How Jewish Perestroika (the AJC’s Blunder) Is Helping the Zionist Left

I can’t stop talking about the wonderful-horrible AJC report, it’s so changed the landscape. Again I say, give credit where credit is due: this was the AJC’s reactionary pushback against Carter and Walt and Mearsheimer, and it blew up on the Jewish right/mainstream when the Times actually chose to write about it. Thus the anti-intellectual, vicious, omerta practices of the Jewish leadership were revealed, to its shame.

But I’m going to try to not be self-serving here. The fascinating thing about this Jewish perestroika is that it liberates everyone. Not just my camp, the anti- or non-Zionist camp that wonders if the dream of a Jewish state hasn’t slid hopelessly away, but also the We-are-very-upset-about-Israel’s-current-policies-but-we-love-her-and-believe-in-her camp. The Zionist left is angered and embarrassed by the AJC report, feel that it’s broadbrush and reactionary, and so are standing up with renewed energy, as if the ball is about to be handed to them, at last—the rightwing having shot itself in the foot.

Gershom Gorenberg, who is in that camp, yesterday said the real story is that the left is alive, it’s empowered groups like the Union of Progressive Zionists, which is harshly critical of the occupation. Isn’t it great they haven’t been thrown off the Israel on Campus Coalition, Gorenberg writes, despite the best efforts of the ZOA. And he is right. Tamara Shapiro, the 24-year-old who runs UPZ, is an amazing young woman, idealistic and tough. She brought Breaking the Silence to America last year; she gets it from the right (ZOA) and the left (me). Now the AJC report has given her more room to operate, by blasting open the debate. (Leonard Fein makes the same point in the Forward this week).

Just as the AJC gave leftish John Judis of the New Republic freedom to talk about something he has probably been secretly bitching about for years: the pressure on Jewish intellectuals to be loyal to Israel, from people like his boss, Marty Peretz (he didn’t say that part out loud). When is Mickey Kaus, another not-all-the-way-on-the-reservation Jewish intellectual whose career has been boosted by Peretz, going to speak up about this pressure? Or Mike Kinsley? Time is now, boys. Everyone’s letting their hair down in the sweatlodge.

The best analysis I’ve seen yet of the politics of the Jewish left in America is from Daniel Sieradski—”Mobius,” of Jewschool. He explains to me that the two big roadblocks are a, ideological differences, and b, dough.

I question as to whether recent events indicate the presence of a movement so much as what I regard as fractious groups with overlapping areas of interest and little coordination. Some folks are focused on liberal domestic political issues such as labor practices, women’s rights, gay rights, etc., others are focused on shifting the priorities of the Jewish funding establishment away from intermarriage and Israel advocacy towards Jewish education and cultural initiatives; while others yet still are focused on finding a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

That last group is broken into left-leaning Zionists (of the Meretz/Labor cadre), post-Zionists (who believe either in two states or a binational solution, yet overall, a solution which respects both Jewish and Palestinian rights), and anti-Zionists who are more often than not anti-Israel reactionaries.

The one thing these three groups can agree on is that things are headed in the wrong direction and that the mainstream Jewish leadership is steering us down a dark road.

However, it is practically impossible for these groups to collaborate because of:

[Sieradski continues]
A) Ideological differences. Group one believes in Israel’s right to exist securely within its established borders. Group two believes Israel’s existence is an interim step on the road to binationalism. [I think Chomsky’s in that camp] And group three believes Israel ought to cease existing immediately and that its leaders should all be sent to the Hague. [Alert: Possible straw man] These positions cannot be reconciled with one another. However, if they can find areas of overlap on which to focus, such as ending the occupation, stopping the settlement enterprise, giving Palestinians sovereign statehood, and elevating the rights of Arab citizens of Israel, then a coordinated effort may be possible. [emphasis Weiss’s] But because of our propensity for infighting (two Jews, three opinions) chances are rather slim.

B) Competition. Every group wants to be THE group responsible for doing the moving and shaking, and thus be recognized as a potential funding candidate by wealthy donors. Michael Lerner, for example, doesn’t know the meaning of collaboration. He simply wants Tikkun to have the spotlight. I wanted to come to his Spiritual Progressives conference in DC this summer in order to cover it for Jewschool. He told me I could only come if I bought his book and reviewed it on my site first. [Dan, I’ve gotten that vibe from the great man, too] I had a similar encounter with Arthur Waskow and the Shalom Center when I approached him with the idea of creating a Jewish issues focused MoveOn. He has his own action center through the Shalom Center and wants IT to be the centerpoint, under his own stewardship. Time and time again, this ownership issue rears its head. This group won’t work with that one, this one sees working with the other as counterproductive to its own interests, this one has too many levels of bureaucracy to get the go ahead, etc. The only group seemingly bringing folks together these days is Jewish Funds For Justice, which has gobbled up several organizations in the couple of years, consolidating various efforts from around the US into a strong base of operations for progressive Jewish action. However, it’s focused solely on domestic issues, like minimum wage, and does not comment on Israel.

C) Fear of career suicide. [Say it! Dan] Groups like Jewish Funds for Justice do not comment on Israel, because while its donors can all agree on the progressive domestic agenda, they cannot agree on Israel. Some people may be pro-choice, pro-gay, etc., etc., but when it comes to Israel, they can turn into Meir Kahane. For that reason, first and foremost, individuals working in the progressive Jewish community are afraid to speak up about the American Jewish community’s stance towards Israel because they fear that it will harm their reputations as well as the funding potential of their organizations. [Weiss: brilliant, true, important. I lately heard about a group forming at Columbia Hillel, called Prophetic Alliance, now Progressive Jewish Alliance, which takes no position on the occupation. Why don’t they just announce, We are morally bankrupt!]

The groups trying to put together the counter-AIPAC lobby are still in negotiations and haven’t yet secured a drop of funding. (I know folks very close to the deal.) Regardless of whether it comes to fruition, it’s got a long way to go before it will have any impact at all.

What we really need is, as I suggested earlier, a MoveOn exclusively for Jews and Jewish issues, and to begin having a communal conversation among the Jewish Left to find out what we can all agree on and commit ourselves to pursuing.

The problem, ultimately, is money. The reason why the Jewish right is dominant is because they’re the dominant segment of the Jewish funding world. Left-wing Jews give their money to liberal arts colleges and museums. They do not invest in Jewish causes. The wealthiest liberal/left-wing members of the Jewish community are alienated from the Jewish community and therefore do not invest in the Jewish community. [Weiss: Wow, I think that’s the way I’m alienated] The only people with enough pride or ethnocentricity to invest in the Jewish establishment are the right-wingers. Under these circumstances, we’re fucked. [Ditto] That’s why simply hearing of Soros’ potential interest in this alternative left-wing pro-Israel lobby was exciting… because a rich lefty Jew is actually considering giving money to a Jewish cause.

We need more Jews who earn $50,000+ to stick loot in the reserves behind an organization that strives to find commonality between all the various factions of the Jewish left, and lobbies and organizes on our behalf.

To that I say good friggin’ luck.