Privileged and Victimized, the Duality of the American Jewish Condition

This article first appeared in Ha’aretz September 26th 2016

Two weeks ago Joseph Michael Schreiber, a Jewish man from Florida, was arrested for setting fire to the mosque that the Orlando nightclub gunman Omar Mateen attended. A local rabbi stated that Schreiber had gone to his synagogue last spring to study Torah for about a month, but there was nothing particularly remarkable about him.

The story made a brief appearance in the 24-hour news cycle, and the Jewish press picked it up, but that was it. There were no talking heads, no media stakeout of the synagogue, and no harassment of the family. The presidential candidates did not weigh in and no one paid much attention.

If Schreiber had been Muslim and his target a synagogue, we could be sure of an entire different reaction. The muted response to the case shows a privilege that the U.S. Jewish community holds that the U.S. Islamic community does not.

It is important to recognize and acknowledge that the American Jewish community has achieved a sense of integration, and in many cases assimilation, that provides it with the same protection as other white American groups.

It is incidents like the above that have led many progressive groups to claim that Jews in American are basically white. Our current circumstances are closer to the WASPs of America then to minority groups.

Coming from the U.K. but living in the U.S., it has been a strange experience to be described as white. For me, it was pretty clear from the start that Jews were a minority group within the U.K. like any other ethnic minority – I would always tick ‘other’ when identifying my ethnicity. It was a shock when I first was told that Jews were basically white in America.

Looking at the cesspool that is the “alt-right” that has emerged this election cycle and plagued us all with horrendous anti-Semitism, it should be abundantly clear that Jews are not as “white” as the term Caucasian presumes. American Jewish “otherness” sadly goes beyond the current tumult of this election season.

Looking at the FBI hate crime statistics for 2015, only 9.6% of all hate crimes in the U.S. were perpetrated against Jews. By way of comparison, 30% were against African Americans and 2.7% were against Muslim-Americans.

Even as American Jews enjoy political and economic power, there is a constant fear of a dark horizon that could come crashing down, and remove us from a place that we have worked so hard to get to. It is this tension, the fear that we might be once against subject to be discriminated against as an ‘other,’ that has motivated so many Jews to get involved in social justice issues in the first place. We know how quickly the tide can turn and a society that is truly inclusive for everyone will be a society that will always be inclusive for us as well.

Given our presumed privilege, Jews have found themselves of late outside the ‘intersectional tent’ that is suppose to link every sectors oppression with each other. Intersectionality is today’s progressive glue. Jews it seems are becoming unstuck as a group from within the progressive worldview. Evidence of this can be seen from the campus wars that claimed that the Holocaust was a ‘white on white’ crime to the reductions of the targeting of Jews in acts of terror as mere symbols of the state.

The duality of the American Jewish experience is complex and jarring for many. It is hard to grasp how a community that can get a public pass that the Islamic community could only dream of could also face such a staggering number of hate crimes.

It is precisely this duality however that makes the Jewish community the perfect ally to other ethnic and religious minorities. We know what it is to be accepted; we have seen the fruits of real integration while having an ability to understand what it is to be seen as different.

Despite the challenges, the discomfort and sometimes offense that has been caused of late, American Jews are a core constituency within the progressive movement and the struggle to reclaim our legitimate place within it matters not just for the success for the progressive movement, but for our own well being as well.

While Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Push Diaspora Jews Away, Israel’s Arab Citizens Bring Them Back

First published in Ha’aretz July 14th 2016

The relationship between Israel and the majority of the American Jewish Diaspora hit a new low this past week. In a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the heads of the American Conservative and Reform movements warned of the potential for bloodshed between their members and the ultra-Orthodox given the incitement around the planned egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall.

Despite Netanyahu’s image as a political magician domestically, he has not been able to deliver the compromise that he repeatedly promised to Diaspora Jewry regarding their rights to pray in a fashion they see fit.

This crisis is not limited to U.S. Conservative and Reform Jews. The issue lends to continued angst for modern Orthodox Jews in America, as the Israeli rabbinical courts have refused to recognize the conversions performed by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, a highly regarded Orthodox rabbi in New York.

More so than the inability to move forward on the peace process, the real strategic threat to Israel-Diaspora Jewry relations comes from the Ultra-Orthodox’s disrespect, denigration and outright rejection of the majority of American Jewry’s practices. For all the time, attention and money spent on the strategic threat of BDS, Israel risks losing mainstream Federation donors and synagogues if this continues.

The Ultra-Orthodox political parties of Shas and United Torah Judaism are the glue that sticks the religious right coalition together. They care about few things: money for their constituents, a protection of their way or life — away from the demands of a secular state — and the supremacy of their religious practice when it comes to matters of religious law.

For the ultra-Orthodox, there is no wiggle room on these issues. There is no compromise position. These are issues that, if push came to shove, would force the coalition to collapse. Bibi knows this and thus is powerless to fulfill his promises to the Jewish Diaspora who are treated like second-class Jews in the Jewish state.

As the politically powerful Ultra-Orthodox are pushing Diaspora Jewry further away from Israel, it is Israel’s most politically weak group, the Arab citizens of Israel, that is finding a way to bring them back in.

According to the Pew polling done in 2013, over 60% of American Jews think that coexistence and peace is possible. When asked about the greatest problem facing the Jewish state, the second highest response was “Peace and Coexistence.”

Given their traditional pro-Israel stance and suspicions of the Palestinian Authority as a partner for peace, the Jewish community, both as individuals and institutions, is not turning outward to the Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Federation dollars and attention, however, are being paid toward the internal issues of the status of Israel’s Arab minority.

This year marks the 10th year of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues, a coalition of Jewish Organizations learning and raising awareness about Israel’s Arab citizens. The coalition is one of the few places where the New Israel Fund, the Council of Jewish Presidents, ADL and the Federation movement sit together.

