I am not going to recapitulate the sad story of what happened at Congregation Bnai Jeshurun in Manhattan this week except to say that progressive Jews (and others) thought a new day had dawned when its rabbis hailed the General Assembly vote on Palestine. (Here is the New York Times story on that development.) But then, within two days, the rabbis at Bnai Jeshurun were forced to clarify following a firestorm of abuse, ginned up by the usual suspects. (Here is the New York Times story on the retraction.)
The rabbis, of course, deny that they retracted anything. That is what they have to say. And they certainly will not confirm that they were threatened by big donors to their congregation, the Embassy of Israel, or other Jewish establishment big wigs for daring to break with Netanyahu. That is all to be expected. Part of the deal, when you accede to pressure, is that you do not reveal what actually went down.
But it is obvious what happened. Threats were made. They didn’t have to be direct. No one has to tell those working for organizations (or synagogues) dependent on donations from the Jewish community what they can and cannot say.
In most cases, they don’t need to be warned. They impose prior restraint on themselves. They don’t believe the line, they think it is disastrous for Israel but they also know that saying what they believe will cost their organizations money and may cost them their jobs. So they mouth the line, over and over again. And they are happy because Israel’s ambassador to the United States pats them on the back, and the donors make clear that the checks will continue to be written.
I do not put the B’nai Jeshurun rabbis in the same category as the organizational types.
Rabbis J.Rolando Matalon, Marcelo R. Bronstein and Felicia L. Sol are known throughout the Jewish community for their moral leadership and idealism. And they clearly thought (read the email that caused the brouhaha) that demonstrating that moral leadership by endorsing the Palestine resolution would not cause the roof to cave in. Yes, they knew they were sticking their necks out but not too far. Surely, it would be okay.
The more politically attuned within the Jewish community would have known better. The pro-Israel community is like the gun lobby. The National Rifle Association doesn’t really believe that the “right” to own a semi-automatic weapon is in the same category as the right to a hunting rifle, but they will oppose any restrictions on owning that automatic none the same.
That is because it thinks any regulation on any firearm is a slide down the slippery slope to confiscation of all weapons. Actually, it is possible that they don’t even believe that. It is just as likely that the NRA just wants to keep Congress and the political community in line. At some point, these organizational leaders just exert power for its own sake (getting politicians to grovel and making more money).
And so it is with the pro-Israel community. Any challenge to the prevailing orthodoxy on the occupation will be met with threats and attacks. Look at Peter Beinart. He is an Orthodox Jew, a lifelong Zionist, and a leader in the community. But when he endorsed boycotting West Bank settlements — not Israel itself, just the products of the settlements — he was condemned by the entire establishment. Last month the Atlanta Jewish Community Center refused to allow him to speak on its premises, as if he was a KKK leader. To its credit, J Street gave him a venue.
Now here is the creepiest part. Virtually none of the Jewish community’s enforcers on matters related to Israel apply the same standard to criticism of U.S. policies (except those policies that are related to Israel). The older ones openly opposed the war in Vietnam (some were war resisters). The younger ones opposed the Iraq war (contrary to common belief, Israel had no clear position on the Iraq war in contrast to their neocon pals here).
If some government official in Washington told them to pipe down, they would scream bloody murder. But when it comes to the occupation or Iran, they march as one behind Binyamin Netanyahu. Why? They are afraid. It’s as if they own a store in a neighborhood that is dominated by the mob. They don’t ask for an explanation of why they need to hire this guy’s brother-in-law or give the assigned “tips” to various people in the neighborhood. They just do it. It is the price of doing business.
A different sort of mob runs the American Jewish community. Fortunately, like Tony Soprano’s organization in that much mourned HBO series, it is falling on hard times. It is dominated by old people while nearly 60% of the young marry out of the community and consider Israel a foreign country — one that they may have some interest in but not all that much. That is why a congregation like Bnai Jeshurun is so successful. It attracts those people, understanding in the timeless words of Whitney Houston that “children are our future.” That is also why one of the few speakers who can attract Jewish audiences where the average age is under 70 is Peter Beinart. To put it simply, the kids don’t like hacks. And they don’t salute and “yes sir” their own government, let alone one 6000 miles away.
But the establishment, and its terrified salarymen (there are no women in these jobs) don’t care. They don’t care about what is right. They don’t care about Israel (they know its current policies are destroying it but won’t say what they know). And they don’t care about how America’s Israel-centric policies are hurting this country. As far as losing the younger generation, they don’t care about that either. They will have retired by the time all these thoroughly Americanized Jewish kids are the ones with the money.
But they will speak out on what is happening in the Congo or Burma. It’s not that they care about those places either but they do like to think of themselves as moral paragons. And they are allowed to say whatever they want about human rights abuses perpetrated by anyone except Israelis.
Congratulations to the rabbis of Bnai Jeshurun. One, you did the right thing. And, two, the reaction to your act will only weaken the hacks and fat cats that are the Jewish establishment.
As Steve Rosen, the indicted AIPAC official, once told me: a lobby is a night flower. It thrives in the darkness and withers in the daylight. Rabbis J.Rolando Matalon, Marcelo R. Bronstein and Felicia L. Sol shined a powerful light indeed. And the night flower will feel the withering effects. You did good.
FLASH: Americans For Peace Now and J Street are both demanding that President Obama condemn Israeli settlement expansion. Now that is good news to end the week with. And I give the rabbis at Bnai Jeshurun some of the credit. Congratulations to J Street and APN.
When you go see Les Miz, know that you are now with the young people waving the flags. The Jewish establishment is the National Guard.