Opinion: The American Jewish Thought Police on Patrol
By Marshall Breger
A political “big tent” would be better for Washington, DC’s Theater J and everyone else.
The recent publication of the Pew Forum’s survey of American Jews has raised many useful questions about the boundaries of Jewish identity at a time when 22 percent of Jews describe themselves as having “no religion.” Thus it is not surprising that the Jewish community in America has always taken a “big tent” approach to religious views. Federations accept Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and in some cities, Humanist Jews, all on equal terms.
But just as the organized American community becomes ever more inclusive on the religious front, it has taken the opposite approach on matters of politics, particularly related to Israel. The past few months have seen increased pressure for conformity and “orthodoxy” in political views: recent bans on the use of Hillel facilities by Jewish students who support the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement; efforts to cancel Jewish Federation funding of theater groups that mount controversial plays drawn from conflicts in Israeli society; and efforts to deny a communal voice to Jews who oppose settlement on the West Bank. This is troubling for anyone who cares about the American Jewish community and the future of Israel.
The question of what views a Jew can have and still be accepted by the Jewish community is a difficult one. In the past, religious orthodoxy ruled. Remember Spinoza. In 1656, the freethinker was excommunicated by the Jewish community of Amsterdam because of the “abominable heresies which he practiced and taught” and his “monstrous deeds” (although today most of us are a bit embarrassed by the entire affair). And in Israel, Brother Daniel, a Polish Jew who converted to Catholicism and became a priest, was denied entry under the “Right of Return” in 1962 on the grounds that he had cut himself off from the “community of fate” (brit goral) that is the Jewish people. But that was all about religion. When it came to politics, both European and Israeli polities hewed closely to the adage “two Jews, three opinions.”
For the past few decades, American Jewish leaders have worried that disunity might translate into a lack of political clout. For these purposes, American Jewish unity meant the rejection of those who held positions on Israel far outside the “vast edges drear” of the communal world. Now, however, the drive for unity encompasses the rejection of controversial political positions even when they are held by a substantial number, albeit a minority, of Israel’s population. It is passing strange that even where 35, 40 or 49 percent (let alone 51 or 55 percent) of the Israeli population is prepared to criticize specific actions of the Israeli government, the American Jewish thought police will censor similar discussion. Even more absurd, any semblance of the robust political debate one can see daily in Israeli newspapers and in Israeli plays, books and movies is verboten in the American Jewish establishment’s vision of a Jewish polity.
Just consider the Jewish Student Union at the University of California, Berkeley. Recently, that pro-Israel redoubt rejected the membership application of the student arm of J Street, J Street U. Thus the student branch of an organization whose annual conference is attended by Israeli ministers and members of the Knesset (including Likud members) was deemed outside the Jewish consensus.
Yet another example is the effort (happily failed) to have the Boston Federation cut its ties with Leonard Fein, the co-founder of Moment and a veteran Labor Zionist leader. His crime: writing a column advocating that American Jews not visit Ariel, a settlement 15 kilometers into the West Bank whose location makes territorial contiguity for any future Palestinian state daunting. Now, not visiting Ariel may be a noxious notion, but it cannot be denied that leading Israeli intellectuals, including Amos Oz, David Grossman, actors of the Israel National Theater Habima, as well as just plain folks, have refused to visit or perform in Ariel for just this reason. Nonetheless, in the brave new world of the American Jewish thought police, Fein must be read out of the American Jewish house.
Recently, a group styling itself Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art sought to force the acclaimed Washington Jewish theater group, Theater J, to cancel a performance of a controversial play by the award-winning Israeli playwright Motti Lerner. Citizens Opposed claimed that the script of his play, The Admission, defamed Israel by drawing on highly disputed claims of a 1948 massacre of Palestinians. The group urged Washington Jews to withhold their contributions to the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, a major funder of Jewish programming in the area, unless the Federation cancelled its grant to Theater J.
Now, I am willing to accept Citizens Opposed’s position that the play is not based on historical fact (of course, it does not claim to be). But that is not the relevant question for a Jewish Federation. Its interest should be in whether Theater J is putting on plays by Israeli playwrights that draw on the richness and complexity of Israeli culture—not only ones that reflect dominant or politically correct views. Rather than playing cultural commissar, it is far better for the American Jewish community to accept that nothing Israeli is alien to it. Are the Federations supporting all of Israel or only the parts they agree with?
If the goal of the pro-Israel community is to ensure a strong pro-Israel voice in the American political space, its members should want a big-tent community, one that has the clout of large numbers. Instead, they prefer to “excommunicate” dissenters. If the organized Jewish community ends up a smaller if more unified “saving remnant,” its ability to project communal clout in support of Israel will certainly diminish. Suppression of diverse views is not only bad for the vibrancy of the Jewish community—it’s also bad politics.