Bernard Avishai on Obama’s Jews: why tolerate old-guard leadership?

October’s Harpers has an excellent piece by The Hebrew Republic author Bernard Avishai who reminds us of the complex, varied and yes, enlightened Jewish world that is rendered invisible by major institutional Jewry. The ascendancy of a post-race Obama marks a massive generational and cultural power shift in the US. Avishai suggests it might also mark a similar ousting of the old guard among Jews.

Obama’s Jews
By Bernard Avishai

Last May, as he claimed the Democratic nomination, Barack Obama was ahead among Jewish voters 2 to 1. Yet, according to cable-and-blog wisdom, that was a serious problem for him. Jews—you know, “the demographic”—had voted 3 or more to 1 for Clinton, Gore, and Kerry. Jews are only about 2 percent of the population, but they make up almost 4 percent of actual voters. There are, famously, almost half a million Jewish voters in southern Florida alone. If, say, 100,000 defected to McCain, Obama would likely lose the state, even if the chads don’t hang this time. Jews are also nearly 5 percent of the Pennsylvania electorate, which Kerry carried by only 2.5 percent.

After the 1968 election, when Jews voted almost 5 to 1 for Humphrey over Nixon, the late Milton Himmelfarb groused in Commentary that Jews earned like Episcopalians and voted like Puerto Ricans. Are Jews finally growing aloof from the Democratic nominee—come to think of it, like Puerto Ricans—because he is African American? Will his fate hinge, as CNN’s Jack Cafferty suggested, on “a few old Jews in Century Village”? As Obama himself joked at a February meeting with Jews in Cleveland (Ohio is another shaky “battleground”), doesn’t every Jewish family have an uncle skeptical of the schwartzer?

Not so funny, really, and not just residual tribalism. Early in the
primaries, emails suspected of originating in ultra-rightist circles in
Jerusalem spread virally among North American Jews (mine came via my
sister in Toronto) alleging Obama’s two degrees of separation from
Louis Farrakhan and attaching a picture of Obama schmoozing at a 1998
dinner with the late Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said. Were not
these “associations,” as one email put it, “worrying”? And was not
worry itself the important reality? If the “perception out there” is
that Obama has failed to bring Jews and African Americans together—he
promised, after all, to unite loyal Dem ocrats in a new and poignant
way—is not his candidacy a false dawn?

What Obama had to do, so the argument went, was allay Jewish anxieties,
as “electable” Democrats had done before him. William Kristol,
Himmelfarb’s nephew, all but instructed Obama in the New York Times on
how to prove himself as “Zionist” as McCain: emphasize not only
“current assaults on Jews” but also “sacrifices for the sake of
freedom, the triumph of good over evil.” And what was Obama’s speech at
AIPAC, delivered the day after he won the nomination, if not his effort
to better the instruction? He laughed off the emails. He spoke mistily
of a Zionist camp counselor. In July, he traveled to Israel and pledged
himself to a “special relationship.” Shouldn’t this be enough to
satisfy Kristol and other skeptics?

This line of argument mischaracterizes American Jews. They do not
amount to some organic whole, nor is their vote the expression of a
“Zionist” DNA that Obama has somehow undernourished. If anything,
Obama’s campaign is exposing the fault lines among Jews, which are
serious, while implicitly challenging the great silent majority to
repudiate Jewish organizational leaders (and neoconservative
celebrities like Kristol), whose militant simplicities purport to
represent them—and don’t.

Since the term “American Jews” encompasses everyone from Justice Ruth
Bader Ginsburg to the Beastie Boys, moguls like Sam Zell to the
(arguably deceased) Lubavitcher Rebbe, almost anything you might say
about them will be wrong. But this, in a way, is my point. Most Jews
see themselves as idiosyncratic citizens in need of a strong social
compact. Polls show that 50 percent of Jews call themselves liberal or
“progressive”; and only 21 percent, “conservative.”

These liberal impulses have a history. Immigrant and first-generation
Jews, as Philip Roth puts it, assumed Democrats were for the underdog,
the unions, the anti-Nazi war; liberal activism meant vigilance against
anti-Semitism and more: “Our heroes were Roosevelt, La Guardia, and
Brandeis,” Roth says; “we were against the Republican oppressor.” Which
is why their children, the baby boomers, were drawn to the civil rights
movement, the signal experience of their political lives.

