The basic political theory behind organized Jewish communal (read: establishment) politics in America since World War II has been to applaud and appreciate public gestures of support for gestures that are seen in the collective interest of the Jewish people; and to do whatever is needed to stay within the good graces of political power structures in order to maintain leverage for when it will be needed. To the extent that this version of politics has also extended into advocacy on behalf of others, it has been explicitly in service of this first agenda.
It is interesting to me to see the responses by American Jews on the left to how those very organizations greeted and welcomed the president’s “Tree of Life” comments from last night, with accusations of hypocrisy: after all, the president has – in rhetoric and policy – emboldened the white nationalism and antisemitic that fueled the Tree of Life shooter. But these criticisms of these organizations seem to miss their whole raison d’être, and their whole way of operating. They will always embrace such gestures, even if too little and too late, and even if they privately harbor fears and suspicions about the administration. There is too much to lose otherwise, and they do not see it as hypocrisy: they see it as hedging their bets.
I think the larger chasm that is emerging in American Jewish life is that these establishment organizations have power and influence but operate in fear of losing it, and in the belief that it is temporary, and in the belief that it only exists to ensure that the worst will never come to pass, and in the fear that it probably will. They are deeply diasporic in their very nature and in their relationship to power. And they are not only not purists; they are skeptical about such purism and it’s naïveté about Jewish power. Paradoxically, their critics on the left – who are more comfortable loudly criticizing the president for fostering this antisemitism – do so ostensibly out of fear, but also fearlessly: I mean, if you were genuinely scared of the administration, you might not make yourself so known. It takes a certain sense of security, an at-homeness, to take such a stance. The position of the left, weirdly, is one of a kind of privilege – even as they set their sights on the privilege of the establishment which they see as misused in this moment.
I don’t really think this moment is really about right wing vs left wing antisemitism: the great divides are about how or whether American Jews feel essentially safe and at home or eternally vulnerable and vigilant, and what are the triggers to those sentiments, and who are our significant others, and what are our relationships to fear and power.
Yehuda Kurtzer, Facebook post (6 February 2019) [https://www.facebook.com/yehuda.kurtzer/posts/10157246957652174]