Written by: Charles Jacobs & Avi Goldwasser for WhiteRoseMagazine.
“WHAT physicians say about consumptive illnesses is applicable here: that at the beginning, such an illness is easy to cure but difficult to diagnose; but as time passes, not having been recognized or treated at the outset, it becomes easy to diagnose but difficult to cure.”
Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince
This is not the country we grew up in. The Jewish community is under siege. According to the FBI, Jews are the primary targets of hate crimes in America. An analysis of their reports reveals that a Jew is twice as likely to be a victim of a hate crime as a black person or a Muslim, ten times more likely than an Asian or a Latino, and twenty times more likely than a non-Hispanic white.
Jews are being beaten in the streets of New York City, murdered in Pittsburgh, San Diego, and Jersey City, stabbed in Boston, taken hostage in Texas, and harassed and bullied on college campuses across the country. In more than a few places, Jews live with rising anxiety. Most Jewish community buildings require security. Israel, the Jewish state, is defamed and demonized by the mainstream media, and maligned in both the U.S. Congress and the United Nations, as anti-Zionism becomes the new anti-Semitism.
Hostility toward American Jews continues to grow. In February 2022, police in New York reported that anti-Semitic hate crimes in the city were up 409 percent. A recent American Jewish Committee (AJC) poll found that four in ten Jews avoid making themselves identifiable as Jews, avoid going to Jewish events, or refrain from posting Jewish-related content online. Ninety percent of Jews think anti-Semitism is a problem in America.
In what seems like a perfect storm, Jews face assaults simultaneously from four major ideological camps. Lethal white nationalists attack them in the name of white supremacy, blaming them for supporting multiculturalism and rising Third World immigration. Radical black nationalists—including Farrakhan-following celebrities, academics, and politicians—attack Jews in the name of black liberation and “equity.” Radical progressives and segments of the Democratic Party promote the genocidal BDS movement and anti-Jewish critical race theory, inciting an ideological assault on Israel and Jews in the name of “social justice” and Palestinian nationalism. This new assault is a kind of “virtuous Jew-hatred,” socially acceptable and even fashionable, not easily countered by facts, logic, or reason.
Finally, radical Muslims, many from anti-Semitic cultures, embody an ancient religious hatred (the Jews rejected Muhammad) and are further inflamed by their tribal support of Palestinians. Islamic anti-Israel movements are funded by petro-dollars mostly from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Dozens of imams in American mosques can be seen in videos preaching incitement and hatred of Jews. Muslims have attacked Jews on America’s streets.
The ongoing demonization of Jews in the media, on college campuses, in Congress, and most recently in K-12 education is ominous. History does not offer many examples where rising anti-Semitism resolved itself peacefully. The Holocaust, Rabbi Heschel famously said, “did not begin with the construction of the crematoria, but with the defamation of the Jews.”
The animus behind these tribal, theological, and ideological assaults did not suddenly appear, but has been openly building over decades. The resulting crescendo of hate was predictable, but the “red flags” were mostly rationalized away, minimized, or ignored by most mainstream Jewish leaders. Based on their actions and priorities, Jewish leaders seem to prefer to devote precious Jewish resources to virtue-signaling activities for all but Jewish causes. Within the establishment Jewish leadership, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) has been the lone, unfaltering exception.
The abolitionist leader Fredrick Douglass understood the consequences of failed leadership. He wrote: “Find out what any people will quietly submit to and you have the exact… measure of the injustice and wrong… which will be imposed upon them.”
There are many reasons for the current Jewish predicament. Many are not within our control, but one thing truly ought to be: Jewish leadership.
The simple truth is that those Jewish establishment organizations whose mission is the defense and well-being of the community—the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the American Jewish Committee (AJC), the Federations, and the networks of Jewish Community Relations Councils (JCRCs)—are failing to protect American Jewry. The leadership seems both ideologically conflicted and conflict-averse. Most significantly, our leaders and their major donors are not being held accountable for these failures. After decades of Jewish success in American society, Jewish leaders have grown complacent—or perhaps corrupted by our good fortune. Today, most of our Jewish leaders and their major donors are part of the economic elite and are not directly affected by the rising hatred and violence. Self-indulgent, sometimes arrogant, they suppress dissenting voices and diverse opinions. They often seem more preoccupied by their social standing than demonstrating real concern for the Jewish community predicament.
In a nutshell, Jewish establishment leaders are stuck in a comfortable older strategic paradigm. For decades, they promoted policies that allied Jews with blacks, and then with other disadvantaged minorities, in their struggles for civil and equal rights. They justified these policies, and the resulting outlay of precious Jewish resources, not only as consistent with Jewish values but also as protective of the community. The assumption was that our compassion and magnanimity toward others would reveal our goodness to all, and thus engender reciprocity and solidarity from these groups. Ignoring tribal self-interest and projecting their Jewish values onto their “allies,” they pursued a naïve and simplistic strategy: “We will help them and they will support us.” Predictably, they were wrong.
