How did we get here?

Written by: Rebecca Sugar for WhiteRoseMagazine

When I ran alumni programming for Birthright Israel participants in New York years ago, Michael Steinhardt and I lamented that the best way to capture the attention of American Jews might be to hire gangs of thugs around the country to break some windows and yell anti-Semitic slurs. Anti-Semitism has a way of reaching out to even the most disengaged Jew. We didn’t have to spend a dime, of course, because the anti-Semites already had their plans. The recent spate of anti-Semitic incidents across the country has had the effect we imagined. 

Lots of Jews seem to be paying attention to Jewish life in America in a new way now. Rashida Tlaib, “Apartheid Week” on college campuses, social media influencers, Colleyville, and much more have come together in critical mass and shoved these “twice-a-year Jews” into the figurative Jewish communal room, many for the first time. They are stumbling around, wondering how we got here and what to do next. “I can’t believe this is happening here, in the United States,” they say in disbelief. 

But, actually, it isn’t at all hard to believe. After all, “this” has been happening here for a while. “This” has also happened in almost every Diaspora Jewish community throughout history. If by “this” they mean the scapegoating of Jews during turbulent times, and the subsequent increase in anti-Semitic activity, then “this” is neither new nor surprising. In fact, it is perfectly predictable.  

What most American Jews are really shocked by, but couldn’t see until it became inescapably obvious, is the fast-growing, unabashed anti-Semitism of the American political left, where they themselves reside. BDS, the Squad, attacks on Hassidic Jews in the streets, BLM’s charter, Pinkwashing, Deadly Exchange, leadership at the Women’s March, biased mainstream media coverage of Israel, anti-Semitic professors at elite private high schools, Islamist apologists: it has all felt like a sudden landslide. But, in fact, it has been more like a slow, creeping mudslide that they seem to have entirely missed, until it appeared as a daily feature on their social media feeds. Why do American Jews seem so caught off guard?

What most American Jews are really shocked by, but couldn’t see until it became inescapably obvious, is the fast-growing, unabashed anti-Semitism of the American political left, where they themselves reside.

One explanation is historical ignorance. It’s usually a bad blind spot. If you didn’t study Soviet Jewry, perhaps it is difficult to understand that political collectivism is bad for the Jews. If you didn’t learn about the implications of group “identity politics” in 19th and 20th century Europe, you might not appreciate that the contemporary American manifestation of it is a threat to the Jewish community and Israel. If you don’t know that the image of the money-hungry, usurious Jew is an anti-Semitic slur hundreds of years old, then when Ilhan Omar says, “it’s all about the Benjamins” you might think the comment was an offensive, one-off remark you can overlook. These trends have been building for some time, but if you didn’t have historical sensitivity to them, you wouldn’t guess that the politics you support are also hurting Jews. Then, when your favorite ice cream brand suddenly decides to boycott Israel, it comes as a shock.

Another explanation is a failure of leadership. American Jewish leaders certainly should know our history and concern themselves with helping us not to repeat it. They should be sensitive to signs that portend trouble and should sound the communal alarm-bell well in advance of a crisis. Why didn’t more of them do exactly that before we started racking up assaults on city streets, hostile Humanities Departments at major American universities, and members of Congress accusing the Jewish State of putting Palestinian kids in cages?

Some did, but too often they were sidelined and dismissed. Many heads of establishment Jewish organizations had long-standing relationships with members of Congress, directors of think tanks, and editors at the New York Times, which in the past had proven helpful when defending Jewish interests. They didn’t want loud voices pointing out illiberal trends in liberal circles that might compromise the delicate balance of an important relationship. Political and social realities in America had changed, but these leaders and their organizations didn’t. They confused their historical access with continuing influence and even as the latter waned, they held firmly to the former. So, they either ignored or explained away what the alarm bell ringers were warning us about.

