Where Jewish Leadership Went Astray

Written by: Richard L. Kronenfeld Ph.D. for WhiteRoseMagazine

ON Sunday, July 11, 2021, an impressive array of more than 100 Jewish and interfaith organizations concerned about the rising tide of anti-Semitism in America held a rally at the U.S. Capitol. Hoping to match the success of a rally for Soviet Jewry organized by famed Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky that drew more than 250,000 American Jews, the organizers even provided free bus transportation for people to come from Baltimore, Boston, New Jersey, New York, and Philadelphia. Sadly, their good intentions weren’t amply rewarded. Estimates of crowd size ranged from 300 by the ever-hostile media to 3,000 by the organizers, who consoled themselves that it was a hot summer day and millions of viewers watched via Zoom.

How did we reach this point where political ideology outweighs what should be unified Jewish support for Israel?

Other Jewish activists saw it differently, however. Foreign policy analyst Mitchell Bard summarized as follows: “The country’s largest and most active organizations, which are spending millions of dollars to fight anti-Semitism, failed to convince their members it was worth their time to show the American public that Jewish lives matter.” Jonathan S. Tobin, editor-in-chief of the Jewish News Syndicate, noting the difference in support of Israel from the politically and religiously liberal majority of the community versus those who are Orthodox, politically conservative, or pro-Zionist, questioned whether American Jews are really united against anti-Semitism. CUNY Professor Dr. Phyllis Chesler questioned whether rallies have any effect.

Respected commentator Jonathan Rosenblum observed: “The fecklessness of American Jewish leadership was on full display at the recent rally. The organizers felt the need to emphasize that the rally was ‘against all hatred,’ not just anti-Semitism. That message both distorts and trivializes anti-Semitism…. The speakers at the anti-Semitism rally were carefully mooted to exclude any ardent advocates for Israel or anyone who might be charged with Islamophobia… No speakers were called upon to demonstrate the absurdity of claims of Israeli apartheid and genocide or to explain why they are anti-Semitic.” His conclusion: “The failure of the ‘No Fear’ rally represents the failure… of American Jewish leadership.”

How did we reach this point where political ideology outweighs what should be unified Jewish support for Israel? For answers, we can look back at our history. To begin, consider the interpretation of Isaiah 1:10-17, in which the prophet castigates Israel, saying that because of their sinful behavior, God finds the people’s offerings worthless, rejects their prayers, and concludes, “Learn to do good, seek justice, vindicate the victim, render justice to the orphan, take up the grievance of the widow.”

The simple meaning of these verses is to observe both the particularistic ritual commandments between the Jewish people and God and the universalistic commandments for ethical behavior toward people. A deeper meaning can be inferred: the two sets of commandments have equal standing. Thus, when the Enlightenment swept across Europe and many Jews came to regard the ritual commandments as archaic, the ethical commandments, which later came to be known as “social justice,” became the core of their Jewish identity. They justified this substitution by improperly invoking a 16th century Kabbalistic concept, tikkun olam, literally “healing/repairing the world,” thereby affording them a convenient way to escape the burden of being a Jew in Europe without converting to another religion. While Chabad, for example, regards tikkun olam as a basic religious obligation of everyone to bring the world closer to the state of perfection that God wants, the newly secularized Jews began to equate it with socialism, and in 20th century America with New Deal liberalism, so during the Holocaust, they largely kept silent to remain under the radar.

After the Holocaust, even Reform Jews, who had been reluctant to embrace Zionism, initially supported the new State of Israel. As the ideology of progressivism supplanted liberalism, however, and as Israel and its supporters were increasingly slandered with the bogus charge of “oppressing poor, darker-skinned, indigenous [so they falsely claim] Palestinians,” secularized Jews began distancing themselves from Israel. Under the rubric of tikkun olam, they instead embraced progressivism as a universalized view that allowed them to disassociate themselves from mainstream Judaism and Zionism, which they could then disparage as being too parochial as opposed to their wider vision of caring for all of humanity.

This process is discussed in much greater detail by Jonathan Neumann in his book To Heal the World? How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel. He asserts that the Jewish left has effectively hijacked Judaism and misused tikkun olam, which he categorizes as having no place in Judaism, to conflate the religion with their social justice agenda, which is political, not religious. Charity and good works are not the same as tikkun olam, nor is tikkun olam a commandment. Mr. Neumann further asserts that “Not only has tikkun olam enabled the misappropriation of Scripture, but its stridently universalistic aspirations undermine Jewish Peoplehood and in so doing give sanction to anti-Zionism and assimilation. This state of affairs is not sustainable.” 

Under the rubric of tikkun olam, they instead embraced progressivism as a universalized view that allowed them to disassociate themselves from mainstream Judaism and Zionism, which they could then disparage as being too parochial as opposed to their wider vision of caring for all of humanity.