Not surprisingly, there was no reciprocity and no solidarity. With very few exceptions, physical and ideological attacks on Jews did not elicit the expected condemnations of anti-Semitism from their alleged “allies.” Our leaders seem to have missed the dramatic shift in America’s cultural and political landscape, which has taken place over the last several decades. The liberalism of the past that made long-standing Jewish policies sensible has been replaced by a radical and insidious ideology, one that resembles a theology. “Post-modernism” and “progressivism,” whose adherents are called “woke,” label Jews as “privileged white oppressors.” This ideology has captured and energized the progressive left. It has also infected too many Jews seeking acceptance and an escape from the burden of being Jewish.
Not only do Jewish leaders seem willfully blind to this mass cultural change, they seem oblivious to the damage they cause by their stubborn refusal to be “mugged by reality.” One shameful consequence: they fail to react with passion against attacks on Jews from their imagined ideological partners. Like “generals fighting the last war,” they cling to a more comfortable misunderstanding of the threat by focusing mainly on the extremist right, the small gangs of violent thugs who have minimal support compared to the vast influence of major media, college campuses, Islamists, and “progressive” politicians. So they simply look for Nazis everywhere. They have painted themselves, and us, into a corner. Even more ominous in the long term is the failure of Jewish leaders to stop the drift of Jewish youth, educators, and even our rabbis away from Judaism into progressive ideologies, which are most often anti-Zionist. Young Jews are not educated to understand Jewish peoplehood, and that being Jewish is more than being observant. It’s being part of the long history of the Judean people with a unique and amazing culture.
When challenged about this new reality—in which the reigning ideology of their “allies” divides America into oppressors and oppressed and consigns Jews to the former class—Jewish leaders often seem to be in outright denial. Some will grudgingly acknowledge the problem, but we have seen none who shows a willingness to consider the need for a serious re-think, a new strategy. Mostly they are doubling down on their failed policies or going through the motions of “rethinking” by organizing taskforces and committees. Most important, there is little evidence that our leaders or donors are being held accountable for their massive negligence and failure.
Several strategic leadership failures have severe long-term consequences for the community. These must be addressed immediately.
Failing to stop demonization of Jews in the media when the problem was limited.
This failure to address the demonization of Israel in the media, which now extends to most of the mainstream media, meant that Jewish leaders, especially the ADL—the “Jewish Defense Department”—failed to understand that the ideological assault on the Jewish state was the “new anti-Semitism.” Anti-Zionism made Jew-hatred culturally and socially acceptable under the guise of human rights and free speech. Every major Jewish legacy organization, except for the Zionist Organization of America, failed to see the long-term consequences, and thus refused to expose and combat it.
In 1989, as The Boston Globe was bashing the Jewish state on practically a daily basis, Andrea Levin and Charles Jacobs contemplated forming a media watchdog group that would expose and combat media bias against Israel. As they were forming the Boston branch of CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, they were asked by New England’s ADL representative, Lenny Zakim (of blessed memory), and by the former leader of AIPAC, Steve Grossman, to let the ADL do this task instead. Zakim and Grossman argued that since the ADL spoke with the voice of the Jewish people, if Abe Foxman, the ADL’s legendary head at the time, explained to the public that the media was lying about the Jewish people it would be more powerful than if a new start-up did. But Foxman declined without any explanation. What was lost on him and the Jewish establishment was the strategic significance of how the media and other key public and cultural institutions influence our political leaders and the general public. This was a historic blunder.
Failing to stop demonization, harassment, intimidation, and exclusion of Jews on campus when the problem was limited.
In 2003, we were asked by Jewish students at Columbia University to help them deal with anti-Israel professors who were harassing and intimidating pro-Israel Jewish students. Nobody in leadership positions in New York City, the most populous Jewish city in the world, would help the students: not the Jewish professors, not Hillel, not the ADL, not the Federation, not the AJC.
Our documentary, Columbia Unbecoming (2004), recorded the abuse of Jewish students and the failure of the university to stop the abuse. The documentary received major press coverage, including TV news reports. For the first time, many in the Jewish community learned about the hostility faced by Jewish students. Sadly, the events at Columbia failed to get the Jewish establishment mobilized. They told us the problem was not so bad, and that bringing attention to it would only make it worse. They preferred to handle the situation quietly, with the university administration behind closed doors. They told us to go away, and let them handle the matter, implying that we were intruding on their turf. David Harris told us that his American Jewish Committee only does diplomacy and would not get involved on campus. Now, twenty years later, many of the diplomats the AJC faces have been “Palestinianized” on campus. The vacuum created by failed Jewish leadership resulted in grassroots efforts to support Jewish students, including The David Project, ZOA, StandWithUs, CAMERA on Campus, Aish ha-Torah, Students Supporting Israel, and others.
