Passionate Detachment, MEI 30 April
Lauder claims, as head of the World Jewish Congress (WJC), to be speaking on behalf of the world’s Jews. But there is, of course, one small detail. American Jews support Barack Obama at a rate far higher than the Gentiles around them, and they even support the president’s Middle East policy by a very clear majority.
So why is J-Street, the peacenik-inclined lobby group, regarded as an interloper when it reflects the majority of American Jewish opinion?
When you look at bodies purporting to represent American Jews, one useful question is: who elected them? For many of the organisations, the answer is: whoever signed the last big cheque. Lauder is president of the WJC because he is prepared to pay for it and fly his private jet worldwide to represent it. Others represent organisations whose constant fundraising drive leads them to invoke panicky threats of anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli behaviour.
A frequent invocation is the United Nations’ alleged hostility towards Israel, which a recent American Jewish Congress mailing assured me was barred from being elected to the Security Council because of prejudice. In fact, Israel’s own behaviour ensures that it will never win an open election for a seat. But it is not the campaign that is the main purpose of such mailings; rather, it is the donations it solicits for its frenetically pointless activity.
Most American Jews are thoroughly secular, rarely if ever members of a congregation. Of those who are, less than one quarter identify as Orthodox. Israel’s official rabbinate does not accept the conversions and marriages of Reform Jews, who are the majority of the believers. Most American Jews seem content to identify themselves as Jewish in a cultural, ancestral way and play an active role in civic life without joining in the great welter of avowedly Jewish organisations.
Rabbi Elmer Berger used to head a large and arguably more mainstream non-Zionist element of American Judaism. Before he died, he admitted that after 1967 it was a losing battle. But of course most American Jews are not ‘real’ Zionists. They are proudly and passionately American and have no intention of moving to the Promised Land. It is Ersatz Israel, rather than Eretz Israel that attracts their sympathies. In the roots-hungry USA, just as Irish-Americans will sing lachrymose ballads about the Emerald Isle they have no intention of returning to, so many Jews, understandably alienated from their ‘real’ homelands of pogroms and Einsatzgruppen, adopt Israel as a substitute.
But just as Italian Americans don’t take dictation from Berlusconi about how they vote and think, American Jews are increasingly disinclined to obey orders from Netanyahu, let alone such unsavoury characters as Avigdor Lieberman.
So why are ‘official’ Jewish organisations so conservative and pro-Likud in their outlook? The community does, indeed, have a great tradition both of philanthropy and self-help, but there is a large element of self-selection both in the nature of the groups and even more so in their leadership. Numbers don’t make it in the community organisations. Chequebooks do. Many of the groups are private fiefdoms rather than mass movements. But then again, self-selection takes place. More American Jews give to non-Jewish causes than to exclusively Jewish organisations; but those who fund Jewish organisations tend to identify with Israel.
Taken together, these effects tend to distil what passes for American-Jewish leadership into the hands of an unrepresentative, richer and more right-wing coterie that is more extreme than many Israelis in its support for intransigent Likudnik policies. It is also more Republican, which represents a really small minority in the Jewish population, much of which looked with revulsion at its toadying to Bush and association with fundamentalist Christian preachers.
There have always been many American Jews who have spoken out against Israeli governments and for the Palestinians. But Norman Finkelstein and Noam Chomsky spoke as Americans, not as Jews. Their Jewishness was incidental, an accident of birth rather than an organisational principle.
Into the vacuum came pro-peace J-Street, which goes out of its way to argue that it is a pro-Israeli organisation and, of course, it can do so plausibly, since the self-destructive nature of Likud policies is self-evident to so many Jews. Most American Jews might not see Israel as central to the Jewish identity, but there is enough commitment there for them to reject any avowedly anti-Israel movement.
Obama has also blessed J-Street with access, the lifeblood for any lobby, which has provoked the likes of Lauder and Wiesel to take to the hills. J-Street has opened space for the majority of American Jews to be heard after years of increasing conservative conformity.
Of course, Obama is not in the clear yet. Those unrepresentative chequebooks that make self-proclaimed community leaders can still be marshalled in an election. But J-Street blessing could help insulate legislators wanting to support his policies from strident AIPAC-inspired electoral pogroms that have traditionally picked off vulnerable allegedly ‘anti-Israeli’ legislators as an example ‘to encourage the others’. And hovering behind, they have the example of Barack Hussein Obama: vilified and slandered by the Likudnik/Republican fringe, he won unprecedented Jewish support for his election victory despite their vociferous opposition.