We can now analyze why, as well as how, established Jewish leadership went astray. As compassionate people with a history of persecution, as well as a Divine injunction to pursue justice, we’re naturally drawn to the cause of civil rights and internationalism, both of which have been pre-empted by the left. Consequently, our leadership sides with minorities and ignores or excuses their anti-Semitism, while concentrating on anti-Semitism from the far right fringe, which, while their propensity for violence makes them a threat, is small in numbers and has little popular support. Adding insult to injury, one man, Arab-American activist James Zogby, outsmarted the entire American Jewish establishment by portraying Palestinians as the victims of Israeli oppression, which enabled him to enlist first college students and then the media to support the Palestinian cause.

As compassionate people with a history of persecution, as well as a Divine injunction to pursue justice, we’re naturally drawn to the cause of civil rights and internationalism, both of which have been pre-empted by the left.

Thus the ADL, the longtime lead Jewish defense organization, convened a summit conference, ostensibly to fight anti-Semitism, featuring radical leftist speakers but no supporters of Israel, which claimed that fighting anti-Semitism requires Jews to confront our own “racism.”

Daniel Greenfield hypothesizes that “the ADL is careful to cultivate an imaginary distinction between good leftist hatred of Israel and bad leftist hatred of Jews so as not to offend its political allies.” The ADL endorsed Black Lives Matter and critical race theory, despite their ideology identifying Jews as having “white privilege” — even Israeli Jews, the majority of whom are people of color from North Africa and the Middle East. It also adopted a definition of racism under which only whites can be racist, namely, “The marginalization and/or oppression of people of color based on a socially constructed racial hierarchy that privileges white people,” which it had to withdraw after a wave of objections, and then hired left-wing activist Tema Smith, who has a long history of criticizing Israel, as its new director of Jewish outreach and partnerships.

The same pattern of siding with the “progressives” predominates at the local level as well. For example, Patti Munter cited her local Rochester, New York, Jewish Federation as consistently inviting anti-Zionist, pro-BDS activists to speak while ignoring Zionists. She observed, “Rochester’s community leadership has become so wedded to the new ‘progressive’ ideology that it forbids community discussions, inquiries, or challenges to it.” Moreover, “[r]adical anti-Zionist activists and their allies are building a new religion inside of Judaism, and it has seeped inside the Jewish community’s mainstream organizations…. An increasing number of us see that Jewish organizations have been enabling and even promoting groups …which are now so visibly our foes.”

More disturbing yet is a developing trend for states, starting with California, to require ethnic studies courses in the public schools that are anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist, with support from the teachers’ unions. Although Governor Newsom vetoed the first version of such a mandate that openly advocated for BDS (Boycott, Disinvestment, Sanctions) against Israel before signing a second version that toned down the anti-Semitism, educational consultants with the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Coalition (LESMC) have made inroads with major California school districts, starting with Castro Valley, to adopt the original version. Even worse, the University of California is considering a mandate that would force every student in the state, even those attending Jewish day schools or other private schools, to take a course using the LESMC curriculum to qualify for admission to the University of California.

Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) now mandates a curriculum to be used in all public schools whose lesson plans about the Arab-Israeli conflict have been rewritten to exclusively reflect the Palestinian point of view. While there was opposition in California, CAMERA (the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America), reported that “Boston’s ADL, Federation, and JCRC failed to properly vet these materials. They have been informed, and yet we see no evidence they will act. In a previous case in Newton, Massachusetts, they betrayed the community and defended anti-Israel curriculum. Jewish leadership seems conflicted between their progressive “woke” ideology and their fiduciary responsibility to the community. Instead of doing their job, they pretend that their political ideology is consistent with the best interests of the Jewish community.”

To summarize, the American Jewish community is threatened collectively as never before. Last fall, in an interview with The Jewish Press, Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein made an ominous statement: “The only prediction I make, despite my abhorrence of such predictions, is that the noose is tightening around American Jewry.”

Especially frightening is the situation at America’s universities: the more elite the college, the more intense the anti-Semitism. It is chilling to think that these campus bullies will be the next generation of America’s leaders throughout society. A majority of Jewish college students have felt the need to hide their identity, and Jews are increasingly being excluded from student government and other campus activities.

Ironically, officials charged with enforcing “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” are among the worst promoters of anti-Jewish propaganda.

As we have seen, the response of mainstream Jewish organizations has been inadequate. If that continues, they may spawn new, competing defense organizations (which is already happening) and/or a “revolt of the masses.”

Ironically, officials charged with enforcing “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” are among the worst promoters of anti-Jewish propaganda.

Domestic anti-Semitism is linked to international anti-Zionism, which has reached the point where Palestinians gleefully anticipate that their ludicrous charges that Israel is an apartheid state (which grossly insults black South Africans who experienced real apartheid) will succeed in delegitimizing Israel, whereupon the dictators’ club that is the United Nations and its “Human Rights Council,” supported by mendacious reports from Amnesty International and other so-called human rights groups, will call for global BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) and for arresting and trying Israelis for alleged war crimes. While their tactics succeeded with South Africa, as it is said in physics, a good idea works only once.In this trying time, we need to remember being delivered from slavery in Egypt, from Haman’s plans of genocide in Persia, and from the Seleucid Greeks’ plans against Judaism. It is beyond the scope of this essay to discuss possible courses of action for us. Suffice it to say, in the words of the philosopher Yogi Berra, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

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