During my travels as part as my role at the Alliance for Middle East Peace, Federations and Jewish Community Relations Councils are constantly looking for “shared society” programming and ideas that they can get behind.

The Jews who are being alienated by the ultra-Orthodox, the Reform and the Conservative, are the individuals who are the most identified by polls as having liberal and Democratic politics. The Conservative and Reform movements see their heroes as Rabbi Stephen Wise, Justice Louis Brandeis and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, scions of the formulation of liberal values that form the core of much of their political and moral identity. The call for equality for all of Israel’s citizens in matters of public funding, legal treatment and place in society reflects Rabbi Heschel’s leadership in the civil rights movement that still inspires American Jews today.

While the current Israeli government coalition is pushing the majority of American Diaspora Jews away, the desire to help build an Israel that reflects the values of a shared society is pulling Diaspora Jews back in.

This inverse power dynamic is in its early stages, but it will be interesting to see how it adapts as the push from the ultra-Orthodox worsens.

The situation on the ground definitely needs more support. Given the heightened tensions this year, there has been a push to remove Arab citizens from the public space and even a case where passengers demanded an Israeli Arab removed from an airplanes. Bolstering support for Israel’s minority could help begin to deal with the deep societal gaps that enable the Ultra-Orthodox to be the only kingmakers in the coalition.

The unfolding crisis of Reform and Conservative rights has led to the need of a new intellectual framework concerning Jewish connection to Israel. The call to create a shared society offers a unique opportunity for connecting the Reform and Conservative moment to their values of social justice, in conjunction with their love of Israel as well.


Labour Party’s anti-Semitism Struggle: Recognizing Jews Are a People, Not Just a Religion

First Published in Ha’aretz 5/9/16

Picked up in Washington Post The Volokh Conspiracy

I left the U.K. Labour Party when I received my Green Card. I felt it was odd to continue to be part of a British political party when I had officially moved overseas for good. Yet, watching the party miserably fail to deal with anti-Semitism over the past ten days, and Ken Livingstone’s unending obsession with Hitler and the Jews, took me back to my days on the National Executive Committee of the National Union of Students, an organization that has been a feeder to the front lines of left-wing national politics in Britain for decades.

In 2008, I was elected as one of the 27 national executive members of the NUS. As Sam Lebens, a friend and mentor who served there two years before me, wrote in the Forward, the NUS was often a tense place for Jewish students, especially when they tried to get the majority to accept that anti-Semitism should be taken seriously.

During my own year on the NEC the first Gaza war, Operation Cast Lead, took place.We debated motions about whether NUS would march with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign or condemn the usage of anti-Semitic imagery at the rallies. At another point during that year, I had to confront the hard left on the National Executive Committee about a leaflet that was being handed out that claimed that the Holocaust killed thousands of trade unionists, disabled people, gays and communists. While these groups were indeed victims, the pamphlet omitted one key group: Jews. Here we had dedicated anti-racists educating about the Holocaust while airbrushing out its Jewish victims.

In-between votes on theses issues, I would engage those who were part of the hard left — those who saw themselves as belonging to the same leftist faction as Ken Livingstone — on how they could possibly justify their anti-racist credentials when they were doing things that were so offensive to the Jewish community.

It all came down to their inability to understand why Jews were anything more than a religious group.

They felt that assigning Jews a peoplehood status would be to agree with the eugenics of the Nazis that Jews were “different” or “other;” that only the far-right fascists could see Jews in this way, rather than as just normal white folk. By reducing the Jewish experience to a religious dogma, the hard-left concurred, they were doing Jews a favor.

Jews did not have a place in the traditional liberation campaigns of the NUS. Being Jewish was not the same as being black, LGBTQ, female or disabled. Jews were hated by fascists; the hard left just wanted them to assimilate. According to the hard left in the NUS, being particularist about your Jewish ethnic background was to buy into a racism that was forced upon you.

The hard left was simply incapable of learning the lessons of why Jews felt that the enlightenment did not go their way (read: the Dreyfus affair) and insisted on “flattening” what it means to be a Jew into a solely religious experience.

The utter refusal of the hard left in Britain to accept that anti-Semitism can morph from the traditional eugenics into parts of modern-day anti-Zionist discourse stems from its rejection of Jews as a people. It is an unfortunate fact that Judaism comes from a time before census surveys began separating the “religion” box from the “ethnicity” box. In their worldview, Jewish peoplehood is a categorical error.

The core problem will not be solved until the hard left in Britain recognizes that the Jewish people are more than just a religious community. But the hard left is finding it hard to see that modern anti-Semitism exists beyond the far right, and in fact extends into its own territory.

Therefore, their obsession with Israel — and their inability to distinguish anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism — is based in their rejection of the concept of the Jewish people. The nation state was never a construct that the hard left liked in the first place. When coupled with a people that the hard left denies exists outside a religious context, Zionism becomes for them the embodiment of everything they oppose. The Jewish state reminds them that a Utopian view where a leftist emancipation will heal all wounds fails the test of history, and that demography and territory is something that oppressed people do aspire to.

The personalities within Britain’s Labour Party who are being accused of having an anti-Semitism problem are of the same political bent as the hard left that I came into contact with during my time on the NEC of the NUS. It’s therefore clear that Labour’s anti-Semitism problem won’t go away until the hard-left elements within the party accept that Jews are more than a religious group. It won’t matter how many people are suspended from the party if its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, can’t bring himself to say “anti-Semitism” without qualifying it alongside other forms of racism.

Without recognizing the particular challenge of modern anti-Semitism, the new inquiry into anti-Semitism that the Labour Party has launched will — I fear — achieve nothing.