did make general procedural complaints to the Committee, writing that there are no members from the legislature or the administration on the proposed board, that the definitions in the goals section are vague, and that the board’s fiscal power has no oversight. The American Jewish Committee voiced the same mild definitional concerns. It seems their strategy is to bless the general concept of teaching identity politics, while at the same time hoping their weak and ineffective protests will demonstrate their efforts to challenge those behind the identity politics. It is an approach that maintains the JCRC’s embrace of its left-wing “allies,” even as this same strategy, adopted for the same reasons by Jewish leaders in California, is failing to protect the community from the spread of anti-Jewish “lessons” in the public schools. Jewish leaders in Boston have neither explained nor discussed this approach with the community, and have not told the community of the same strategy’s defeat in California.
The obvious peril for Jews in such a mandated ethnic studies curriculum rests in how Jews will be portrayed. In California, the original model for ethnic studies cited examples of “successful” social movements fighting for change. Included in the model is the BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanctions) movement, with a link to its website, which claims that the movement aims “to end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law.” Analysts of the BDS movement explain that its real aim is the destruction of Israel. As they seem to be doing in Boston, Jewish leaders in California tried to have it both ways: endorse the general concepts of teaching about identities and “white oppressors”—to stay on the good side of their progressive allies—but eliminate the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic elements. Here’s the catch: although they were successful in getting the final version approved by Californian authorities to omit teaching about BDS, California teachers are in fact free to use whatever model they choose because individual school districts are autonomous, just as they are in Massachusetts. Indeed, CAIR and the San Francisco-based Arab Resource and Organizing Center are brazenly promoting the original version, not the one approved by an education board, whom they characterize as people “more concerned with listening to the whispers of lobbyists and the voices of the oppressors than the cries of the oppressed.” Indeed, authors of that version, which incorporates critical race theory, are avidly promoting its use to school districts. In that original version, which will very likely be taught in many California schools, Israel will be defamed as a settler, colonialist, apartheid empire, which violates international law and should be dismantled.
If any version of the ethnic studies bill gets the nod in Massachusetts, even one that deletes the worst anti-Israel materials, radical and leftist teachers will presumably follow their California comrades. Notably, Allyson Tintiangco-Cubales, the California organizer responsible for producing the first version of the California bill, as well as Samia Shoman, the author responsible for the most anti-Semitic lessons in that version, are both consulting for the Ethnic Studies Now! Organizing Committee of the Boston Teachers Union, and the version currently being taught in a pilot program in Boston schools looks almost identical to the original California one. It is even possible that the same anti-Semitic ethnic studies curriculum that is being pushed in California, and is already being piloted in Boston schools, may become sanctioned in Massachusetts, even though Massachusetts regulations require that teachers review all educational materials for simplistic and demeaning generalizations, lacking intellectual merit based on race, religion, or national origin, among others, and provide balance and context for any such stereotypes depicted in such materials.
In California, the group responsible for the first version of the ethnic studies curriculum has established relationships with many California school districts, and based on this foothold, has managed to persuade schools to use its curriculum instead of the approved one. A school superintendent there justified his district’s use of this controversial curriculum by explaining that the group has been working with his district for some time “and most of them have been working with them in some capacity in our region.” This development should alarm Jews in Massachusetts. Already, some curriculum in Massachusetts is being subcontracted out to Primary Source, an organization whose curriculum on the Middle East is sponsored by Qatar Foundation International, an arm of the Qatari government, and has a distinctly anti-Israel point of view. Moreover, since Primary Source already has contracts with more than 50 Massachusetts school districts, if an ethnic studies bill passes here, Primary Source will likely peddle its already prepared curriculum to schools who must teach ethnic studies.
Finally, as one has come to expect, there is no provision in the proposed bill on ethnic studies for the inclusion of any Jewish topics, any mention of the many Jewish men and women who contributed to American history from 1654 onward, and no mention of their being oppressed in all lands they lived in, expelled from many. And no study of the remarkable achievements of Jews in spite of these impediments. The creators of this identity ideology would explain that this is because Jews, who have been persecuted for millennia, have become white oppressors—in spite of the almost daily attacks against them.
Jewish leaders, even those with progressive agendas, should be protecting the Jewish community, and contesting proposed anti-Semitic educational standards instead of being surprised by them and “investigating” long after the fact. Massachusetts Jewish organizations are trying to have their cake and eat it too: embracing a left that has now turned on Jews as a whole, while begging to be spared. They have not informed the community that this is their strategy, nor have they responded to proof of its failure elsewhere. Instead, huddled in their private offices, they deflect questions and concerns from those they are meant to serve – and while they are hiding, the Ethnic Studies campaign marches on, unopposed: recently, on March 31, 2022, the Committee on Education to which the proposed ethnic studies bill was referred for study, reported it out of committee favorably, along with fourteen other “anti-racism” bills, all of which were also recommended to pass. The other bills called for legislation to develop “alternative” processes for granting educator licensure to achieve educator diversity, for DESE to implement standards and objectives on cultural studies, to establish a permanent commission on anti-racist education to develop anti-racist curriculum, and similar.
Soon, if “Ethnic Studies” is not exposed as viciously divisive and stopped, a large proportion of the state’s school children will be “learning” that the Jewish state is inherently racist and cruel, and that the Jewish students sitting in their classroom support such evils.
Given the behavior of local Jewish leadership—their aversion to conflict, their unrequited embrace of an increasingly radicalized left, and their preference to operate behind closed doors and out of sight of the community—it is only by publicizing these dangers urgently and broadly that we might get our “leaders” to stand up and fight for us.
Almost every American Jewish community of a certain size has a Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) whose mandate it is to build bridges and foster warm relations with other communal, ethnic, and racial groups. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) is the national umbrella organization of these local JCRCs. Few understand that rather than reflect the values and policies of the national collective, the JCPA has come to dictate policies for every locale, policies whose ideology explains how and why everyone’s JCRC seems to have become so radically left. It’s time Jews knew how their JCRCs function.
The JCRCs are either part of or affiliated with their local Jewish Federations. Sixteen other national Jewish organizations are also listed as JCPA members.
The JCPA says it represents the four main branches of American Judaism and has stylized itself as a “consensus builder” so as to navigate politically non-homogeneous Jewish communities, and at the same time claim to represent a “unified front.” In reality, the JCPA has become just another “woke” progressive organization whose political activism is abetted by the self-selected members of the local JCRCs.
Founded in 1944 by the Council of Jewish Federations, the JCPA was to serve as a venue for Jewish communities and Federations to discuss and organize their interests, which at one time included extensive work in the civil rights movement. And like many of the infant communal Jewish organizations, the JCPA’s formation was conceived in the ashes of the Holocaust.
Recognizing the value of working in common cause with other minority communities, in 1950 the JCPA and the NAACP cofounded the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights as a clearinghouse and coordinating body for all civil rights lobbying. According to its website, the Leadership Conference today “remains the nation’s oldest, largest, and most diverse civil and human rights coalition.”
Since then, the JCPA, which remains part of the Leadership Conference, has expanded its social justice policy platform. Virtually every political matter under discussion in America including climate change, criminal justice reform, immigration, voting rights, and LGBTQI+, can be found in the JCPA’s Policy Compendium. These policies are derived through a resolutions process and are intended to be the positions parroted by the JCRCs.
The resolutions adoption process begins with the annual plenum and is finalized by the Delegates Assembly which is attended by one lay representative and one professional representative from each JCRC. This group is considered “the highest deliberative body on public policy matters for the community relations network. Like the plenum, its purpose is to oversee and set new public positions and priorities for the community relations field through a resolutions process.”
As part of the JCPA’s network, the local JCRCs are asked to endorse JCPA resolutions and to use them to focus their local grassroots and lobbying activities even if they do not reflect the broader community’s priorities, opinions, or religious values.
JCPA resolutions forwarded last year to local JCRCs for endorsement included a resolution on “voter suppression,” the language of which effectively endorses the Democrats’ voter legislation H.R. 1, which weakens voter identification requirements. The federal elections takeover bill, widely known to be a top priority for Democrats in Congress (dubbed by some as the “Keep Democrats in Power Forever Act”), deliberately guts the extensive work of the bipartisan Jimmy Carter—James Baker Commission on Federal Election Reform, whose report specifically recommended increased voter ID requirements and other election integrity measures. Keeping Democrats in power is so important to the JCPA that their version of voter suppression has been retained as a 2022 federal policy priority.
As intended, this year Nashville’s JCRC staff director used her platform while speaking to a local rotary club to inappropriately cite the rise in anti-Semitism and the Holocaust as reasons to support H.R. 1.
The resolution on climate change—a vast array of policy changes—failed to account for the economic, societal, or national security ramifications of this profound transformation, while the resolution to address “systemic disparities and discrimination across all aspects of our society” by “strengthening Jewish communal relations with Black communities” was designed to conceal the hard facts about BLM’s founders and leadership’s very real animus toward Israel and support for the BDS campaign.
The resolutions handed down to local JCRCs are overwhelmingly aligned with the agenda of the Democratic Party, assigning Jewish and Israeli interests to secondary status. JCPA’s leftward orientation is additionally demonstrated by its membership in a number of leftist groups including Census Counts 2020, Declaration for American Democracy, and the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable. It should be noted that the leadership team of this last group is driven by the committed leftist Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism and pro-BDS groups T’ruah and Bend the Arc. These alliances among others leave little doubt that JCPA has chosen a self-serving interpretation of “Jewish values of fairness and justice” to justify shaping the Jewish community relations field into a partisan instrument of the left while excluding a significant portion of the Jewish community.