“Our sense of wholeness,” Obama writes in Dreams From My Father, “would
have to arise from something more fine than the bloodlines we’d
inherited.” Most older Jews read such words about identity, or just
observe Obama’s body language, and sense a kindred spirit; that Obama
admires Roth’s novels hardly seems surprising. As important, Obama is
running at least 20 percent higher among voters under thirty than among
those over sixty-five. Half of young Jews are marrying non-Jews; they
see a competition among cultural forms as natural, an opportunity for

These attitudes extend to world affairs. Almost 80 percent of Jews
still say that “remembrance” of the Holocaust is very important to
one’s Jewish identity, but most do not draw strident conclusions from
this. Pat Buchanan railed against an Iraq “war party,” top-heavy with
Jews harboring “a ‘passionate attachment’ to a nation not our own.”
Actually, 70 percent of Jews rejected the war in Iraq as early as 2005,
a rate higher than that of any other American religious group. Some 70
percent today support America’s working to resolve the Arab–Israeli
conflict and exerting pressure on both Israelis and Palestinians. About
60 percent under thirty-five feel an attachment to Israel, but an even
greater proportion have never visited.

So it is a fair guess that the approximately two thirds of Jews who
support Obama, like the Democratic electorate generally, do so more
passionately than they supported various Democrats in the past five
presidential elections. The majority certainly do not expect candidates
to pander to them regarding Israel. Ask American Jews to list issues
that determine their vote and almost three times as many choose “health
care” as choose “Israel” (about 8 percent), though very few of them
lack health care. Nor—if you look closely, which ardent Zionists do—has
Obama argued for giving Israel a free hand; rather, he has insisted on
reviving “existing American initiatives” for Israeli-Palestinian
peacemaking early in his administration. He promised an “undivided”
Jerusalem—a capital without barbed wire—not the Likud’s “united”
Jerusalem under exclusive Israeli sovereignty. Obama visited Ramallah;
McCain did not. And yet the vast majority of Jews have stuck with

What has been so deceptive about American Jewish attitudes is how out
of synch majority opinion is with the very public views of many Jewish
organizational leaders—people who’ve seemed at odds not only with
Obama’s approaches to the Middle East but with his liberal and
globalist demeanor. Some of these leaders—Abraham Foxman of the
Anti-Defamation League, David Harris of the American Jewish
Committee—made a show of condemning the most scurrilous emails about
Obama. But for years, Foxman’s ADL could be counted on to attack as
anti-Semitic any critics of Likud’s occupation policies. The American
Jewish Committee until 2006 underwrote Commentary, which “spouts a
Likudnik bellicosity” (says Time’s Joe Klein) in addition to having led
the 1970s charge against affirmative action and feminism. Malcolm
Hoenlein, head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish
Organizations, has orchestrated an endorsement by his umbrella group of
a “united Jerusalem” under Israeli sovereignty. Hoenlein complained
that “there is a legitimate concern over the zeitgeist around [Obama’s]
campaign.” It was an open secret that AIPAC strongly supported the Iraq
war and, more recently, advocated for the use of force to embargo Iran.

All of which raises a question. Why should the Jewish community
continue to tolerate this leadership? Isn’t Obama’s campaign the
occasion for repudiating it? Discontent has been building anyway. The
head of America’s 1.5 million liberal “Reform” Jews, Eric Yoffie,
publicly rejected Hoenlein’s Jerusalem statement. The new J Street
lobby, founded by a peace coalition of Jews and non-Jews to counter
AIPAC, is growing fast. But the Obama campaign itself offers a
coalition for liberal Americans to organize on a broad scale for the
first time in a generation. It has brushed back such African-American
leaders as Al Sharpton, who have drawn lines around, and made careers
from, tired ethnic grievances. It has invited the majority of Jews to
dissociate themselves from Manichaean demagogy parading as “Jewish

Make no mistake, the Jewish right—though a minority—is rooted in a
political culture of its own that will deny Obama historic levels of
Jewish support no matter what he does. Surveys have made it clear that
the 25 percent of Jews who shade into varieties of orthodoxy, who stick
to homogeneous Jewish neighborhoods and schools, tend to embrace a
vicarious neo-Zionist identity. The American Jewish right—for example,
philanthropist Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish
Congress—opposes the Israeli government only if it negotiates over

Rightist attitudes, like liberal ones, also have a history. The Six-Day
War in 1967 was a watershed for Jews celebrating what they took to be
Israel’s purpose. Jews everywhere were swept up by the victory, and
faith in the justice of Jewish armed power helped, subtly, to shape
Jewish attitudes toward American politics and foreign policy. Community
leaders began insisting on the “centrality” of Israel for Jewish
identity. They pointed to a valiant Israeli democracy and shrugged off
the occupation, which they assumed would be temporary. The preeminent
organizations in American Jewish life, local philanthropic federations,
began to devote as much as half of their funds to Israel (which is
still more or less true). After 1967, more and more Jewish leaders
assumed the responsibility of protecting Israel’s good name— during
exchanges of fire on the Suez Canal, terrorist attacks, and, most
horribly, the 1973 war. In the back of their minds was the need to
reverse the U.S. State Department’s continuing tilt toward the Arab oil
regimes during the 1950s and ’60s. Many Jews were drawn to political
allies of Washington Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, who argued, flatly,
that Israel was to be promoted as America’s key regional ally against
the Soviets.

