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.