We hoped that Columbia Unbecoming would awaken Jewish leadership and the public to anti-Semitism masked as anti-Zionism. It mostly failed to accomplish this goal. Only in 2021 did the ADL finally acknowledge the campus problem. Failing to deal effectively with Columbia University’s egregious behavior emboldened the Jew-hating radicals. There are now dozens of “unbecoming,” i.e., hostile universities. As with an untreated infection the poison spread aggressively.
Lack of action by Jewish leadership has contributed to the fact that 50 percent of Jews on campus now feel that “they must hide who they are out of fear,” according to a recent AJC poll. This failure to address the hostility on campus has allowed the metastasis of a malignant academic culture that has led to the takeover of departments of Middle East Studies by radical anti-Semites, the growth of Students for Justice in Palestine promoting the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, the infiltration and corruption of Jewish Studies programs, and the exclusion of Jewish students from fully participating in campus activities.
Failing to stop anti-Israel education in high schools now exploding across the nation via ethnic studies curricula and critical race theory.
Leveraging their campus successes, anti-Zionists then extended their efforts to K-12 education with funding from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and progressive think tanks. In 2011, informed by parents, we discovered that a Saudi-funded text—The Arab World Studies Notebook—was being used as a history text in high schools in Newton, Massachusetts. The Notebook was part of a curriculum taught to teachers across America by an anti-Israel Arab organization. Newton teachers were trained at an event sponsored by the anti-Israel Harvard Center for Middle Eastern Studies. The Center’s director, Paul Beran, an anti- Israel activist for several years, was an organizer of BDS campaigns against Israel. One “lesson” used the Hamas Charter as a primary source, but the Newton version of the Charter was doctored. It erased the original language that called for the murder of every Jew on the planet, by substituting the word “Zionists” for Jews. The teacher’s guide explained that the unit’s purpose was to show the conflict as a resolvable land and border dispute and not a complicated religious conflict. A grassroots effort to find out what else was being taught in the schools was stymied when school administrators rejected transparency and refused to make their teaching materials public. None of the established Jewish organizations in Boston would help us. In fact, they supported the school committee, claiming that we were exaggerating. To date, the curriculum is still not transparent. More recently with the introduction of California’s “ethnic studies” curriculum, the assault on Jews and Israel has become “turbo-charged.” Most of Boston’s establishment Jewish leaders are being co-opted with vague promises of phantom “guardrails” to prevent anti-Jewish or anti-Israel indoctrination. Again, we are witnessing gullible or delusional Jewish leadership failing to protect the community as the next generation of Americans is being groomed to be hostile to the Jewish community. This situation is being made far worse with the widespread introduction of critical race theory and “ethnic studies,” which reject merit in favor of tribal quotas and identity politics. Historically, Jewish success was based on merit while Jewish exclusion was based on quotas. Many Jewish leaders feel trapped by the conflict between their universalist and utopian impulses and their fiduciary responsibility to the Jewish community.
Failing to recognize the long-term threat of the growing radicalization of the American Muslim community.
Jewish leaders enamored of and relieved by simplistic feel-good solutions to complex social problems preached the gospel of interfaith dialogue as the magic formula for resolving tribal conflicts. In 2003, The Boston Herald reported that Islamist radicals tied to terrorism were planning to build a mega-mosque in the Boston suburb of Roxbury. Included on the mosque’s board was the “spiritual leader” of the Muslim Brotherhood (a radical Islamist, terror-approving group) Yusef al-Qaradhawi, whose preaching—easily accessed online—calls for the murder of Jews and gays worldwide. Based on documents we obtained, it was clear that the goal of the mosque owners was to radicalize the historically moderate Boston Muslim community, as well as proselytize in Boston’s black community where the mosque was to be located. Concerned with these developments, we organized a meeting of Boston Jewish leaders including executives of Boston’s Federation (Combined Jewish Philanthropies, or CJP), the ADL, the AJC, and the JCRC. We presented evidence regarding the ownership and control of the mosque, their hateful ideology, and their connections to terror groups. The Jewish leaders, displaying a significant deficit of imagination and courage, believed that the only proper response was to engage more intensely in interfaith dialogue. “What else can we do?” they asked. They refused to consider educating the Jews and the public about the threat posed by radical Islam. We urged them to share what they knew about the funders and officials of the mosque with Boston’s well-intentioned but naïve mayor, or with Massachusetts’ governor. They refused. They were reluctant to use their political capital on this matter. By 2015, more than a dozen congregants of the Islamic Society of Boston’s mosques were in jail, deported, on the run, or dead from their connections to terrorism. This includes the Boston Marathon bombers, who were part-time congregants.
