A moment of reckoning for American Jewish leaders

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the first presidential debate of the 2020 election campaign, Cleveland, Ohio, September 29, 2020. (Screenshot)

JVL Introduction

In this analysis in +972 Magazine, Natasha Roth-Rowland investigates the deep splits emerging within the American Jewish establishment in the face of growing threats of fascism.

The Jewish Democratic Council of America (JDCA) dared to draw parallels between the situation in 1930s Germany and the US today.

The American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, expressed outrage at this alleged demeaning the memory of Holocaust victims.

But then ex-ADL CEO Abraham Foxman and Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt, endorsed the JDCA’s message, as did a number of academics.

The American-Jewish establishment has hitched itself to the American state and lauded its support for Israel. It is at a loss as to how to respond when antisemitism, and the violence it inspires, emanates from the White House itself; and a “love” for Israel has gone over into reckless polices of support for Greater Israel expansionism.

Many other Jewish groups are not so hesitant to make the obvious historical comparisons…

This article was originally published by +972 magazine on Thu 1 Oct 2020. Read the original here.

A moment of reckoning for American Jewish leaders

A spat over a comparison between present-day America and 1930s Germany showed the American-Jewish establishment is unequipped to protect its community.

On Tuesday, ahead of the first presidential debate, which saw U.S President Donald Trump refuse to condemn white supremacist groups, the Jewish Democratic Council of America released a brief ad targeted at Jewish voters in swing states. Juxtaposing scenes from 1930s Germany and present-day America, including footage of Trump and neo-Nazis staging a torch-lit march through Charlottesville, the ad urged viewers to vote, telling them “our future depends on it.”

Soon after its release, the video earned the condemnation of some of the biggest U.S. Jewish establishment groups, including the American Jewish Committee and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, for purportedly demeaning the memory of Holocaust victims. Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt called the ad “deeply offensive,” while the AJC called on the JDCA to “immediately” pull the clip. The Republican Jewish Committee, which long ago devolved into partisan laundering of Trump’s antisemitism, also joined in the chorus.

This reaction from the American-Jewish establishment was rapidly undermined on two fronts. Firstly, ex-ADL CEO Abraham Foxman and Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt endorsed the JDCA’s message, as did numerous scholars. Secondly, mere hours after condemning the comparisons to pre-Holocaust Germany, the very same organizations were scrambling to censure Trump for not only refusing to condemn white supremacy during the debate, but also appearing to give the thumbs-up to the Proud Boys, a violent, black-shirted pro-Trump street gang.

Greenblatt’s condemnation of the comparison is curious considering he told members of the Knesset in December 2016 that levels of antisemitism in the United States resembled those in the 1930s, such that “many Jews who lived through Nazi Germany find [it] terrifying.” It is difficult to know what, in the intervening four years, disabused the ADL chief of the conviction that such comparisons are not only legitimate, but apt.

This affair may seem like simply the latest in a long line of blow-ups about how the American-Jewish establishment reacts — or sometimes fails to — to Trump and the GOP’s antisemitism, as well as to efforts to call that antisemitism out. But these kinds of intracommunal disagreements are indicative of much broader trends that have long shaped and continue to shape the American-Jewish community.

The first trend, which is well-trodden territory by now, is the distortion field created by the Trump administration’s string of radical pro-Israel policy gestures and pronouncements. Such moves, which have chiefly served to rubber-stamp occupation and annexation while accelerating efforts to censor critics of Israel, have confounded mainstream American-Jewish institutions that have long put Israel advocacy at the center of their mission.

A sign reading "Trump Heights" at the community to be named after US President Donald Trump, in Kela Alon in the northwestern Golan, November 7, 2019. (David Cohen/Flash90)
A sign reading “Trump Heights” at the community to be named after U.S. President Donald Trump, in Kela Alon in the northwestern Golan, November 7, 2019. (David Cohen/Flash90)

This Zionist consensus, which is so dominant that its adherents seem to forget that its history is relatively short, is responsible for much of the confusion over how to respond to an administration that enacts violent, racist, and authoritarian policies and incites lethal antisemitic violence, while at the same time showering Israel with one diplomatic victory after another. Thus have groups such as the AJC found themselves, for example, congratulating Trump for purportedly protecting American-Jewish college students a few days after (mildly) rebuking him for invoking “age-old and ugly stereotypes” regarding Jews. And even that censure was couched in gratitude for Trump’s support for Israel — a wash that the Trump administration is only too happy to use. In response to the JDCA ad, a Trump campaign spokesperson called the president “the greatest ally the State of Israel has ever had in the White House.”

A second, related trend is the disproportionate influence of “mega-donors,” many of whom are politically conservative and staunchly pro-Israel, over communal priorities. The number of players on the multi-billion dollar American-Jewish philanthropic scene is contracting, with institutions increasingly beholden to their funds and ever-less representative of the communities they are supposed to serve.

