Let’s assume — despite evidence that polling on the issue was at best “quick and dirty,” according to one prominent analyst — that the Jewish establishment was out of step with most American Jews in opposing the Iran agreement. And let’s agree with other polls suggesting American Jews as a whole are to the left of the biggest Jewish organizations, especially, if not exclusively, when it comes to Israel.
Various op-eds lamenting this gap note that the Jewish vote remains overwhelmingly Democratic and that most American Jews support reviving the moribund Mideast peace process. Meanwhile, the Jewish “bigs” are courting the GOP and paying lip service to the two-state solution. The “American Jewish establishment has lost touch with the American Jews it purports to represent,” writes Harold Meyerson, editor-at-large of The American Prospect.
That’s true as far as it goes, and it may go only as far as Jerusalem: As George Mason University law professor David Bernstein notes in a response to Meyerson, most American-Jewish organizations, “albeit relatively hawkish on Israel…consistently take liberal positions on domestic issues.” The divide is over Israel. The biggest Jewish organizations essentially support the current Israeli government’s line that the possibilities for peace are remote and even dangerous. By contrast, according to Pew, wide majorities of Reform, Conservative, and unaffiliated Jews believe it possible for Israel and an independent Palestinian state to coexist peacefully (most Orthodox Jews do not).
Big Jewish organizations consistently book right-leaning experts on the Middle East and Israel, while left-leaning analysts and politicians are under-represented. “Pro-Israel” groups that either monitor Middle East media or train campus activists to defend Israel usually offer a one-sided view that either downplays, ignores, or attacks the liberal critique. Left-leaning groups like Ameinu and Americans for Peace Now are tolerated but sidelined, while J Street is vilified for reasons that seem to have both little and everything to do with its actual agenda.
But again, so what? If this bothers you, it is because you think that Jewish organizations are in some ways legislative bodies, acting on the will of the people who elected them. In fact they are membership organizations, expressing what they perceive as the views of those who — let’s be blunt here — fund them. If they are wrong, they will pay the price: The federations that came out against the Iran deal knew they could lose current and future donors who disagreed.
That, in part, was Abe Foxman’s point when he told the Forward, “You know who the Jewish establishment represents? Those who care.” The then national director of the Anti-Defamation League was responding to Pew’s finding that a plurality of American Jews think the Israeli government isn’t making a “sincere effort” to reach a peace deal. What does it matter what most American Jews believe, as opposed to the minority of American Jews who are making the most pro-active Jewish choices — from belonging to Jewish organizations, to giving to Jewish philanthropies, to ensuring that their kids are Jewishly involved and educated? As Woody Allen is said to have put it, “80 percent of success is just showing up.”
That may sound anti-democratic or elitist, but it also suggests an opportunity. If organizations only respond to the views of their membership, that means those who disagree with them need to fight within these organizations to get their views aired. Op-eds and harrumphs won’t cut it — the pro-Israel Left needs to spend time, money, and political capital in order to challenge the views of organizations led by an activist elite.
Or, as many have done, they can form their own organizations and movements, and demonstrate that there are alternative voices in the Jewish community. It’s not enough to answer a pollster’s question. You have to show up.
For their part, Jewish organizations have every right to represent their most engaged members. But most groups also fret about Jewish continuity and alienation, and many want to be as representative and inclusive as possible. If so, they need to ask if the positions they take and the tone they set are encouraging engagement or driving people away. Instead of saying “Who cares?” they’ll need to ask how they can get more people to care.