The JCPA also pushes for legal and political action directly through established channels, such as direct lobbying for legislation and legal action in the form of filing amicus briefs with the courts, and offers its members best practices to implement programs and issue-based advocacy toolkits. The “JCRC Playbook” and a database that includes “marketing materials,” is reserved for paid JCRC staff and lay leaders.
Similar to virtually every Jewish communal organization, the JCPA’s mission statement includes a specific reference to Israel, and over the years, the JCPA has addressed the BDS movement. To this end, the JCPA in conjunction with the Jewish Federations established the “Israel Action Network” to fight BDS and claims that “working closely with local JCRCs has helped defeat BDS at the state and municipal level and on college campuses across the nation.”
It’s reasonable then to ask why JCPA featured Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) at the April 2021 annual conference after he had co-signed the 2019 National Council of Churches letter. That letter is noted for being replete with anti-Israel propaganda and statements taken from the BDS playbook with references such as, the”need to preserve the option of utilizing economic pressure as a means of bringing recalcitrant dominant forces to the negotiating table,” Palestinian “right of return,” and “compar[ing] Israel to ‘oppressive regimes’ like ‘apartheid South Africa.’”
The incredibly tone-deaf JCPA invitation to Warnock would be laughable were it not for its hypocrisy: Warnock joined Amy Spitalnick as a speaker in a session titled “Racism, Antisemitism & Fighting Hate.” That’s the same Amy Spitalnick who was making the rounds with her talk “Fighting White Supremacy: From Charlottesville to Capitol Hill” and characterizing the problem as endemic to the mainstream right.
Not surprisingly, the JCPA endorsed Kristen Clarke, President Biden’s nominee for Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights while conveniently ignoring Clarke’s public support for Tamika Mallory, who accused Jews of “uphold[ing] white supremacy” and defended her relationship with super-anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan. If you aren’t convinced by JCPA’s defense of Clarke, check out mainstream-Republicans-are-white-supremacists Amy Spitalnick’s endorsement of Clarke’s appointment.
JCRC membership in the JCPA is not mandatory and not all Federations or JCRCS are members. Those that have wisely chosen to not throw local Jewish communal organizations directly into a partisan political fray should feel vindicated in this choice by observations made by JCPA’s former president and CEO, David Bernstein.
After leading JCPA for five years, Bernstein, a self-described liberal, left the JCPA in mid 2021, amid the organization’s increasingly extreme political advocacy. He watched as liberal and leftist Jewish voices and organizations including the JCPA, ignored all the warning signs of the “woke cancel culture” and the “dangers this raises for Jews is the way it twists how some on the left talk about anti-Semitism.”
Generally, the JCRCs are comprised of at least one paid staff member and self-selected lay volunteers, a design that has proven unable to represent politically diverse Jewish communities. If the local JCRCs are to be authentic communal organizations, welcoming and respectful of diversity of opinion, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, disability, religious observance, and political affiliation, then the membership of the JCRCs and involvement with the JCPA and its political objectives, should be discontinued. JCRCs would benefit from a deliberate effort to balance the political diversity of its lay volunteers and depoliticize paid staff. JCRCs should reflect the interests and issues of its Jewish community members.
JCPA directorship of the JCRCs alienates a portion of the Jewish community in which the JCRC operates—which Jewish communities can ill afford given the efforts of a progressive movement working to elect more Ilhan Omars and Rashida Tlaibs to Congress. If the JCPA intends to be a credible leader of politically diverse Jewish communities, it needs to undergo a serious self-assessment—and re-establish Israel and Jewish interests as the first order of business.
Thus Satan said:
This besieged one – how can I overcome him?
He has courage, talent
And the implements of war and resourcefulness.
And he said: I will not take away his power
And I shall not curb him with bit and bridle
And I will not bring him to cowardice,
And I shall not weaken his hands as in days of yore.
Only this shall I do: I will dull his mind
And cause him to forget
The justice of his cause.
Where are the Maccabees when we need them? And do they work overseas?
Those are serious questions, because aside from the amusing paradox of the American Jewish Mafia, those clever ruffians who saw no contradiction between Bar Mitzvahs and Murder Incorporated—Dutch Schultz, Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, Mickey Cohen and the more recent Russian variety from Brighton Beach, Brooklyn—Jewish muscle in America, and assertive leadership, in general, shies away from calling attention to itself. Defending the tribe is a tough sell, even among those who self-identify as proudly Jewish.
Indeed, the fight instinct within American Jewry has been perpetually repressed. So, too, in Europe. Conflict is usually resolved with conciliatory gestures if not outright capitulation. Explain it away. Call it an aberration. Dismiss its severity. Pretend it didn’t happen.
Worse still, American Jewish leaders, such as they are, often extend greater efforts crusading on behalf of other communities rather than their own. Being liked by the “Gentiles” remains a singular preoccupation. After all, one can’t be expected to win elections by getting out the Jewish vote alone. Other constituencies and alliances must be built. Favoritism should always be held in reserve.
Jews born in the Middle East, however, are a rougher lot and made of sturdier stock. The reprisal reflex is always at the ready. When the smoke clears from the Iron Dome, the Israeli fist soon follows. It was once true with the Maccabees, and it’s even more true now with the IDF.
The Diaspora traveled earnestly and compliantly with Torah and Talmud. But the cult of heroic hardness—the Sabra’s creed—was left behind in the deserts and mountaintops of biblical Judea.
No wonder that in today’s America, Jewish leadership is imperceptible—even though its absence is widely felt. Fisticuffs are not essential, although the Jewish Defense League enlivened New York City in the gritty 1970s with the sight of Jewish boys carrying baseball bats who had no interest in hitting balls. But what is needed, now more than ever, is a full-throated defense of the Jewish people—right here in the United States.
Surely there is one American David with a slingshot somewhere.
Certainly there’s no shortage of Jewish elected officials—in both Houses of Congress, governors’ mansions, and city halls. Many self-identify as Jews, observe holidays, and attend synagogues. But when it comes to speaking out as a Jew, for Jews, on matters of Jewish concern—especially when it comes to the defense of Israel—their Jewish voice loses its accent (all except Bernie Sanders, who retained the accent but abandoned everything else), and their ethnic origins take on Protestant refinements. The refrain seems to be: Being Jewish should not guide one’s politics.
Jewish leadership these days seems to reside mostly in charitable works—raising money, outfitting local synagogues with stained glass windows, establishing a wing at a hospital, endowing a chair at a university, or renovating a campus Hillel. The Jewish community long ago graduated from tzedakah boxes and planting trees in Israel to more formidable gift-giving.
But such worthy acts are, nonetheless, charitable in nature. They have little to do with the exercise of moral or political leadership, which is an entirely different level of involvement. Not quiet, behind-the-scenes negotiations, but unabashed rallying on behalf of Jews and the Jewish state.
This kind of leadership is rare these days, whether from elected officials, private citizens, rabbis or legacy organizations. Jews simply won’t make much noise as Jews. The grogger that is so grating on Purim is reserved, one night, for Haman, but never for Hamas. Jewish outrage is tempered; Jewish leadership has all the visibility of Elijah the Prophet.
In November and December 2019, Hasidic Jews were being assaulted, mostly by African-Americans, in Brooklyn and Jersey City; one was killed in Monsey, New York. Law enforcement, shockingly, at first wasn’t entirely sure whether these acts qualified as anti-Semitic hate crimes—even though some were committed on Hanukkah. Hardly any Jewish elected public officials rallied his or her colleagues to put an end to the violence, conducted press conferences on the steps of City Halls, shouted from the rooftops (or even whispered), made it their own personal crusade to defend the defenseless members of the Hasidic community.
Similarly, in May 2021, after thousands of rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel and the Israelis were forced, once again, to do something about it, Jews were beaten and assaulted on the streets of Los Angeles, New York, and Miami, mostly by Islamists. Aside from quietly signing letters or standing beside other equally taciturn, cowering Jews, who among the Jewish leaders stepped out from the anonymous crowd, condemned the attacks, and demanded the protection of Jews from marauding Muslims? Who had the clout or charisma to galvanize Jews and non-Jews, alike?
More recently, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez accused Israel of placing Palestinian children in cages in the “West Bank.” Jew haters apparently know there are no costs to repackaging age-old anti-Semitic libels, even when the falsity of the accusation is easily proved.
Abraham Foxman, the longtime National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, used to be front and center in situations like these. But his old job has been redefined, and retitled, as that of a CEO. Other Jewish legacy organizations have adopted the same models that have more in common with faceless corporations than town criers who have something to truly cry about. Jewish advocacy has gone corporate, answerable to a Board of Directors, fearful of fickle consumers, and obsessed with product placement. Calling attention to African-Americans or Muslims assaulting Jews will lead to accusations of racism or Islamophobia. And that would be bad for their brand.
Ironically, due to their knack for social and economic advancement, Jewish Americans have never wielded more cultural clout. But they are far too timid, and obsessed with corporate titles and prominent positions as university trustees, to leverage that power into anything that resembles unapologetic political leadership.
