Jewish Community / Jews in America

“How does our community, committed to Israel as well as a host of other social justice commitments, navigate collaboration with other faith and political leaders who not only oppose one critical piece of our community’s agenda but often even militate against it?”

How does our community, committed to Israel as well as a host of other social justice commitments, navigate collaboration with other faith and political leaders who not only oppose one critical piece of our community’s agenda but often even militate against it?

In response to this challenge, the instinct by many communities is to create “litmus tests” — tools of assessing loyalty and commonality that establish the legitimacy of partnership. In this arena, I see two equally problematic tendencies that represent opposite extremes but that yield similar solutions.

On the left, the litmus test in vogue — and one that sometimes leads progressive activists to exclude Zionists from their camp — relies on a pure application of the academic theory of intersectionality. In arguing for the deep, structural, interdependent relationship among forms of oppression, this form of ideological purity makes acceptance of a total program or platform into a litmus test.

It may make for an incredibly powerful political community; only those who subscribe to the full network of commitments — ostensibly with equal passion for all forms of interrelated injustice — can participate as members. Yet its rigidity also is likely to yield an incredibly small group.

The opposite approach, still bewilderingly au courant in some Jewish communal circles, is the “single-issue” litmus test approach, which evaluates ideas and people on the basis of a single issue — almost always Israel politics. This is a different form of ideological purity. But rather than insisting on purity through linkages, the litmus test insists on a singular cause as the evaluative instrument of legitimacy. This is single-issue politics of disqualification, which works very well for the border police who enforce it, and is baffling and exasperating for most others who live inside or outside the enforced parameters.

If the pure intersectional approach is flawed for seeking perfect or consistent structures as the organizing principle in which to hold a wide group of imperfect and inconsistent moral actors, the single-issue approach is flawed for the perversity that it periodically engenders. As many have noted, the anger in the Jewish community about a line in the platform of the Movement for Black Lives created the risk of moral tragedy. As a friend wrote to me recently: “I can’t support black kids not being gunned down, because some of the movement leaders don’t meet my Israel ideology purity test? That’s the hill we want to die on?”

Neither of these approaches then really works. Rather, they are better at restricting, constricting, and ultimately diminishing effective political community than constituting strategies for effective organizing and growth across diversity. Most political movements actually require broader coalitions than litmus tests allow, such that the foregoing “coherence and conviction” become the discourse of a shrinking and failing minority.

Yehuda Kurtzer, “Linda Sarsour and American Jewish Politics”, Jewish Journal (3-9 February 2017), 12-13.