In the Diaspora: End of the 'shtadlan'

Nobody can arrogate to himself or herself the right to speak for an entire Jewish community.

Freedman, samuel 88 (photo credit:)
Freedman, samuel 88
(photo credit: )
Centuries ago in the ghettos of Europe, Christian rulers and their Jewish subjects arrived at a mutually convenient form of internal diplomacy. The Christians wanted no part of Jews as citizens, and the Jews, at least most of them, wanted no part of assimilation into a largely gentile society, even had that option been on offer. Yet there needed to be some point of contact between the mutually suspicious populations. So there emerged the figure of the shtadlan, the so-called "court Jew" who represented the needs and interests of his isolated, outnumbered people. Whatever the regime required from its Jews, which sometimes included financing for commercial or military ventures, was negotiated through the shtadlan. In turn, when the gentile rabble indulged itself in pogroms, the shtadlan alone had the right to plead for the government to call off the mayhem. The role of the shtadlan, then, was both highly practical and profoundly cynical. It was also deeply historical, rooted in the compromises made during powerless exile. The first version of the shtadlan may have been the exilarch of the Jewish community in ancient Babylonia. It took the form in the Middle Ages of the Council of the Four Lands in Poland and Lithuania. The Nazis adapted it to their desires for centralized control in establishing Judenrat all across conquered territory. By all logic, the shtadlan should have stayed and died in Europe. The archetype has no function in sovereign Israel, and neither does it in the tolerant, polyglot United States, the glistening exception to Diaspora indignity and persecution. American Jews should have recognized the anachronism for what it was way back in the 1900s with the failed effort to establish a chief rabbi and formal kehilla in New York. BUT WE have been loath to give up the seeming advantages of speaking through a single voice. A classic axiom of political advocacy calls for "organized people and organized money." For American Jewry for much of the 20th century, that formula meant the United Jewish Appeal-Federation of Jewish Philanthropies, and the Joint Distribution Committee for rescue and relief to Jews abroad. "We Are One," went the Federation's venerable slogan. We have become wedded to a "crisis model" in community-building, in which either Holocaust commemoration or opposition to anti-Semitism are the raison d'etre for the largest communal organizations, from the Simon Wiesenthal Center to the American Jewish Committee. The perception that AIPAC speaks for every Jew has given fodder to conspiracy theorists like John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, authors of The Israel Lobby (or as I prefer to think of it, "The Protocols of the Elders of K Street"). ALL THIS history serves as a preamble to the recent events in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, events that illustrate the unintended, undesirable consequences of hanging on to the shtadlan. As many readers of this page probably know, Archbishop Desmond Tutu had been scheduled to speak at the University of St. Thomas, under the sponsorship of a group called PeaceJam, as part of a series of lectures about non-violence by Nobel laureates. Earlier this month, a weekly newspaper in the Twin Cities revealed that St. Thomas had cancelled the speech, with top university administrators saying they believed that Tutu's presence would antagonize the Jewish community. The exact sequence of events in coming to that decision remains murky. It is possible that university officials sought out an opinion about Tutu from the local shtadlan, Julie Swiler, public affairs director of the Jewish Community Relations Council for Minnesota and the Dakotas. Or it is possible that Swiler took the initiative of approaching St. Thomas with concerns. Regardless of the order, the net result was that with very little other input, except apparently from two rabbis on the university's adjunct faculty, the speech was cancelled. That decision brought a firestorm of protests, an opportunistic invitation to Tutu from a competing local university, and finally a reversal by St. Thomas, which invited the South African leader to appear for a talk and a public forum. The only people who can be pleased with this mess are Mearsheimer and Walt and their amen corner of bigots, who seemed to have found proof of the insidious tentacles of the Israel lobby. A much more apt moral to the story is that this kind of disaster happens in part when Jews and gentiles alike keep operating through a shtadlan. One can empathize in some respects with St. Thomas's leaders. The Catholic university has a respected center on Jewish-Christian relations and was probably bending over backward not to give offense. And from a Catholic perspective, in which religious authority does flow down the hierarchy from a single source, the notion of a shtadlan must have seemed comfortably familiar. That particular shtadlan, however, turned out to have been operating on the basis of an inaccurate and only belatedly discredited press release by the Zionist Organization of America, a group that can give even alarmism a bad name. The ZOA release gave a slanted synopsis of a speech Tutu delivered at a Boston conference in April 2002, claiming he had said that "Israel is like Hitler and apartheid." One shtadlan, equipped with one dubious piece of evidence, played an essential role, perhaps even the instigating role, in an attempt at public censorship that succeeded only in defying the wishes of many other Jews and embarrassing a great many of us. As it happens, the text of Tutu's speech does not contain the phrases the ZOA imputed to him. Speaking at a highly volatile time, in the wake of the suicide bombing at a Netanya Seder and the reoccupation of most West Bank cities, Tutu pointedly shifted the title of his speech from the previously-announced and confrontational "Occupation is Oppression" to the more conciliatory "Give Peace a Chance." He condemned "the violence of the suicide bombers," "the corruption of young minds" by anti-Jewish propaganda, and also "the violence of military incursions and reprisals." Yes, he compared the occupation to apartheid, even as he acknowledged the prominent role of South African Jews in the freedom struggle there. And, yes, he talked about the fall of dictatorial regimes because "a lie, injustice, oppression, those will never prevail in the world of this God." Those are difficult, even angering words. They are also words that any American Jew ought to be confident enough to hear, discuss, and potentially challenge. We broadcast not our strength but our weakness when we act as if criticism from a Nobel Peace Prize winner, a clergyman with an impeccable record of nonviolence, simply cannot be uttered. The groundswell calling for St. Thomas to reverse its decision included the voices of many Jews, both within and without the Twin Cities. The enduring lesson, one would hope, is that nobody can arrogate to himself or herself the right to speak for an entire Jewish community. If Jewish existence were so fragile in Minnesota, if anti-Semitism were such a clear and present danger, then how would the state have elected a string of Jewish senators - Paul Wellstone, Norm Coleman - with Al Franken a strong contender to become the next one. The ghetto walls have fallen. Emancipation and equality have arrived. The shtadlan belongs in the history books and the museums.