All throughout the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt—which coincided with the beginning and end of the Holocaust—Rabbi Stephen S. Wise was the most significant Jewish political figure in the United States. He was president of both the American Jewish Congress and the World Jewish Congress.
What’s more, Rabbi Wise had the ear of President Roosevelt. He was a frequent guest of the White House. (Even his daughter and her husband once dined there.) His access to the seat of American power was extraordinary and, for a Jew in the 20th century, unprecedented, even by today’s standards.
Yet, none of his visits to the Oval Office resulted in the United States bombing the railroad tracks leading to Auschwitz. Indeed, when the first reports of Nazi atrocities committed against European Jewry surfaced, Wise dismissed them as propaganda. It didn’t take long for Wise to glean that Roosevelt had no interest in rescuing Europe’s Jews. When Wise was finally convinced that a Holocaust was truly underway, he politely raised his concerns with the president, but to no avail.
The Maccabees were never polite in dispatching the Greeks.
Yet, Wise adamantly opposed other Jews protesting America’s inaction. He knew that calling out the president’s failure would upset Roosevelt.
For more than 12 years as an informal advisor to President Roosevelt, Wise served as a quiet Jewish diplomat who didn’t wish to press and thereby alienate the president. A similar complaint could be made against then Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, whose friendship with Roosevelt dated longer and who, after all, served in the president’s Cabinet. Other Jews in Roosevelt’s inner circle—Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, Sam Rosenman, and Ben Cohen—were all equally to blame.
You might call them Court Jews. Throughout the Diaspora, many Jews served in rarefied advisory roles that enabled them to skip the line and improve their social standing. Even in biblical times, Joseph in Egypt and Mordecai in Persia functioned in this capacity. But the American variety, historically, demonstrates what a colossal failure these advancements have proven to be for Jews. Henry Kissinger may be America’s best example of a Jewish public official who attained great political power but who gave his fellow Jews, especially Soviet Jewry—and, to a lesser extent, the Jewish state—little thought.
Perhaps staying in the good graces of the king requires repressing one’s Jewish commitments. It’s nice getting invited to the Ball. Just think of the new dances. Why let tribal loyalties get in the way of a good time?
Of course, there are Jews who happily turn down invitations to Court. Peter Bergson is virtually unknown today, but was widely admired when silence dominated all discussions concerning the fate of European Jewry under the Nazis. He was unique as a genuine Jewish leader—a model that simply has not been duplicated, surely not in America in the nearly 80 years since he created what became known as the Bergson Group.
Bergson had a very different response to the unfolding Holocaust. The Bergson Group staged mass rallies, purchased full-page ads in major newspapers, and even recruited Hollywood and Broadway celebrities to participate in a pageant, We Will Never Die. Written by Kurt Weill and Ben Hecht, it was showcased twice in Madison Square Garden before taking to the road for performances in other major cities. The storyline and music focused entirely on saving Europe’s Jews.
When the show was presented in Washington, D.C., in attendance were many congressmen, along with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Apparently, the First Lady was so taken with the performance, she devoted one of her syndicated columns to this crusading production.
Her husband was none too pleased. He wanted the show to bomb.
The efforts of the Bergson Group did not stop there. They pulled off an even more dramatic stunt, one the president could hardly miss because it happened outside his Oval Office. At the gates to the White House, 400 Orthodox rabbis petitioned the president to rescue Europe’s Jews. As Orthodox Jews, many of them dressed in the manner of their European counterparts—long beards and coats, sidelocks and tefillin. No one was concealing their identity. No one feared they would attract the attention of anti-Semites; nor were they troubled that their actions might get them disinvited from lavishly unkosher Beltway parties.
Not surprisingly, the activities of the Bergson Group enraged Rabbi Wise and other Jewish “leaders.” He feared a backlash against Jews by other Americans, or repercussions from the president himself. But perhaps what angered Wise most was the damage being done to his reputation: The most powerful Jew in the country, a rock star of a rabbi, was outplayed by Bergson’s street theatrics, and upstaged by a bunch of Hollywood stars.
More recently was the case of Nobelist and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, a personal friend, who was slight of build and soft-spoken, but yet responded to anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, and the desecration of Holocaust memory like a fearless Goliath.
Three times he personally offended a president of the United States—twice in person! At a ceremony where he received the Congressional Gold Medal, Wiesel chastised President Ronald Reagan for planning to visit a cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, where some Nazi officials were buried. He embarrassed President Bill Clinton at the opening of the Holocaust Memorial Museum when he pleaded that America should stop the genocide in Bosnia. He was in attendance in the Capitol when Republican leaders invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to warn Congress about the impending Iran Deal, which was President Barack Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement.
This is what moral courage looks like. Leadership without exercising moral courage, without undertaking risks and performing selfless acts, is not leadership. Influence peddling is not leadership; neither is resume padding and calling cards.
Like Rabbi Wise, most Jewish leaders today have similar trepidations about antagonizing important constituencies, appearing to be “too Jewish,” accused of “dual loyalty,” or wrongly engaged in “special pleading” for Jews who already occupy the upper wrung of “white privilege.”
If you believed that American Jews had long abandoned the “sha stil” ethos of “not in front of the Gentiles,” think again.
Yet, Jewish leaders will knock each other over to get to the head of the line for any Black Lives Matter protest. They’ll jockey for a seat on “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committees,” even though these committees, in their deliberations, exclude and discount Jewish concerns—at their core, they hate Jews. Is it any wonder that Rabbi Wise was also a co-founder of the NAACP?
The term Jewish leadership might actually be an oxymoron. Once ascending to a position of elected or appointed office, moral courage and tribal loyalties disappear, spinelessness sets in, and the impulse to appear neutral in all things predominates. Denouncing Israel becomes a form of Jewish virtue-signaling, the shameless flashing of moral narcissism. For others, Israel is such a divisive issue, best to simply dodge the topic altogether and recite the meaningless words, “two-state solution.”
Speaking of meaningless words, there are two in Hebrew, tikkun olam, that could stand to be discarded. Overused and misapplied, “repairing the world” is a nice impulse, but it doesn’t mean that God has directed the Chosen People to express their Judaism solely by doing good deeds for others.
There is one Jewish leader dominating the news cycle at this very moment, but he lives and governs in Ukraine. Volodymyr Zelensky is winning well-earned plaudits for leading and rallying his people against the invading Russians. Fighting on his front lines, however, is an extremist right-wing paramilitary force, the Azov Battalion, wearing uniforms bearing insignia similar to the Nazis.
Perhaps one day we’ll learn whether Zelensky will stand as aggressively, and valiantly, in defense of Jews.
This poem was written in tribute to the victims of the Kishinev pogrom.
Arise and go now to the city of slaughter;
Into its courtyard wind thy way;
There with thine own hand touch, and with the eyes of thine head,
Behold on tree, on stone, on fence, on mural clay,
The spattered blood and dried brains of the dead.
Proceed thence to the ruins, the split walls reach,
Where wider grows the hollow, and greater grows the breach;
Pass over the shattered hearth, attain the broken wall
Those burnt and barren brick, whose charred stones reveal
The open mouths of such wounds, that no mending
Shall ever mend, nor healing ever heal.
There will thy feet in feathers sink, and stumble
On wreckage doubly wrecked, scroll heaped on manuscript.
Fragments again fragmented
Pause not upon this havoc; go thy way
Unto the attic mount, upon thy feet and hands;
Behold the shadow of death among the shadows stands.
Crushed in their shame, they saw it all;
They did not pluck their eyes out; they
Beat not their brains against the wall!
Perhaps, perhaps, each watcher bad it in his heart to pray:
A miracle, O Lord, and spare my skin this day!
Come, now, and I will bring thee to their lairs
The privies, jakes and pigpens where the heirs
Of Hasmoneans lay, with trembling knees,
Concealed and cowering -the sons of the Maccabees!
The seed of saints, the scions of the lions!
Who, crammed by scores in all the sanctuaries of their shame
So sanctified My name!
It was the flight of mice they fled,
The scurrying of roaches was their flight;
They died like dogs, and they were dead!
And on the next morn, after the terrible night
The son who was not murdered found
The spurned cadaver of his father on the ground.
Now wherefore dost thou weep, O son of Man?
Brief-weary and forespent, a dark Shekinah
Runs to each nook and cannot find its rest;
Wishes to weep, but weeping does not come;
Would roar; is dumb.
Its head beneath its wing, its wing outspread
Over the shadows of the martyr’d dead,
Its tears in dimness and in silence shed.
And thou, too, son of man, close now the gate behind thee;
Be closed in darkness now, now thine that charnel space;
So tarrying there thou wilt be one with pain and anguish
And wilt fill up with sorrow thine heart for all its days.
Then on the day of thine own desolation
A refuge will it seem,
Lying in thee like a curse, a demon’s ambush,
The haunting of an evil dream,
O, carrying it in thy heart, across the world’s expanse
Thou wouldst proclaim it, speak it out,
But thy lips shall not find its utterance.
Beyond the suburbs go, and reach the burial ground.
Let no man see thy going; attain that place alone,
A place of sainted graves and martyr-stone.
Stand on the fresh-turned soil.
There in the dismal corner, there in the shadowy nook,
Multitudinous eyes will look
Upon thee from the sombre silence
The spirits of the martyrs are these souls,
Gathered together, at long last,
Beneath these rafters and in these ignoble holes.
The hatchet found them here, and hither do they come
To seal with a last look, as with their final breath,
The agony of their lives, the terror of their death.