Israeli self-defense also seemed an inspiration to ethnic realpolitik
in America: on many minds, too, was the violence in U.S. cities, like
the confrontation in 1968 between Jewish teachers and black parents
demanding community control of schools in Brooklyn’s Ocean
Hill-Brownsville. Indeed, the seeds for an agonistic view of American
Jewish power were evident as early as 1964—the year Jews voted 9 to 1
for Johnson over Goldwater. The previous year, Commentary editor Norman
Podhoretz had written his notorious article “My Negro Problem—and
Ours.” Podhoretz acknowledged how the civil rights movement was
cardinal for Jews, but that was precisely his “problem.” He implied
that Jews were soft but had made it; that their support for the
economic empowerment of black toughs (“who act as though they have
nothing to lose”) was if not self-destructive then at least
disingenuous. That certain black militants came to rationalize
anti-Semitism as a form of rage against ghetto storekeepers and
landlords seemed to make his point.

For the Jewish right, then, there was a universal Jewish vulnerability
that required a universal Jewish toughness. It was as if there were an
ongoing referendum on the virtue of Jewish power, whose implicit foils
were Great Society initiatives at home and United Nations’ resolutions
abroad. When Ronald Reagan was elected, neoconservatives joined the
revolution and pro-Israel leaders cozied up to the administration.
Liberalism, which purports to mitigate conflict, was viewed as a kind
of schlemiel faith in the conscience of the world. And after 9/11, if
you were managing the brand of the West’s key strategic asset, the
“clash of civilizations” became useful.

This rhetoric has become entrenched among Jewish leaders. Local Jewish
federations have more or less succeeded in sustaining a big tent, but
after thirty years of Israeli governments that increased by tenfold
Jewish settlements on the West Bank, the most activist leaders drifted
to the right. Too often, Jerusalem has seemed for many Jewish leaders
not a mythic object of desire but a kind of world-historical Epcot
Center, while Israel has seemed something between a bastion against
gentile hatred and a great Jewish convention to which they imagine
themselves superdelegates. Supporting this leadership, aside from the
Orthodox, are recent Russian-Jewish immigrants, free-market radicals,
Joe Lieberman admirers, and some considerable part of the half a
million Israelis living in America.

The point is, most Jews identify not with Lieberman but with Jon
Stewart’s send-ups of Lieberman. One recent poll showed Obama almost
twice as popular as Lieberman among Jews. Yet this majority has never
confronted their rightist leadership—not, at least, within the
precincts of institutional politics—because to do so would have meant
engaging in the very parochialism most wished to distance themselves
from. Besides, why embarrass Israelis, who were making sacrifices
American Jews were not? What did American Jews really know of Israel’s
politics and perils anyway? What did they know of Hebrew culture? The
majority poured their energies into their universities, their
professions, their families—that is, into their America.

This indifference is just what the current election must begin to
change. Rightist notions like “the global war on terror” have shown how
Israel’s conflicts are consonant with America’s. The Israeli
government’s ambivalence about ending its occupation, its default to
military force, its tensions with Iran, etc., have seemed a kind of
U.S. policy agenda in microcosm. And if America approaches its Middle
East problems, as Obama insists it must, not with military preemption
but with an emphasis on collective security, patient alliances,
containment, the power of the global economy, and so forth, how can
this not imply a verdict on Israeli occupation?

Obama’s campaign is an implicit opportunity for a new leadership to
emerge, a contemporary equivalent of Rabbi Heschel locking arms with
Dr. King. The campaign has given the Jewish majority a new way to focus
their political energies, which looks much like their former
way—organized work toward a tolerant commonwealth. Today, over 35
percent of Jews earn more than $100,000; at least 40 percent contribute
to political campaigns, amounting to a staggering one fifth of
Democratic donors. Not coincidentally, the Obama campaign has sponsored
a dozen Jewish outreach committees in major cities. Obama’s agenda,
interracial symbolism, grass-roots organization, and vast fund-raising
network have all the trappings of a movement. The new movement, like
the old one, stands for integration—not just in American society but on
a global scale. Who if not American Jews have had that dream?

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