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The Kernel of Truth in Liberal Complaints About American Jewish Leaders

I agree wholeheartedly with Seth’s post from yesterday about J.J. Goldberg’s shocking Forward column, but I’d like to tackle a different angle of the issue: the question of American Jewish leadership.

Goldberg charged that Jewish organizations are shifting their focus from “progressive” political policies to concerns more directly related to the Jewish community, and consequently, American Jews “are in danger of becoming, in classic Seinfeld fashion, a religion about nothing.” This not only implies, as Seth correctly noted, that Goldberg sees traditional Judaism as inimical to the American variety. It also implies that what I’d always considered a somewhat snide slur is actually true: To some liberal American Jews, Judaism really doesn’t consist of anything beyond the Democratic Party platform. Abandon those liberal political concerns, says Goldberg, and Judaism becomes “a religion about nothing.”

The problem with this is that you don’t need to be Jewish to promote liberal causes, and you certainly don’t need to be active in any Jewish communal organization. In fact, you’re arguably better off avoiding such organizations: Jewish groups inevitably end up wasting time and attention on pesky issues like Israel or anti-Semitism, which distracts from the all-important focus on progressive political causes.

Consequently, the people who do choose to devote their lives to Jewish organizations – and who, as a result, become “American Jewish leaders” – tend to be precisely those who think Judaism is about something more than just progressive politics, and who consider that “something more” important enough to devote their careers to it, or at least sizable chunks of their spare time. And that is why, even though many are also committed liberal Democrats, these leaders are more focused on traditional Jewish concerns than Goldberg deems proper: Study after study has shown that the more one cares about Judaism – in its traditional sense, rather than as a mere synonym for liberal politics – the more one cares about issues like Israel and Jewish peoplehood. Hence, it’s precisely those who become American Jewish leaders who are most likely to, for instance, defend Israel even when they disagree with its policies, or think that just as your own family takes precedence over strangers, helping fellow Jews in need may take precedence over helping non-Jews.

And in that sense, Goldberg’s second complaint – that American Jewish leaders don’t represent their communities’ real views, and are in fact often well to the right of their communities – contains an important kernel of truth. This plaint, increasingly heard from many left-wing American Jews, clearly overstates the case: Many liberal American Jews agree with their leaders that Judaism is not solely about progressive politics, and thus have no problem with these leaders’ focus on Jewish communal concerns.

But American Jewish leaders are indeed unrepresentative of that specific segment of American Jewry which, like Goldberg, thinks that Judaism is solely about progressive politics. And moreover, they always will be. Because only someone who cares deeply about Judaism in its traditional sense – as a religion and a people – rather than merely as a vehicle for liberal politics will opt to devote his life to Jewish causes rather than generic liberal ones.


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