Question the spider in his lair!
His eyes beheld these things; and with his web he can
A tale unfold horrific to the ear of man:
A tale of cloven belly, feather-filled;
Of nostrils nailed, of skull-bones bashed and spilled;
Of murdered men who from the beams were hung,
And of a babe beside its mother flung,
Its mother speared, the poor chick finding rest
Upon its mother’s cold and milkless breast;
Of how a dagger halved an infant’s word,
Its ma was heard, its mama never heard.
Then wilt thou bid thy spirit – Hold, enough!
Stifle the wrath that mounts within thy throat,
Bury these things accursed,
Within the depth of thy heart, before thy heart will burst!
Then wilt thou leave that place, and go thy way
The earth is as it was, the sun still shines:
It is a day like any other day.
Descend then, to the cellars of the town,
There where the virginal daughters of thy folk were fouled,
Where seven heathen flung a woman down,
The daughter in the presence of her mother,
The mother in the presence of her daughter,
Before slaughter, during slaughter and after slaughter!
Note also, do not fail to note,
In that dark corner, and behind that cask
Crouched husbands, bridegrooms, brothers, peering from the cracks,
Watching the sacred bodies struggling underneath
The bestial breath,
Stifled in filth, and swallowing their blood!
Such silence will take hold of thee, thy heart will fail
With pain and shame, yet I
Will let no tear fall from thine eye.
Though thou wilt long to bellow like the driven ox
That bellows, and before the Altar balks,
I will make hard thy heart, yea, I
Will not permit a sigh.
See, see, the slaughtered calves, so smitten and so laid;
Is there a price for their death? How shall that price be paid?
Forgive, ye shamed of the earth, yours is a pauper-Lord!
Poor was He during your life, and poorer still of late.
When to my door you come to ask for your reward,
I’ll open wide: See, I am fallen from My high estate.
I grieve for you, my children. My heart is sad for you.
Your dead were vainly dead; and neither I nor you
Know why you died or wherefore, for whom, nor by what laws;
Your deaths are without reason; your lives are without cause.
Turn, then, thy gaze from the dead, and I will lead
Thee from the graveyard to thy living brothers,
And thou wilt come, with those of thine own breed,
Into the synagogue, and on a day of fasting,
To hear the cry of their agony,
Their weeping everlasting.
Thy skin will grow cold, the hair on thy skin stand up,
And thou wilt be by fear and trembling tossed;
Thus groans a people which is lost.
Look in their hearts – behold a dreary waste,
Where even vengeance can revive no growth,
And yet upon their lips no mighty malediction
Rises, no blasphemous oath.
Speak to them, bid them rage!
Let them against me raise the outraged hand,
Let them demand!
Demand the retribution for the shamed
Of all the centuries and every age!
Let fists be flung like stone
Against the heavens and the heavenly Throne!
And thou, too, pity them not, nor touch their wound;
Within their cup no further measure pour.
Wherever thou wilt touch, a bruise is found,
Their flesh is wholly sore.
For since they have met pain with resignation
And have made peace with shame,
What shall avail thy consolation?
They are too wretched to evoke thy scorn.
They are too lost thy pity to evoke.
So let them go, then, men to sorrow born,
Mournful and slinking, crushed beneath their yoke.
So to their homes, and to their hearth depart
Rot in the bones, corruption in the heart.
And go upon the highway,
Thou shalt then meet these men destroyed by sorrow,
Sighing and groaning, at the doors of the wealthy
Proclaiming their sores, like so much peddler’s wares,
The one his battered head, t’other limbs unhealthy,
One shows a wounded arm, and one a fracture bares.
And all have eyes that are the eyes of slaves,
Slaves flogged before their masters;
And each one begs, and each one craves:
Reward me, Master, for that my skull is broken.
Reward me for my father who was martyred!
And so their sympathy implore.
For you are now as you have been of yore
As you stretched your hand
So will you stretch it,
And as you have been wretched
So are you wretched!
What is thy business here, o son of man?
Rise, to the desert flee!
The cup of affliction thither bear with thee!
Take thou they soul, rend it in many a shred!
With impotent rage, thy heart deform!
Thy tear upon the barren boulders shed
And send they bitter cry into the storm.
Currently, Western elites are enamored of a discourse best described as “utopian universalism,” a vision of a peaceful world, rid of oppression and discrimination; a world with no borders and with freedom and human rights for all. Certain dominant memes carry the message: “violence never solved anything”… “war is not the answer”… “who are we to judge?”… “all cultures are equal”… along with their despised opposites: tribalism, racism, nationalism, us/them thinking, any kind of phobia – homo- trans- xeno- Islamo-….
These sentiments have trapped many Jews, and especially most of their leaders, in a rhetorical cage with few venues for escape because defending specifically Jewish interests now is, by definition, parochial and anti-universalist. Trying to square the circle of defending Jews and their traditions, yet being in synch with the wider, now anti-traditionalist society, is nearly impossible.
This universalist utopianism has been around for a long time, with its first powerful assertions during the Enlightenment and the creation of democracies. Since the mid-20th century, the outlook has become institutionalized in global systems—the United Nations, Geneva Conventions, Universal Human Rights—that were increasingly demanding, even as the real world proved recalcitrant. In the 21st century, a utopian discourse that deconstructs power and prejudice and detects their workings everywhere, has spread from radical pockets of academia to become the coin of the realm. Many share the vision of “bending the arc of history toward justice.” Anyone who contests this high moral discourse is stigmatized with this epoch’s most loathsome epithet: “racist.”
Jews are particularly susceptible to accusations of failing to live up to messianic expectations. In its religious form, this utopianism lies behind the messianic dreams from the prophets to the present; in its secular forms, it inspires world-perfecting movements from communism to globalism to critical (race) theory. Currently its most passionate Jewish adherents, both religious and secular, invoke tikkun olam—“repairing the world”—as a messianic vocation. For Jews, especially in diaspora, signaling to the dominant gentile culture that Jews accept and are eager to contribute to the larger society has often been a key strategy to survival. In modern times, when the surrounding culture has adopted many (originally) Jewish utopian ideals in the process of forging democratic, civil societies, Jewish leaders have tended to publicly promote these utopian ideals as proof of their good will.
For most people, being seen as virtuous has a social and psycho-social motivation. It is almost a necessary life skill to encourage others to think one is a person of principle. The problem arises when one’s own, or one’s people’s values differ from the larger collective, and one faces a choice between signaling one’s virtue according to the consensus while betraying actual values on the one hand, or staying faithful to one’s values and enduring the disapproval, even rejection that such defiance inevitably brings on, on the other.
Some observers have characterized the choice of public “honor” over private integrity as a form of “moral narcissism,” namely, adopting what are seen by most as moral positions because they make you look good, and feel good about yourself, regardless of the consequences for others. For moral narcissists, signaling virtue trumps acting virtuously. (At their most noxious, they become “luxury beliefs” by which people signal their high status by embracing ideas that aspire to help but actually hinder the objects of their “concern” – defund police, open borders, gender fluidity.)
The Oslo Syndrome and the Crisis of Jewish Leadership
Jewish leaders, including official heads of Jewish organizations dedicated to protecting the Jewish communities they serve, and prominent spiritual and academic figures, faced a dilemma at the beginning of the new century. In 2000 and 2001, global events occurred that put Western moral narcissists in a position to do terrible harm to the very democracies that made their pleasant utopian dreams seem so close to realization.
The 1990s were, in the eyes of many hopefuls, the “happy years,” when one could, with some justification, look forward to an end of history, even to a global civil society, a realization of Kant’s enlightenment dream of “perpetual peace.” This was particularly true of Jews and Israelis because the “Oslo Peace Process” promised an end to that long, terrible war of survival that Israel had been fighting since birth. Finally, we could come to a positive-sum outcome for Israelis and Palestinians, Land for Peace. And it all depended on a somewhat utopian projection, that the Palestinians were ready to leave behind their sworn desire for vengeance and join global civil society. So powerful had this dream gripped Jews around the world that when Yasser Arafat made it clear, in Arabic, that this was Land for War, even the Israeli intelligence community ignored the evidence and forged forward with the pleasant dream.
Israeli and Jewish leaders, enthralled by the prospects of peace, accused any who pointed out the problems of projecting a liberal psychology and culture on the Palestinians as suffering from “a post-Holocaust syndrome,” an inability to let go of the fears of the past. In a fine illustration of the role of a malignant moral narcissism, they considered that “resistance to the Oslo process constituted a greater offense than Palestinian violations of the Accord.” In other words, those Jews who expressed concern got in the way of Peace. Psychiatrist Ken Levin called this mindset “the Oslo Syndrome.”
This aggressively hopeful posture had particular appeal for Jewish leaders, who had pursued and were deeply committed to the positive-sum values of the civil societies in which they lived. Organizations like the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League carried on extensive activities with other minorities, defending their “human rights,” protecting them from prejudice, helping strengthen their communities, extending the hand of friendship. It was at once a great “optic” and, as these leaders assured anyone who wondered why so much effort went into making friends rather than helping the Jewish community: when the time came that Jews needed support, their friends would reciprocate. Win-win.