Others were themselves committed to the political left and understood that their constituency, the majority of American Jews, were similarly committed. As Jewish organizational affiliation waned, its leadership reasoned that a Jewish world that mirrored liberal Jewish values might attract more members. But “liberal values” rapidly devolved into “leftist ideology,” and Jewish leaders who had committed to “the left” were now reinterpreting Judaism to keep up with it. They gave progressive buzzwords like diversity and inclusion, social action, and allyship a Jewish name: tikkun olam. They made intersectionality a Jewish communal priority and suggested mutual benefit would result from Jewish investment in “the other.” Many openly used their Jewish organizations to advocate for partisan policy initiatives, claiming that advocacy was the natural outgrowth of authentic Jewish values. Jewish leaders brought Jewish organizational life into such close ideological alignment with the American political left, that a break between the two could not be tolerated.

“Liberal values” rapidly devolved into “leftist ideology,” and Jewish leaders who had committed to “the left” were now reinterpreting Judaism to keep up with it.

The orthodoxy around this approach took hold quickly and few challenged it. It was hard to find a Jewish communal conference that didn’t feature progressive outreach programs or social action initiatives on behalf of the environment. Jewish foundations couldn’t fund them fast enough. At one of these conferences, I recall a courageous representative from a Christian, pro-Israel organization who stood up and cautioned the room that in its pursuit of partisan intersectional interests under the tikkun olam banner, the organized Jewish communal world might be marginalizing allies whose American political outlook may not always align, but whose Judeo-Christian values did. The prioritization of the one over the other seemed not to be in the interest of the Jewish community in the long term, he pointed out. His message wasn’t well received.

Even as the left continued to break away from classical liberalism and demonstrated an increasing tolerance for anti-Semitism in its ranks, Jewish leaders resisted changing course. They claimed the problem was relatively small and not representative. The way to beat it back was with more intersectional fervor and more support for partisan political issues in the name of the Jewish community. We needed more Jewish voices at immigration rallies, they claimed, to demonstrate the unbreakable alliance with the left that our leadership promised was still strong. Jewish leaders religiously pursued those who increasingly rejected them and downplayed that rejection to American Jews. 

But the overwhelming reality of what has been happening on the left eventually overwhelmed our leadership’s ability to manage the problem. Social media told a very different story than the one mainstream Jewish leaders had been telling. The size and scope of it reached an unsuspecting American Jewish population who felt they hadn’t been prepared. Jews seem to have awakened one morning to a world they didn’t recognize. In it, anti-Semitism isn’t new at all, and it is being perpetrated by the very people and ideas our leaders told us were our natural allies. 

Jewish kids on campus who were taught “diversity and inclusion” as Torah in their temples back home weren’t prepared when they were accused of “colonialist, white privilege” support for the Jewish State in philosophy class.  No one explained that identity politics is not at all a Jewish concept, but, rather, a poisonous ideology that feeds anti-Semitism against Jews of all colors. That it got their “Rabbi of Color” profiled on NPR seemed so meaningful before, but it suddenly revealed itself to be part of the problem. It was stunning to realize that “inclusion” doesn’t always include the Jews.

Maybe this is just how markets work: buyer beware. There are synagogues and organizations to choose from if yours isn’t serving you well. It would end there if these institutions didn’t pretend to speak on behalf of all “American Jewry” or a large proportion of it. But many do.

Jewish kids on campus who were taught “diversity and inclusion” as Torah in their temples back home weren’t prepared when they were accused of “colonialist, white privilege” support for the Jewish State in philosophy class.

Several years ago I was in a meeting with the leadership of the Union of Reform Judaism. One of the senior executives in the room proudly declared that the Reform movement represents the great majority of Jews in America. But really, it doesn’t. Most American Jews may in fact call themselves “Reform” (or “Reformed” as some of my friends mistakenly say). But most of my Reform Jewish friends can’t name URJ President, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, or list three principles of Reform religious philosophy. When they say they are Reform Jews they usually mean, “not Orthodox,” or that they pay dues at a Reform Temple they hardly frequent. They show up on Pew study pie charts as “Reform Jews,” but they don’t feel “represented” by the central office or its pronouncements, if they even know what they are. 

The Anti-Defamation League is the media go-to when anti-Semitism bursts through the doors of an American institution. On whose behalf do they speak? Do politically conservative Jews see the organization as their representative when it issues statements on criminal justice reform or Supreme Court nominees? Do the majority of liberal Jews in America agree with the ADL’s recent assertion that racism is an offense only perpetrated by white people? The ADL does have a following, but it is not “American Jewry.” It is a particular slice of it, along with some donors from Google.

