‘Fiddler’ as political outreach

‘Fiddler’ as political outreach

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: As Israel faces an increasingly hostile world, making friends can be much more important than compiling ever-expanding lists of enemies.

That may be one message in the growing flap over the invitation to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to attend a performance of the acclaimed Yiddish production of “Fiddler on the Roof” by the National Yiddish Theatre — Folksbiene, as well as a conference on immigration to be held at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, where the play is being performed.

Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning primary defeat of 10-term incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th Congressional District, which encompasses areas of Queens and the Bronx, has become a major marker in the intensifying battle for control of the Democratic Party between party centrists and a resurgent left.

Those opposed to the invitation, citing her statements decrying the “occupation of Palestine” and terming Israel’s killing of Palestinian demonstrators along the Gaza border a “massacre” (see article “How the Jewish Left was lost”), have wheeled out the rhetorical heavy artillery.

In a press statement last week, Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld, chairman of the National Yiddish Theatre — Folksbiene and an activist with a history of extreme rhetoric, said that “Ms. Ocasio-Cortez has enunciated a blood libel by designating members of the Israel Defense Forces, demonstrably amongst the most moral on earth, as murderers for defending the state against nihilistic terrorists, as ‘murderers,’ and enunciating other assorted calumnies against the Jewish state.”

The goal, it seems, is not to explore the possibility of opening dialogue aimed at softening her views but to paint her as an implacable, dangerous foe. Charging a “blood libel,” a term with a precise and particularly horrifying meaning, is meant to inflame, not persuade.

A hallmark of pro-Israel activism has always been its ability to reach out to doubters and outright adversaries and turn them into friends. Veteran activists still cite the example of former Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), once a vehement and feared foe of the pro-Israel agenda in Washington but who — as a result of intensive outreach backed by serious campaign money — became one of its staunchest defenders and even a darling of the Israeli right.

We don’t know if Ocasio-Cortez’s positions can be mollified; given shifts within the Democratic Party, we doubt she will become a cheerleader for the current Israeli government. We do know, however, that some of the powerful rhetoric directed at her is likely to foreclose any possibility of dialogue, whether intentionally or not. It may be part of the partisan-charged strategy of portraying the entire Democratic Party as a mortal danger to the Jewish state — a direct assault on the longstanding and critical effort to create a durable, bipartisan wall of support. 

Like her or not, Ocasio-Cortez is young, dynamic politician who may well play a significant role in Democratic politics for years to come. Seeking to engage her, as other mainstream Jewish organizations and Democratic politicians have done in recent days, may not pay off. In this year of wrenching political upheaval, it certainly won’t be easy, but we believe it is worth the effort. And what better way to begin than by inviting her to the iconic musical that sheds so much light on the tragic elements of the Jewish experience?

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