Then, in late 2000, Arafat let the soldiers out of the Trojan Horse he had long touted as his Oslo strategy, and a bloody suicide-terror Jihad ensued in which more than 1,000 Israelis (the U.S. equivalent of 50,000), mostly civilians, were killed and many more maimed by bombs carefully assembled with ball bearings, to spread the damage as far and wide as possible. Astonishingly, the “good people,” the progressives, the “post-Zionists,” the post-colonialists, sided with the Palestinians and blamed Israel, the stronger party, for not doing, for not giving enough for peace. Since nothing in the utopian worldview could allow evidence that the gamble over the Palestinians intentions had failed—it would be “racist” to say the Palestinian leadership wanted war—it could only be that Israel was responsible. As French President Jacques Chirac said to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak: “You will never convince anyone that the Palestinians are the aggressors.”
As a result, quite the contrary to what the Jewish leadership’s 20th century strategy anticipated, in a massive shift of the “Overton Window” the Palestinian cause became a litmus test of liberal credentials. No matter how badly Palestinians behaved, with their unprecedented war of suicide terror and genocidal hate speech, Jewish leaders looked to their allies for a defense that never came. On the contrary, as Paul Berman put it: “Palestinian terror” had become “the measure of Israeli guilt.” Rather than get help from its liberal and minority friends so carefully cultivated during the “happy ‘90s,” Jewish leadership got the cold shoulder and worse. Many expected allies joined the campaign against Israel and told the Jews that the murderous hatred of the Palestinians had nothing to do with anti-Semitism, and that any Jewish objections were just abusing accusations of anti-Semitism in order to silence “any criticism of Israel.”
Faced with the evidence that their effort to make peace had failed and that those with “Holocaust-syndrome” who had warned of malevolent Palestinian intentions were correct, many of these good folks doubled down: “We were so close; if only Israel had given more, then Arafat would have said yes.” Jews were tempted to believe that after the Holocaust, in the West and now even in “Palestine,” the siege was over, and refused to look at counter-evidence. Indeed, what had been a risky gamble in the ‘90s—Palestinians are ready for peace and deserve a state of their own—became dogma in the ‘00s precisely as the gamble failed spectacularly. Anyone opposed was a heartless racist.
September 11th recapitulated this dynamic and made things even worse. Here was a declaration of war on the West every bit as vicious as the Intifada—suicidal jihadis targeting civilians—but now on a global scale, outside Dar al Islam. Many thought-leaders—academics, journalists, pundits, politicians—found themselves, just like the Israeli and Jewish “peace camp,” in an impossible situation. According to democratic principles, American Muslims could and should enjoy the religious freedoms (basic civil rights) that everyone else in a democracy did, and accordingly there was great concern over the rights of “ordinary Muslims” who are not part of this apocalyptic Jihad waged by a Saudi from the caves of Afghanistan. By democratic standards, any move to constrain Muslims qua Muslims was out of the question. It also was an extremely bad optic: in order to live up to our liberal and progressive standards, some reasoned, we must not even “appear to take sides.” The West, by its own utopian virtues, rhetorically and unilaterally disarmed.
But when confronted with the evidence that some Muslims, enjoying the rights of democratic citizens (which they did not have in Muslim-majority countries) found Jiahdi goals attractive—imposing Shari’a in Dar al Harb, death penalty for apostates and blasphemers, supporting terrorist groups, calling for the overthrow of the democratic governments, preaching paranoid conspiracy theories and exterminationist anti-Semitism, protecting shame-murders—the tolerant response did not waver. On the contrary, our presidents assure us that “Islam is a religion of peace,” and “99.9 percent of Muslims reject this medieval religious war.”
Anyone who tried to point out the problem—that there was indeed a civilizational culture that promoted jihadi values—was accused of Islamophobia. In a parody of the Oslo Syndrome, Western progressives considered criticism of Muslims and Islam a greater offense than the behavior of those fighting for a global Caliphate with terror. Progressives literally “fetishized the Muslim ‘Other’,” making their embrace a sign of moral rectitude, and any resistance to such a suicidal alliance an indicator of xenophobia, Islamophobia, or “right-wing” fascism. The “utopians” insisted on a politically-correct set of beliefs and imposed them on everyone else:
Jewish Leadership in the 21st century
For Jewish leaders, the problem of how to deal with radical Muslims was particularly difficult since one of the most distinctive elements the radical’s Global Jihadi wing was a virulent anti-Semitism at least as bad as the Nazis (at least German priests and ministers didn’t preach genocide from the pulpit). This exterminationist Judeophobia permeates the Muslim world both in Muslim-majority countries and among diaspora Muslims. The overwhelming support of progressives for the politically correct “narrative,” including its obscuring of the genocidal anti-Semitism, made Muslim hatred of Israel somehow legitimate. Progressives who had no problem “oppos[ing] Jewish ethno-nationalism without being a bigot,” banned from the public sphere those who opposed triumphalist Muslim terror-imperialism as deplorable Islamophobes. Jewish leaders had to choose between looking good to their fellow progressives or defending Jews from a sudden and growing “new anti-Semitism,” and thereby alienating their “allies.”
Given the choice between public honor (virtuous progressives) and private guilt (abandoning their constituency), and public shame (stigmatized as Islamophobic) and private integrity (doing their job), they chose the former. In so doing they joined their fellow progressives in standing down before Islamic triumphalist aggression. And like their colleagues, they expressed outrage when critics called their judgment into question. It became a parody of “human rights” and “anti-racism” that enabled those who would destroy those values to prevail.
But moral narcissism is not mere hypocrisy. Hypocrites know that they are insincere; moral narcissists believe in their virtue. They fervently insist to themselves and anyone who will listen on their sincerity (the cheapest of virtues). They are filled with passionate intensity. They think of themselves as the avatars of the biblical prophets, proudly and indignantly denouncing the sins of their own people. They see themselves as “good Jews,” moral paragons. They soar high above the deplorables whose primitive values they disdain. And the larger the gap between pretense and reality, between hypocrisy and integrity, the more vehement their protestations.
This insistence on their sincerity is nowhere more evident than in the moral narcissist’s response to opposition. Rather than engage in a dialogue with those Jews, equally concerned for the fate of their people, bringing relevant observations to the discussion of “what to do,” they responded with indignation and anger. Having been warned repeatedly by Charles Jacobs that the massive mosque being built in Roxbury, Massachusetts, was in fact a Muslim Brotherhood, Wahhabi-funded initiative with profound anti-Semitic and anti-democratic tendencies, the Jewish leadership persisted in its warm support.
When all “private means” had been exhausted, Jacobs named one of the culprits in an op-ed in the Jewish Advocate. The response, signed by 70 rabbis and rabbinical students who were “shocked and appalled,” excoriated Jacobs for his “vicious personal attack… his destructive campaign against Boston’s Muslim community based on innuendo, half-truths, and unproven conspiracy theories.” And then they proclaimed their virtue:
During these difficult times, Rabbi Gurvis, along with other courageous religious leaders are attempting to foster a different kind of politics. We support his commitment to interfaith dialogue and cooperation. We stand together in our commitment to a community in which neighbors seek to know one another and join together for the common good.
All of this occurred three years before Muslims, products of the Jihadi ideology propounded at that mosque and its affiliate in Cambridge, carried out the bombing of the Boston Marathon in April 2013. Had these rabbis heeded rather than censured these warnings, had they been as self-critical as they were ready to criticize their own people, many people, Jewish and gentile, might have been spared much suffering.
The tale of this process and its consequences is long and painful, filled with catastrophic errors peppered occasionally with the signs of a backbone, of a commitment to why Jewish leaders exist—to protect their communities. Overall, however, the last two decades have witnessed catastrophes for Jews around the world:
The disastrous course of the first decades of the 21st century—the spread of BDS and its lethal narratives, the increasing hostility toward and marginalization of Jewish students on campus, the growing demonization of Israel by Congressional Democrats, the increasing street violence against Jews—weighs heavily on the shoulders of Jewish leaders if not for enabling and inciting it, then in failing to oppose it. They could afford to atone next Yom Kippur for:
The defense of the Jewish people and their only state in the 21st century is, ironically, also the defense of a global civil society in which people can live free, prosperous, and at peace with their neighbors. In betraying their own people, they have let down democracies and progressive values the world over.
When I ran alumni programming for Birthright Israel participants in New York years ago, Michael Steinhardt and I lamented that the best way to capture the attention of American Jews might be to hire gangs of thugs around the country to break some windows and yell anti-Semitic slurs. Anti-Semitism has a way of reaching out to even the most disengaged Jew. We didn’t have to spend a dime, of course, because the anti-Semites already had their plans. The recent spate of anti-Semitic incidents across the country has had the effect we imagined.
Lots of Jews seem to be paying attention to Jewish life in America in a new way now. Rashida Tlaib, “Apartheid Week” on college campuses, social media influencers, Colleyville, and much more have come together in critical mass and shoved these “twice-a-year Jews” into the figurative Jewish communal room, many for the first time. They are stumbling around, wondering how we got here and what to do next. “I can’t believe this is happening here, in the United States,” they say in disbelief.
But, actually, it isn’t at all hard to believe. After all, “this” has been happening here for a while. “This” has also happened in almost every Diaspora Jewish community throughout history. If by “this” they mean the scapegoating of Jews during turbulent times, and the subsequent increase in anti-Semitic activity, then “this” is neither new nor surprising. In fact, it is perfectly predictable.
