Friday, January 25, 2008

Why don't Jewish leaders do a better job speaking for Jews in America?

People who like to blame Jews for the Iraq war sometimes note that most American Jews were, from the start, and still are more often opposed to the war. It's supposed to shield them from accusations of antisemitism, by presenting their criticism as targeted only at Jewish leaders. Well, so long as that criticism is centered around those leaders' Jewishness, it's still likely to be antisemitic. And it's not really true that Jewish leaders were major supporters of the war. This article contains a far better description of the situation. Major Jewish organizations have, contrary to what some people think, mostly been silent on the war. And even when a particular Jewish leader or organization was supportive of the war, their general stance tends to get seriously distorted.

But there is a disconnect between the views of the Jewish community and the views of Jewish leaders. The silence of community leaders is in sharp contrast to widespread opposition to the war in the community. Why is that? Well, noting how few Americans like Bush these days, maybe it's just because leaders are always imperfect reflections of their constituents. But I think there is something deeper there. There's a line in the Forward article:

In an attempt to explain the lack of interest in revisiting Iraq, Gutow suggested that "it is very complicated for any organization to go against its government when we're in war." He also said that "there is a reluctance to oppose this specific administration" because it is seen as being supportive of Israel.
Even when an individual Jew is in a position of power, such power is constrained by power structures in the wider society. If such a person desires to act as a Jew, it is even further constrained. Like the Hollywood mogul who makes the films he makes because he's a Hollywood mogul rather than because he's Jewish - if he made "Jewish films," whatever that would mean, he wouldn't be very successful. Most Jews in the culture industry are there because they wish to contribute to American culture as Americans, to prove their American-ness. In fact, Hollywood completely avoided Jewish themes until 1947. (One of two films that year to deal with antisemitism, Crossfire, was adapted from a book about homophobia.) So a film like Schindler's List isn't predetermined by Steven Spielberg's Jewishness, but rather gets made to capitalize on a wider not-specifically-Jewish fascination with the Holocaust. And the success of the film reflects how broad that fascination truly is.

Like the Jewish Hollywood mogul, Jews in politics wish to contribute positively to the nation, and their views on any issue (even Israel) are not overdetermined by their Jewishness. But not every Jew gains entry into the halls of power. Those who do manage it because they are in agreement with power. When they disagree with a majority of Jews on an issue, we see clearly that their views are not overdetermined by their Jewishnesh -even as antisemites argue that this is precisely the case- but rather their position is dependent upon their views. Critical analysis should focus on more general power structures -class- rather than ethnicity. So, to even bother talking about why Jews like Douglas Feith or Richard Perle (who aren't leaders in the community, but who do get singled out by critics) might have supported the war in Iraq or whether they were pushing for war for a long time (or anything else about them, really) in an effort to understand why we went to war is already to single them out unfairly on the basis of their Jewishness. They were able to be influential because people with more power chose them as advisors. In the end analysis, it's still Bush's war.

Going a bit further, I think major Jewish leaders and organizations should often be seen more as ambassadors for the powerful to the Jewish community rather than representing Jews to the powerful. Their role as interlocutors between American Jews and those in power pulls from both sides. Because Jews are not a powerful group in America, we have to make concessions to those who are powerful in order to be heard sometimes. Discussing issues of importance in the Jewish community (like antisemitism) marks us as outsiders and strains our relationships with those who are more powerful.

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