The Jewish leaders were not influenced by hard evidence, such as copies of checks from terror groups to the mosques or from the mosques to the terror groups. We showed them anti-Semitic writings, sermons, and videos of anti-Semitic harangues. We showed them instructions on the mosque’s website on how husbands, displeased by their wives’ conduct, should beat them. Nothing, it seemed, would cause them to deviate from their comforting dogmatic beliefs that “mutual understanding” and dialogue would mitigate any threat. They also refused to learn the lessons of Muslim migration to Europe and its resulting violence against Jews. They were more concerned with offending a “vulnerable minority” than the long-term safety of their own community. Their mantra was “If we are nice to them, they will be nice to us.” Facts be damned.
What is to be done?
Most mainstream Jewish leaders are promoting universalist fantasies—but to bring “kumbaya” to the arena of identity politics is to unilaterally disarm.
On these matters, our leaders prefer not to “follow the evolutionary science,” which teaches that tribes are more likely to seek dominance than equality. Tribes are formed to provide protection to their members, and are dependent on strong leaders for survival. Tribes are not guided by global moral principles and ethics, such as compassion or reciprocity. Instead, they are motivated by concrete tribal interests. Our Jewish leaders have projected their own values and ethics onto other groups, ignoring the reality that politics and warfare have always been about tribal power conflict. Many European Jews hoped that the “international community” would save them from the Nazis. Today, many American Jewish leaders place their bets on “allies” whom they mistake for partners. They failed to learn the clearest lesson of history: no one will fight to protect the Jews but the Jews.
For decades, we have been fighting our external enemies—the biased media, the professoriate, the weak-kneed college administrators, leftist anti-Zionists, high schools with poisoned “lesson plans,” radical Muslim anti-Semites, and followers of Farrakhan. We have finally concluded that the Jewish community cannot prevail against this organized rolling tsunami of hatred with the existing misguided establishment leaders who lack courage and imagination and are beholden to a progressive ideology that limits their range of effective actions.
It’s well known that Jewish leaders are not elected but are anointed by wealthy donors, who are often part of the country’s ruling elites. They are conflicted between their fiduciary responsibilities to the community, their progressive ideology, and how their actions may negatively impact their social standing. They are often forced to rationalize why their efforts to maintain the status quo and their personal power are actually good faith attempts to live up to their responsibilities to fellow Jews.
It’s irrational to continue with the current policies and leaders and to expect different results. For the benefit of the community, Jewish leaders must acknowledge their failure—and not just privately. Many Jewish leaders, however morally confused, delusional, utopian, or in denial of the painful realities, believe they are well-intentioned people. Given the recent upsurge in anti-Semitism, however, and the rebranding of Jews as adjacent white oppressors, one can only hope they are (internally at least) going through a reassessment of the root causes of their failures, without which new strategies cannot be developed. Forming committees is not the answer. Leadership is about having a vision as well as the ability to inspire people to act on that vision. It is possible but unlikely that the same leaders who got us into this crisis are capable of getting us out of it.
Jewish leaders need fresh ideas. The Jewish community needs to engage in open discussions, by encouraging broad community participation about the crisis we face.
To help promote this process we are forming a national network of Jewish community activists, many of whom have been generally ignored, canceled, or suppressed by the Jewish establishment. These activists are interested in promoting creative new strategies for their communities by challenging local Jewish leadership: their rabbis, local Federations, the ADL, AJC, and the JCRCs to break out of their failed ideological strait jackets and explore new thinking. To help organize such an effort, we have created a new initiative: THE JEWISH LEADERSHIP PROJECT (www.jewishleadershipproject.org)
Given today’s realities, we urge Jewish leadership to immediately take the following steps:
- Declare a state of emergency and mobilize the community.
- Educate the public about the nature of today’s anti-Semitism and deconstruct poisonous academic social theories that demonize and marginalize Jews.
- Educate Jewish youth about the threat to their future.
- Build alliances based on mutual interests and honest reciprocity.
- Prioritize Jewish communal resources for the protection of the community.
- Experiment with alternative solutions to find what is effective.
- Develop a new leadership class that is willing to fight back.
Not for the first time in Jewish history, are we at a watershed moment. But we are an accomplished community, with very talented individuals. We can and must find proud, brave, and competent leadership to secure a better Jewish future.