What most American Jews are really shocked by, but couldn’t see until it became inescapably obvious, is the fast-growing, unabashed anti-Semitism of the American political left, where they themselves reside. BDS, the Squad, attacks on Hassidic Jews in the streets, BLM’s charter, Pinkwashing, Deadly Exchange, leadership at the Women’s March, biased mainstream media coverage of Israel, anti-Semitic professors at elite private high schools, Islamist apologists: it has all felt like a sudden landslide. But, in fact, it has been more like a slow, creeping mudslide that they seem to have entirely missed, until it appeared as a daily feature on their social media feeds. Why do American Jews seem so caught off guard?
One explanation is historical ignorance. It’s usually a bad blind spot. If you didn’t study Soviet Jewry, perhaps it is difficult to understand that political collectivism is bad for the Jews. If you didn’t learn about the implications of group “identity politics” in 19th and 20th century Europe, you might not appreciate that the contemporary American manifestation of it is a threat to the Jewish community and Israel. If you don’t know that the image of the money-hungry, usurious Jew is an anti-Semitic slur hundreds of years old, then when Ilhan Omar says, “it’s all about the Benjamins” you might think the comment was an offensive, one-off remark you can overlook. These trends have been building for some time, but if you didn’t have historical sensitivity to them, you wouldn’t guess that the politics you support are also hurting Jews. Then, when your favorite ice cream brand suddenly decides to boycott Israel, it comes as a shock.
Another explanation is a failure of leadership. American Jewish leaders certainly should know our history and concern themselves with helping us not to repeat it. They should be sensitive to signs that portend trouble and should sound the communal alarm-bell well in advance of a crisis. Why didn’t more of them do exactly that before we started racking up assaults on city streets, hostile Humanities Departments at major American universities, and members of Congress accusing the Jewish State of putting Palestinian kids in cages?
Some did, but too often they were sidelined and dismissed. Many heads of establishment Jewish organizations had long-standing relationships with members of Congress, directors of think tanks, and editors at the New York Times, which in the past had proven helpful when defending Jewish interests. They didn’t want loud voices pointing out illiberal trends in liberal circles that might compromise the delicate balance of an important relationship. Political and social realities in America had changed, but these leaders and their organizations didn’t. They confused their historical access with continuing influence and even as the latter waned, they held firmly to the former. So, they either ignored or explained away what the alarm bell ringers were warning us about.
Others were themselves committed to the political left and understood that their constituency, the majority of American Jews, were similarly committed. As Jewish organizational affiliation waned, its leadership reasoned that a Jewish world that mirrored liberal Jewish values might attract more members. But “liberal values” rapidly devolved into “leftist ideology,” and Jewish leaders who had committed to “the left” were now reinterpreting Judaism to keep up with it. They gave progressive buzzwords like diversity and inclusion, social action, and allyship a Jewish name: tikkun olam. They made intersectionality a Jewish communal priority and suggested mutual benefit would result from Jewish investment in “the other.” Many openly used their Jewish organizations to advocate for partisan policy initiatives, claiming that advocacy was the natural outgrowth of authentic Jewish values. Jewish leaders brought Jewish organizational life into such close ideological alignment with the American political left, that a break between the two could not be tolerated.
The orthodoxy around this approach took hold quickly and few challenged it. It was hard to find a Jewish communal conference that didn’t feature progressive outreach programs or social action initiatives on behalf of the environment. Jewish foundations couldn’t fund them fast enough. At one of these conferences, I recall a courageous representative from a Christian, pro-Israel organization who stood up and cautioned the room that in its pursuit of partisan intersectional interests under the tikkun olam banner, the organized Jewish communal world might be marginalizing allies whose American political outlook may not always align, but whose Judeo-Christian values did. The prioritization of the one over the other seemed not to be in the interest of the Jewish community in the long term, he pointed out. His message wasn’t well received.
Even as the left continued to break away from classical liberalism and demonstrated an increasing tolerance for anti-Semitism in its ranks, Jewish leaders resisted changing course. They claimed the problem was relatively small and not representative. The way to beat it back was with more intersectional fervor and more support for partisan political issues in the name of the Jewish community. We needed more Jewish voices at immigration rallies, they claimed, to demonstrate the unbreakable alliance with the left that our leadership promised was still strong. Jewish leaders religiously pursued those who increasingly rejected them and downplayed that rejection to American Jews.
But the overwhelming reality of what has been happening on the left eventually overwhelmed our leadership’s ability to manage the problem. Social media told a very different story than the one mainstream Jewish leaders had been telling. The size and scope of it reached an unsuspecting American Jewish population who felt they hadn’t been prepared. Jews seem to have awakened one morning to a world they didn’t recognize. In it, anti-Semitism isn’t new at all, and it is being perpetrated by the very people and ideas our leaders told us were our natural allies.
Jewish kids on campus who were taught “diversity and inclusion” as Torah in their temples back home weren’t prepared when they were accused of “colonialist, white privilege” support for the Jewish State in philosophy class. No one explained that identity politics is not at all a Jewish concept, but, rather, a poisonous ideology that feeds anti-Semitism against Jews of all colors. That it got their “Rabbi of Color” profiled on NPR seemed so meaningful before, but it suddenly revealed itself to be part of the problem. It was stunning to realize that “inclusion” doesn’t always include the Jews.
Maybe this is just how markets work: buyer beware. There are synagogues and organizations to choose from if yours isn’t serving you well. It would end there if these institutions didn’t pretend to speak on behalf of all “American Jewry” or a large proportion of it. But many do.
Several years ago I was in a meeting with the leadership of the Union of Reform Judaism. One of the senior executives in the room proudly declared that the Reform movement represents the great majority of Jews in America. But really, it doesn’t. Most American Jews may in fact call themselves “Reform” (or “Reformed” as some of my friends mistakenly say). But most of my Reform Jewish friends can’t name URJ President, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, or list three principles of Reform religious philosophy. When they say they are Reform Jews they usually mean, “not Orthodox,” or that they pay dues at a Reform Temple they hardly frequent. They show up on Pew study pie charts as “Reform Jews,” but they don’t feel “represented” by the central office or its pronouncements, if they even know what they are.
The Anti-Defamation League is the media go-to when anti-Semitism bursts through the doors of an American institution. On whose behalf do they speak? Do politically conservative Jews see the organization as their representative when it issues statements on criminal justice reform or Supreme Court nominees? Do the majority of liberal Jews in America agree with the ADL’s recent assertion that racism is an offense only perpetrated by white people? The ADL does have a following, but it is not “American Jewry.” It is a particular slice of it, along with some donors from Google.
Whether or not American Jews realize it, Jewish institutions are not only responsive to the interests of non-Jewish audiences, but they are speaking on the entire Jewish community’s behalf to the rest of the world: to the media, to politicians, and to foreign leaders. This has consequences. Legislation is passed, funding is allocated, and narratives are built based on what these institutions say are American Jewish priorities. If left-wing anti-Semitism in America wasn’t in the top three of those priorities over the past 20 years (and it wasn’t), then why would most American Jews have seen any of this coming?
By definition we have to say that leadership has failed when it hasn’t led. But it is also true that those who can’t believe how we got “here” may share some of the blame for their own confusion. American Jews are largely disconnected from their history and ignorant of their religion. Many don’t participate in the very Jewish communal organizations whose leadership is questioned in this article. They don’t read Jewish books or follow news about Israel. They don’t speak Hebrew or know what Shavuot is. They have so abandoned their particularistic identities that their organizational leaders’ penchant for universalism doesn’t strike them as odd. They have so conflated their political outlooks with their Jewish identities that they can’t see the connection between Jewish organizational partisanship and the worsening of the anti-Semitism problem. They may be attracting the leaders they deserve.
What would specifically Jewish leadership even look like to most American Jews today? Put another way, if most American Jews were asked to conjure up the perfect Jewish leader, would they be able to make a top ten list of character traits and priorities to fill out a job description that would be distinguishable from the requirements to lead, say, Habitat for Humanity? What other kind of Jewish leadership would such a fractured, unmoored Jewish community produce than the one we’ve had?
Michael Steinhardt once spoke to a group of roughly sixty Birthright alumni at an event I was hosting. He asked them a simple question: who are your Jewish heroes? There was no reply, not from a single person in the room. Then, slowly, a smattering of celebrity names was offered up: Jerry Seinfeld, Steven Spielberg, You?!
Michael was shocked. He began prompting the group by describing a certain Russian refusenik who spent years in the Gulag and later became a member of the Israeli Knesset—and waited for someone to fill in the blank. Still nothing. “Ever heard of Natan Sharansky?” he asked, his eyebrows raised in disbelief. “I think I have heard that name,” said one young man in the front row. A few others nodded.
The truth is, most young Jews don’t have Jewish heroes. That matters because heroes model the kinds of traits and behaviors that we should be looking for in our leaders. You have to know that particularism defined Revisionist Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s bold vision for a proud, unapologetic Jewish State if you want a proud, unapologetic defender of Israel to speak on your behalf today. You have to recognize that a great love of being Jewish and for every Jew inspired the Lubavitcher Rebbe to build an international movement of Jewish revitalization. You have to remember that Abraham Joshua Heschel stood alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., not to beg his pardon for having marginally greater “privilege” in America but to promote their shared love of the Judeo-Christian values they were proud to say made America possible. You have to know that Hannah Senesh was a warrior and Moses was a humble man. Whomever they are, your Jewish heroes are likely to help you identify Jewish leaders who can serve you well. If you don’t have the former, it will be harder to locate the latter.