Whether or not American Jews realize it, Jewish institutions are not only responsive to the interests of non-Jewish audiences, but they are speaking on the entire Jewish community’s behalf to the rest of the world: to the media, to politicians, and to foreign leaders. This has consequences. Legislation is passed, funding is allocated, and narratives are built based on what these institutions say are American Jewish priorities. If left-wing anti-Semitism in America wasn’t in the top three of those priorities over the past 20 years (and it wasn’t), then why would most American Jews have seen any of this coming? 

By definition we have to say that leadership has failed when it hasn’t led. But it is also true that those who can’t believe how we got “here” may share some of the blame for their own confusion. American Jews are largely disconnected from their history and ignorant of their religion. Many don’t participate in the very Jewish communal organizations whose leadership is questioned in this article. They don’t read Jewish books or follow news about Israel. They don’t speak Hebrew or know what Shavuot is. They have so abandoned their particularistic identities that their organizational leaders’ penchant for universalism doesn’t strike them as odd. They have so conflated their political outlooks with their Jewish identities that they can’t see the connection between Jewish organizational partisanship and the worsening of the anti-Semitism problem. They may be attracting the leaders they deserve.

What would specifically Jewish leadership even look like to most American Jews today? Put another way, if most American Jews were asked to conjure up the perfect Jewish leader, would they be able to make a top ten list of character traits and priorities to fill out a job description that would be distinguishable from the requirements to lead, say, Habitat for Humanity? What other kind of Jewish leadership would such a fractured, unmoored Jewish community produce than the one we’ve had?  

Michael Steinhardt once spoke to a group of roughly sixty Birthright alumni at an event I was hosting. He asked them a simple question: who are your Jewish heroes? There was no reply, not from a single person in the room. Then, slowly, a smattering of celebrity names was offered up: Jerry Seinfeld, Steven Spielberg, You?!  

Michael was shocked. He began prompting the group by describing a certain Russian refusenik who spent years in the Gulag and later became a member of the Israeli Knesset—and waited for someone to fill in the blank. Still nothing. “Ever heard of Natan Sharansky?” he asked, his eyebrows raised in disbelief. “I think I have heard that name,” said one young man in the front row. A few others nodded. 

The truth is, most young Jews don’t have Jewish heroes. That matters because heroes model the kinds of traits and behaviors that we should be looking for in our leaders. You have to know that particularism defined Revisionist Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s bold vision for a proud, unapologetic Jewish State if you want a proud, unapologetic defender of Israel to speak on your behalf today. You have to recognize that a great love of being Jewish and for every Jew inspired the Lubavitcher Rebbe to build an international movement of Jewish revitalization. You have to remember that Abraham Joshua Heschel stood alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., not to beg his pardon for having marginally greater “privilege” in America but to promote their shared love of the Judeo-Christian values they were proud to say made America possible. You have to know that Hannah Senesh was a warrior and Moses was a humble man. Whomever they are, your Jewish heroes are likely to help you identify Jewish leaders who can serve you well. If you don’t have the former, it will be harder to locate the latter.

The truth is, most young Jews don’t have Jewish heroes. That matters because heroes model the kinds of traits and behaviors that we should be looking for in our leaders.

Most American Jews will only recognize Moses on my list, and that is a big part of the problem. We are going to continue to get the leaders we deserve, and the shock of our lives when we realize they aren’t leading us that well, so long as anti-Semitism remains the most reliable Jewish engagement tool in American Jewish life and intersectionality is our strategy for staving it off. 

Judaism itself is at the core of Jewish survival and understanding that should be bullet-point number one on every Jewish leader’s job description. It is the thing worth defending when the anti-Semites come and the thing that endures when American political parties and their values change. Jewish leaders who attach themselves and their organizations too much to partisan political interests either miss or dismiss the reality they cannot or will not see, and put all Jews in a dangerous position. 

There is no political “forever home” for American Jews. Did we really need BLM to see that? Maybe we did.

Join us as we challenge the establishment Jewish leaders and the donors who have supported and enabled them but failed to hold them accountable.