Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Fear and Trembling in American Jewish Institutions

Some Jewish organizations have been deafening in their silence on Steve Bannon and the clear links between the Trump administration and the alt-right. I have been ... rather public in my denunciations of their decision. I am in broad agreement that there is a building revolution in the American Jewish community, and those groups which purport to be communal representatives while refusing to actually represent our community will rapidly lose the authority to speak as Jewish voices.

But if a passable defense of at least the silent organizations (certainly not the ones, like ZOA, which have outright endorsed Bannon et al*) could be made, it is of the form taken by Shai Franklin in the Jerusalem Post.

Franklin's basic argument is that there is and should be a "distribution of labor" within the institutional Jewish community. Groups like the ADL, which take on the role as anti-bigotry watchdogs, can and should condemn Bannon. But groups like the JFNA, which are primarily policy lobbying organizations, need to play a more cautious hand. Responsible for securing millions of dollars in funding for critical aid programs -- those which feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and take care of the sick -- the JFNA cannot decide to simply cut ties with any administration, even one as repulsive as Trump's. It has to grit its teeth and work with him as best it can.
The bar for JFNA to condemn an action by the president – before he’s ever taken office, before he’s had the chance to issue a single executive order – must be very high. Condemning the president-elect’s choice for top policy official runs the risk of alienating him and his staff for the duration, squandering decades of cultivation and branding overnight.
One might think that appointing a man who has provided a massive platform for the most dangerous and influential American White nationalist movement of our generation would clear that bar. But put that aside, and note the more subtle assumption. Franklin's column takes the view that condemning Bannon is tantamount to "boycotting" the Trump administration outright, that it would entirely throw away any ability to have any influence over government policy whatsoever. Maybe that's true, maybe it isn't. But note how it diverges from how Jewish institutions treat Democratic administrations. We don't fear that by criticizing this appointment or that policy from the Obama administration, we are permanently cutting ourselves out of the political loop. We trust that Democrats can tolerate dissent and disagreement, and so we can articulate our views openly and honestly, secure in an ongoing positive relationship.

With Republicans, that assumption flies out the window: if we even verbally object to the appointment of prominent alt-righter, we assume they'll be done with us forever. This was the core of the argument I made in my column:
Last year (writing on “pro-Israel” disputes, not anti-Semitism specifically), I noted the sharp disjuncture in how the Jewish community reacts to problematic left versus right behavior. The left is met “with the full sound and fury for every toe out of line,” while the right “must engage in the most flamboyant provocation to elicit even a murmur of discontent.” The left is “policed to the letter,” while the right is “treated with kid gloves.” The reason—I implied then and will state explicitly now—is fear of right-wing anti-Semitism. “[I]t stems from a belief that conservatives, but not liberals, will turn on [us] entirely if they are not constantly treated with obsequious fawning.”
Unlike the mainstream Democratic Party, where Jews are deeply enmeshed and so can have difficult conversations without blowing up the entire relationship, the connection between Jews and the American right has been—at best—tenuous, contingent, and precarious. And so we’ve become accustomed to letting mainstream right-wing anti-Semitism slide, satisfied with the rote recitation “I am a great supporter of Israel” (surely, the right-wing variant on the leftist’s “I have always opposed all forms of bigotry…”). We’ve allowed ourselves to pretend that our fear of antagonizing these “allies” is a sign of the strength of our relationship, rather than its weakness.
So, whatever the tactical merits of Franklin's position, it should at least make clear the monster we're dealing with. Groups which respect Jews, respect Jewish criticism. If the assumption is that Donald Trump cannot tolerate Jews telling him we're not okay with him hiring a hate-peddler, then the assumption is that Donald Trump is no friend of Jews.

* The other question raised by Franklin's piece is what to do with the groups that have failed in the labor that is assigned to them? He includes, for example, the AJC as among the "watchdogs" that should be calling out Bannon. But the AJC has been almost defiant in its refusal to issue a statement, issuing bland platitudes about the importance of letting the President "organize his own team". What flows from this abdication of duty? What punishment is Franklin willing to endorse? If we're serious about the "distribution of labor", then these questions cannot go unaddressed.

This, of course, goes double for groups (like ZOA) which have outright praised Steve Bannon. It's one thing to tolerate strategic silence of a few institutionally-oriented actors. It's another to accept the open endorsement of the sort of vicious hatred Steve Bannon represents. If Franklin is to be taken seriously, then he needs to have a plan for either roping groups like ZOA back into line, or initiating their very clear and very public disaffiliation from the communal Jewish tent.


Shai Franklin said...

Thanks for highlighting the distinction between Republican and Democratic White Houses. Because of the inaccurate but deeply rooted connection between the GOP and hawkish pro-Israel presumption that's been fanned by Israeli leaders, even more liberal American Jews tend to give Republicans the benefit of the doubt while automatically suspecting anyone who parts company with PM Netanyahu (see: I believe this gives GOP administrations more leeway to punish critics among the Jewish leaders and organizations, without being called on it by others.

As regards AJC, my op-ed emphasized that ADL really owns the mandate to identify and "out" right-wing extremists, and so I wouldn't be so hard on Committee... again, division of labor.

As for ZOA, it's an organization which actively defames community leaders and works against peace and security for both our countries, in almost blind pursuit of its own ideological objectives. But again, because of this "pro-Israel" presumption granted to the right wing, it has been difficult to hold them accountable. And now, because of the Jewish community's unhealthy deference to the White House as a legitimizer of who speaks for the Jews (and a comparable legitimizing role played by the Prime Minister of Israel), ZOA should have clear sailing for the next four years.

David Schraub said...

Thanks for this thoughtful reply. I think you're a little too easy on the AJC (which your op-ed does group in with the ADL as a "defense" agency, so presumably it has some obligations on that part of its assigned labor), but I get the point you're making.

Descriptively, I think you're right about why groups like ZOA (and, more broadly, the hyper-hawkish pro-Israel "right") have been able to get away with some abominable conduct for the last few years(/decades). But I think it is pretty clear that this is a fundamentally toxic relationship that prescriptively needs reform. It will be difficult and painful, but we need to start taking the necessary steps to hold groups like ZOA -- and the GOP more generally, to the extent it uses "pro-[Bibi-style]Israel" as a shield) -- accountable, and exact our communal disapproval if we don't.