Yet there’s a subtler and even more entrenched historical force at work here. Put simply, the mainstream American-Jewish community has, since the postwar period, largely attached its fortunes to the United States. It has understood its interests to be those of the state. And as white American Jews assimilated into mainstream American society, the established American myth about the country’s exceptionalism became accepted wisdom within the community. To this article of faith was added the subclause that America was also “different” for Jews, in having allowed them to live relatively free from persecution — and certainly explicit state oppression. This idea has reached the status of truism, not only in the day-to-day American-Jewish institutional discourse, but also — with notable pushback — in academia.

That faith in American institutions has hobbled the American-Jewish establishment’s ability to meet this moment on two fronts: firstly, it does not have a template for how to respond when antisemitism, and the violence it inspires, emanates from the White House; and secondly, it acts as a wedge between the Jewish community and those who should be its natural allies.

A memorial outside the Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue in Pittsburgh, following a mass shooting by a white nationalist, Oct. 30, 2018. (Andrea Hanks/White House)
A memorial outside the Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue in Pittsburgh, following a mass shooting by a white nationalist, Oct. 30, 2018. (Andrea Hanks/White House)

Even if acknowledging so is painful, the already shaky idea that Jews have fared exceptionally well under the American regime should mean little when that same regime has, by design, visited such incessant brutality on Black and Indigenous people, people of color, Muslims, the working poor, undocumented people, and other targeted groups. An incomplete grace is no grace at all.

It is difficult to see how an American-Jewish establishment operating according to this logic can adequately confront the danger that is pulsating out of the White House, and which will continue to proliferate throughout American society and politics no matter who wins the upcoming election. The condemnations of the Trump administration that have emerged have all too often been hedged, inconsistent, or attached to caveats regarding the government’s pro-Israel performance. And such criticisms are fatally undercut by embarrassing episodes such as Tuesday’s debacle, in which the president proved the JCDA’s point within hours of the ADL and the AJC’s denunciation of it.

And although some might dismiss this episode as a mere war of words, this issue is not just an intellectual exercise about how we perceive and respond to rhetoric; it is about how we understand this section of the emergencies that are overwhelming the American political landscape. Over the past few years, we have seen two lethal synagogue shootings in the span of six months; the return of 1930s-style Judeophobia to the streets of U.S. cities; the reading of Mein Kampf on the floor of Congress; the circulation of Republican Party campaign mailers featuring antisemitic caricatures; a president who habitually suggests that American Jews’ political interests are more rooted in Israel than they are in their home country; an administration that has offered high-ranking jobs to white nationalists; and a persistent use of Zionism by Republican elected officials and various unaffiliated right-wingers as a tool with which to both perpetrate, and cry wolf about, antisemitism.

The historical resonances are so blatant they scarcely need pointing out. Yet doing so apparently remains beyond the pale for mainstream American-Jewish institutions, because it overturns dearly-held myths about American Jews’ place in America and the community’s role in American history. One can understand the temptation to avoid looking directly into the abyss. But turning away now won’t prevent it from swallowing us up.

Natasha Roth-Rowland

Natasha Roth-Rowland is a History PhD student at the University of Virginia, where she researches and writes about the Jewish far-right in Israel-Palestine and the U.S. She previously spent several years as a writer, editor, and translator in Israel-Palestine, and her work has appeared in The Daily Beast, the London Review of Books Blog, Haaretz, The Forward, and Protocols. She writes under her family’s true last name in memory of her grandfather, Kurt, who was forced to change his last name to ‘Rowland’ when seeking refuge in the UK during WW2.

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Comments (3)

  • Dr Rodney Watts says:

    Glad to see this +972 magazine article and thank you JVL. It looks like Natasha Roth-Rowland is establishing herself as someone who will be well worth following, in similar way to Jamie Stern-Weiner. She has nicely summarised the contrasting and sometimes vacillating stances by American Jewish leaders. As someone with rural roots the expression “running with the hares and hunting with the hounds ” came to mind.
    Her references are on point and I found the twitter feed to the AJC very illuminating, as regards the change in Jewish opinions. It may be that because of Trump more people are now prepared to speak out against faulty leadership, using straight forward sensible comments. I noted a good tweet by Dr. Alan Maddison. Tweets by members of other minority groups show the widening solidarity. Since the US has been the main supporter of Israel, this is very encouraging! Much respect to our Jewish Israeli allies too!

  • Sabine Ebert-Forbes says:

    I fully agree with Deborah Lipstadt endorsing the JDCA’s message of comparing pre-Holocaust Germany to the situation in the US. I would extend it to saying that sadly again we have managed to come to a cross roads scenario where the establishment appears to encourage neo-nazi groupings and sentiments. We need to act together to stop it in time. I am so relieved that someone else is seeing the parallels I was seeing. I did not dare say it out aloud for fear of getting into trouble.

  • JanP says:

    Another enlightening article about the US situation. I liked the way it examined why there was this reaction from the Jewish establishment groups to something which appeared more clearly to others. We need more of this type of analysis if it is to be tackled in a united way. Thank you JVL.

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