Most American Jews will only recognize Moses on my list, and that is a big part of the problem. We are going to continue to get the leaders we deserve, and the shock of our lives when we realize they aren’t leading us that well, so long as anti-Semitism remains the most reliable Jewish engagement tool in American Jewish life and intersectionality is our strategy for staving it off.
Judaism itself is at the core of Jewish survival and understanding that should be bullet-point number one on every Jewish leader’s job description. It is the thing worth defending when the anti-Semites come and the thing that endures when American political parties and their values change. Jewish leaders who attach themselves and their organizations too much to partisan political interests either miss or dismiss the reality they cannot or will not see, and put all Jews in a dangerous position.
There is no political “forever home” for American Jews. Did we really need BLM to see that? Maybe we did.
“What physicians say about consumptive illnesses is applicable here: that at the beginning, such an illness is easy to cure but difficult to diagnose; but as time passes, not having been recognized or treated at the outset, it becomes easy to diagnose but difficult to cure.”
Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince
This is not the country we grew up in. The Jewish community is under siege. According to the FBI, Jews are the primary targets of hate crimes in America. An analysis of their reports reveals that a Jew is twice as likely to be a victim of a hate crime as a black person or a Muslim, ten times more likely than an Asian or a Latino, and twenty times more likely than a non-Hispanic white.
Jews are being beaten in the streets of New York City, murdered in Pittsburgh, San Diego, and Jersey City, stabbed in Boston, taken hostage in Texas, and harassed and bullied on college campuses across the country. In more than a few places, Jews live with rising anxiety. Most Jewish community buildings require security. Israel, the Jewish state, is defamed and demonized by the mainstream media, and maligned in both the U.S. Congress and the United Nations, as anti-Zionism becomes the new anti-Semitism.
Hostility toward American Jews continues to grow. In February 2022, police in New York reported that anti-Semitic hate crimes in the city were up 409 percent. A recent American Jewish Committee (AJC) poll found that four in ten Jews avoid making themselves identifiable as Jews, avoid going to Jewish events, or refrain from posting Jewish-related content online. Ninety percent of Jews think anti-Semitism is a problem in America.
In what seems like a perfect storm, Jews face assaults simultaneously from four major ideological camps. Lethal white nationalists attack them in the name of white supremacy, blaming them for supporting multiculturalism and rising Third World immigration. Radical black nationalists—including Farrakhan-following celebrities, academics, and politicians—attack Jews in the name of black liberation and “equity.” Radical progressives and segments of the Democratic Party promote the genocidal BDS movement and anti-Jewish critical race theory, inciting an ideological assault on Israel and Jews in the name of “social justice” and Palestinian nationalism. This new assault is a kind of “virtuous Jew-hatred,” socially acceptable and even fashionable, not easily countered by facts, logic, or reason.
Finally, radical Muslims, many from anti-Semitic cultures, embody an ancient religious hatred (the Jews rejected Muhammad) and are further inflamed by their tribal support of Palestinians. Islamic anti-Israel movements are funded by petro-dollars mostly from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Dozens of imams in American mosques can be seen in videos preaching incitement and hatred of Jews. Muslims have attacked Jews on America’s streets.
The ongoing demonization of Jews in the media, on college campuses, in Congress, and most recently in K-12 education is ominous. History does not offer many examples where rising anti-Semitism resolved itself peacefully. The Holocaust, Rabbi Heschel famously said, “did not begin with the construction of the crematoria, but with the defamation of the Jews.”
The animus behind these tribal, theological, and ideological assaults did not suddenly appear, but has been openly building over decades. The resulting crescendo of hate was predictable, but the “red flags” were mostly rationalized away, minimized, or ignored by most mainstream Jewish leaders. Based on their actions and priorities, Jewish leaders seem to prefer to devote precious Jewish resources to virtue-signaling activities for all but Jewish causes. Within the establishment Jewish leadership, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) has been the lone, unfaltering exception.
The abolitionist leader Fredrick Douglass understood the consequences of failed leadership. He wrote: “Find out what any people will quietly submit to and you have the exact… measure of the injustice and wrong… which will be imposed upon them.”
There are many reasons for the current Jewish predicament. Many are not within our control, but one thing truly ought to be: Jewish leadership.
The simple truth is that those Jewish establishment organizations whose mission is the defense and well-being of the community—the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the American Jewish Committee (AJC), the Federations, and the networks of Jewish Community Relations Councils (JCRCs)—are failing to protect American Jewry. The leadership seems both ideologically conflicted and conflict-averse. Most significantly, our leaders and their major donors are not being held accountable for these failures. After decades of Jewish success in American society, Jewish leaders have grown complacent—or perhaps corrupted by our good fortune. Today, most of our Jewish leaders and their major donors are part of the economic elite and are not directly affected by the rising hatred and violence. Self-indulgent, sometimes arrogant, they suppress dissenting voices and diverse opinions. They often seem more preoccupied by their social standing than demonstrating real concern for the Jewish community predicament.
In a nutshell, Jewish establishment leaders are stuck in a comfortable older strategic paradigm. For decades, they promoted policies that allied Jews with blacks, and then with other disadvantaged minorities, in their struggles for civil and equal rights. They justified these policies, and the resulting outlay of precious Jewish resources, not only as consistent with Jewish values but also as protective of the community. The assumption was that our compassion and magnanimity toward others would reveal our goodness to all, and thus engender reciprocity and solidarity from these groups. Ignoring tribal self-interest and projecting their Jewish values onto their “allies,” they pursued a naïve and simplistic strategy: “We will help them and they will support us.” Predictably, they were wrong.
Not surprisingly, there was no reciprocity and no solidarity. With very few exceptions, physical and ideological attacks on Jews did not elicit the expected condemnations of anti-Semitism from their alleged “allies.” Our leaders seem to have missed the dramatic shift in America’s cultural and political landscape, which has taken place over the last several decades. The liberalism of the past that made long-standing Jewish policies sensible has been replaced by a radical and insidious ideology, one that resembles a theology. “Post-modernism” and “progressivism,” whose adherents are called “woke,” label Jews as “privileged white oppressors.” This ideology has captured and energized the progressive left. It has also infected too many Jews seeking acceptance and an escape from the burden of being Jewish.
Not only do Jewish leaders seem willfully blind to this mass cultural change, they seem oblivious to the damage they cause by their stubborn refusal to be “mugged by reality.” One shameful consequence: they fail to react with passion against attacks on Jews from their imagined ideological partners. Like “generals fighting the last war,” they cling to a more comfortable misunderstanding of the threat by focusing mainly on the extremist right, the small gangs of violent thugs who have minimal support compared to the vast influence of major media, college campuses, Islamists, and “progressive” politicians. So they simply look for Nazis everywhere. They have painted themselves, and us, into a corner. Even more ominous in the long term is the failure of Jewish leaders to stop the drift of Jewish youth, educators, and even our rabbis away from Judaism into progressive ideologies, which are most often anti-Zionist. Young Jews are not educated to understand Jewish peoplehood, and that being Jewish is more than being observant. It’s being part of the long history of the Judean people with a unique and amazing culture.
When challenged about this new reality—in which the reigning ideology of their “allies” divides America into oppressors and oppressed and consigns Jews to the former class—Jewish leaders often seem to be in outright denial. Some will grudgingly acknowledge the problem, but we have seen none who shows a willingness to consider the need for a serious re-think, a new strategy. Mostly they are doubling down on their failed policies or going through the motions of “rethinking” by organizing taskforces and committees. Most important, there is little evidence that our leaders or donors are being held accountable for their massive negligence and failure.
Several strategic leadership failures have severe long-term consequences for the community. These must be addressed immediately.
Failing to stop demonization of Jews in the media when the problem was limited.
This failure to address the demonization of Israel in the media, which now extends to most of the mainstream media, meant that Jewish leaders, especially the ADL—the “Jewish Defense Department”—failed to understand that the ideological assault on the Jewish state was the “new anti-Semitism.” Anti-Zionism made Jew-hatred culturally and socially acceptable under the guise of human rights and free speech. Every major Jewish legacy organization, except for the Zionist Organization of America, failed to see the long-term consequences, and thus refused to expose and combat it.
In 1989, as The Boston Globe was bashing the Jewish state on practically a daily basis, Andrea Levin and Charles Jacobs contemplated forming a media watchdog group that would expose and combat media bias against Israel. As they were forming the Boston branch of CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, they were asked by New England’s ADL representative, Lenny Zakim (of blessed memory), and by the former leader of AIPAC, Steve Grossman, to let the ADL do this task instead. Zakim and Grossman argued that since the ADL spoke with the voice of the Jewish people, if Abe Foxman, the ADL’s legendary head at the time, explained to the public that the media was lying about the Jewish people it would be more powerful than if a new start-up did. But Foxman declined without any explanation. What was lost on him and the Jewish establishment was the strategic significance of how the media and other key public and cultural institutions influence our political leaders and the general public. This was a historic blunder.
Failing to stop demonization, harassment, intimidation, and exclusion of Jews on campus when the problem was limited.
In 2003, we were asked by Jewish students at Columbia University to help them deal with anti-Israel professors who were harassing and intimidating pro-Israel Jewish students. Nobody in leadership positions in New York City, the most populous Jewish city in the world, would help the students: not the Jewish professors, not Hillel, not the ADL, not the Federation, not the AJC.
