Jewish opinion in America I

The fact was that even among the most committed, the community was deeply divided on the Iran issue.

An American Jewish man praying  (photo credit: REUTERS)
An American Jewish man praying
(photo credit: REUTERS)
IN THE wake of their debacle in the battle over the Iran nuclear agreement, some American- Jewish organizations which opposed the deal are engaging in serious soul-searching. Others prefer to busy themselves with “magical thinking,” by inventing convoluted theories to justify the fact that the US Jewish community, whom they purport to represent, was just not with them on this issue.
One theory argues that the views of the majority of American Jews who supported the agreement don’t really count since most of them, although they may self-identify as Jews, are only loosely attached to the Jewish community. Under this theory, the most committed Jews backed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in opposing the agreement while the least committed lined up behind US President Barack Obama by supporting it.
Therefore, the Jewish establishment was correct to represent those of its members who really care by working to defeat the agreement.
But the fact was that even among the most committed, the community was deeply divided on the Iran issue. Every single Jewish federation, which came out against the agreement, often under pressure from one or two major donors but without any consultation with its broader membership, was met with howls of outrage from dozens of important members who took out paid advertisements, and wrote letters and editorials saying that the federation did not speak for them.
The smart move would have been for federations to stay neutral, recognizing the lack of consensus within their ranks. Many did just that. As Gregg Roman, community relations council director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, told JTA, “There is a plethora of diverse opinions. For our federation to come out with a position would be irresponsible. We’re not going to pretend we’re nuclear experts.”
The others, which foolishly stuck their necks out for Netanyahu, now have the painful task of mending relations and rebuilding bridges with their disaffected, angry and disillusioned members, and hoping they will not bear a grudge when the time comes to renew their annual pledges.
The same deeply flawed logic, holding that the views of progressives within the community don’t count because they are “not Jewish enough,” is also being applied to settlements, the occupation and the two-state solution.
Such an argument is, of course, deeply comforting to the Israeli government and its supporters because it allows them to write off the views of the majority of American Jews as unimportant and irrelevant.
However, there is no empirical evidence to bolster their simplistic theory and a visit to any Reform, Conservative or indeed Modern Orthodox synagogue on a Shabbat would quickly reveal that there are many, many deeply committed Jews and Zionists who are critical of the occupation and deeply worried about Israel’s long-term future as a democracy, if it continues on its present path. You can find them leading services, reading the Torah, saying Kaddish for loved ones, singing in choirs and sitting on committees.
They include many of our youth, graduates of Jewish Day Schools, summer camps and youth movements, who care passionately about Israel – but are not willing to quell their natural instinct to ask tough questions, engage in rigorous debate and make up their own minds about where they stand.
The ranks of J Street U, the student arm of J Street, which is the fastest-growing pro-Israel movement on US campuses, are full of graduates of Jewish day schools and summer camps. They are our best and brightest and they are dedicated to Israel – but not blindly and uncritically. To drive them from the tent would be to commit communal suicide.
The authors of the facile “degree of commitment” theory are in effect creating a litmus test by saying, either support the Israeli government without question or we will write you out of our community.
Their attitude is mirrored by those in Israel who wish to crush dissent by refusing entry to the country to people whose views they find objectionable.
What this attitude ultimately will lead to is a much smaller, weaker, less heterogeneous, less interesting, less vibrant and, indeed, intellectually stagnant community, which has driven hundreds of thousands of people deeply committed to the state of Israel from its midst. That’s not a future anyone should want.
Alan Elsner is Special Advisor to the President of J Street