Our documentary, Columbia Unbecoming (2004), recorded the abuse of Jewish students and the failure of the university to stop the abuse. The documentary received major press coverage, including TV news reports. For the first time, many in the Jewish community learned about the hostility faced by Jewish students. Sadly, the events at Columbia failed to get the Jewish establishment mobilized. They told us the problem was not so bad, and that bringing attention to it would only make it worse. They preferred to handle the situation quietly, with the university administration behind closed doors. They told us to go away, and let them handle the matter, implying that we were intruding on their turf. David Harris told us that his American Jewish Committee only does diplomacy and would not get involved on campus. Now, twenty years later, many of the diplomats the AJC faces have been “Palestinianized” on campus. The vacuum created by failed Jewish leadership resulted in grassroots efforts to support Jewish students, including The David Project, ZOA, StandWithUs, CAMERA on Campus, Aish ha-Torah, Students Supporting Israel, and others.
We hoped that Columbia Unbecoming would awaken Jewish leadership and the public to anti-Semitism masked as anti-Zionism. It mostly failed to accomplish this goal. Only in 2021 did the ADL finally acknowledge the campus problem. Failing to deal effectively with Columbia University’s egregious behavior emboldened the Jew-hating radicals. There are now dozens of “unbecoming,” i.e., hostile universities. As with an untreated infection the poison spread aggressively.
Lack of action by Jewish leadership has contributed to the fact that 50 percent of Jews on campus now feel that “they must hide who they are out of fear,” according to a recent AJC poll. This failure to address the hostility on campus has allowed the metastasis of a malignant academic culture that has led to the takeover of departments of Middle East Studies by radical anti-Semites, the growth of Students for Justice in Palestine promoting the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, the infiltration and corruption of Jewish Studies programs, and the exclusion of Jewish students from fully participating in campus activities.
Failing to stop anti-Israel education in high schools now exploding across the nation via ethnic studies curricula and critical race theory.
Leveraging their campus successes, anti-Zionists then extended their efforts to K-12 education with funding from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and progressive think tanks. In 2011, informed by parents, we discovered that a Saudi-funded text—The Arab World Studies Notebook—was being used as a history text in high schools in Newton, Massachusetts. The Notebook was part of a curriculum taught to teachers across America by an anti-Israel Arab organization. Newton teachers were trained at an event sponsored by the anti-Israel Harvard Center for Middle Eastern Studies. The Center’s director, Paul Beran, an anti- Israel activist for several years, was an organizer of BDS campaigns against Israel. One “lesson” used the Hamas Charter as a primary source, but the Newton version of the Charter was doctored. It erased the original language that called for the murder of every Jew on the planet, by substituting the word “Zionists” for Jews. The teacher’s guide explained that the unit’s purpose was to show the conflict as a resolvable land and border dispute and not a complicated religious conflict. A grassroots effort to find out what else was being taught in the schools was stymied when school administrators rejected transparency and refused to make their teaching materials public. None of the established Jewish organizations in Boston would help us. In fact, they supported the school committee, claiming that we were exaggerating. To date, the curriculum is still not transparent. More recently with the introduction of California’s “ethnic studies” curriculum, the assault on Jews and Israel has become “turbo-charged.” Most of Boston’s establishment Jewish leaders are being co-opted with vague promises of phantom “guardrails” to prevent anti-Jewish or anti-Israel indoctrination. Again, we are witnessing gullible or delusional Jewish leadership failing to protect the community as the next generation of Americans is being groomed to be hostile to the Jewish community. This situation is being made far worse with the widespread introduction of critical race theory and “ethnic studies,” which reject merit in favor of tribal quotas and identity politics. Historically, Jewish success was based on merit while Jewish exclusion was based on quotas. Many Jewish leaders feel trapped by the conflict between their universalist and utopian impulses and their fiduciary responsibility to the Jewish community.
Failing to recognize the long-term threat of the growing radicalization of the American Muslim community.
Jewish leaders enamored of and relieved by simplistic feel-good solutions to complex social problems preached the gospel of interfaith dialogue as the magic formula for resolving tribal conflicts. In 2003, The Boston Herald reported that Islamist radicals tied to terrorism were planning to build a mega-mosque in the Boston suburb of Roxbury. Included on the mosque’s board was the “spiritual leader” of the Muslim Brotherhood (a radical Islamist, terror-approving group) Yusef al-Qaradhawi, whose preaching—easily accessed online—calls for the murder of Jews and gays worldwide. Based on documents we obtained, it was clear that the goal of the mosque owners was to radicalize the historically moderate Boston Muslim community, as well as proselytize in Boston’s black community where the mosque was to be located. Concerned with these developments, we organized a meeting of Boston Jewish leaders including executives of Boston’s Federation (Combined Jewish Philanthropies, or CJP), the ADL, the AJC, and the JCRC. We presented evidence regarding the ownership and control of the mosque, their hateful ideology, and their connections to terror groups. The Jewish leaders, displaying a significant deficit of imagination and courage, believed that the only proper response was to engage more intensely in interfaith dialogue. “What else can we do?” they asked. They refused to consider educating the Jews and the public about the threat posed by radical Islam. We urged them to share what they knew about the funders and officials of the mosque with Boston’s well-intentioned but naïve mayor, or with Massachusetts’ governor. They refused. They were reluctant to use their political capital on this matter. By 2015, more than a dozen congregants of the Islamic Society of Boston’s mosques were in jail, deported, on the run, or dead from their connections to terrorism. This includes the Boston Marathon bombers, who were part-time congregants.
The Jewish leaders were not influenced by hard evidence, such as copies of checks from terror groups to the mosques or from the mosques to the terror groups. We showed them anti-Semitic writings, sermons, and videos of anti-Semitic harangues. We showed them instructions on the mosque’s website on how husbands, displeased by their wives’ conduct, should beat them. Nothing, it seemed, would cause them to deviate from their comforting dogmatic beliefs that “mutual understanding” and dialogue would mitigate any threat. They also refused to learn the lessons of Muslim migration to Europe and its resulting violence against Jews. They were more concerned with offending a “vulnerable minority” than the long-term safety of their own community. Their mantra was “If we are nice to them, they will be nice to us.” Facts be damned.
What is to be done?
Most mainstream Jewish leaders are promoting universalist fantasies—but to bring “kumbaya” to the arena of identity politics is to unilaterally disarm.
On these matters, our leaders prefer not to “follow the evolutionary science,” which teaches that tribes are more likely to seek dominance than equality. Tribes are formed to provide protection to their members, and are dependent on strong leaders for survival. Tribes are not guided by global moral principles and ethics, such as compassion or reciprocity. Instead, they are motivated by concrete tribal interests. Our Jewish leaders have projected their own values and ethics onto other groups, ignoring the reality that politics and warfare have always been about tribal power conflict. Many European Jews hoped that the “international community” would save them from the Nazis. Today, many American Jewish leaders place their bets on “allies” whom they mistake for partners. They failed to learn the clearest lesson of history: no one will fight to protect the Jews but the Jews.
For decades, we have been fighting our external enemies—the biased media, the professoriate, the weak-kneed college administrators, leftist anti-Zionists, high schools with poisoned “lesson plans,” radical Muslim anti-Semites, and followers of Farrakhan. We have finally concluded that the Jewish community cannot prevail against this organized rolling tsunami of hatred with the existing misguided establishment leaders who lack courage and imagination and are beholden to a progressive ideology that limits their range of effective actions.
It’s well known that Jewish leaders are not elected but are anointed by wealthy donors, who are often part of the country’s ruling elites. They are conflicted between their fiduciary responsibilities to the community, their progressive ideology, and how their actions may negatively impact their social standing. They are often forced to rationalize why their efforts to maintain the status quo and their personal power are actually good faith attempts to live up to their responsibilities to fellow Jews.
It’s irrational to continue with the current policies and leaders and to expect different results. For the benefit of the community, Jewish leaders must acknowledge their failure—and not just privately. Many Jewish leaders, however morally confused, delusional, utopian, or in denial of the painful realities, believe they are well-intentioned people. Given the recent upsurge in anti-Semitism, however, and the rebranding of Jews as adjacent white oppressors, one can only hope they are (internally at least) going through a reassessment of the root causes of their failures, without which new strategies cannot be developed. Forming committees is not the answer. Leadership is about having a vision as well as the ability to inspire people to act on that vision. It is possible but unlikely that the same leaders who got us into this crisis are capable of getting us out of it.
Jewish leaders need fresh ideas. The Jewish community needs to engage in open discussions, by encouraging broad community participation about the crisis we face.
To help promote this process we are forming a national network of Jewish community activists, many of whom have been generally ignored, canceled, or suppressed by the Jewish establishment. These activists are interested in promoting creative new strategies for their communities by challenging local Jewish leadership: their rabbis, local Federations, the ADL, AJC, and the JCRCs to break out of their failed ideological strait jackets and explore new thinking. To help organize such an effort, we have created a new initiative: THE JEWISH LEADERSHIP PROJECT (www.jewishleadershipproject.org)
Given today’s realities, we urge Jewish leadership to immediately take the following steps:
Not for the first time in Jewish history, are we at a watershed moment. But we are an accomplished community, with very talented individuals. We can and must find proud, brave, and competent leadership to secure a better Jewish future.