(X-posted from Judaism Without Borders.)
I just got off the phone with a leftist student group who wanted to partner on the Israel-Palestine project I’m coordinating. They were ready to sponsor events on their campus, publicize it widely, etc. They’ve enthusiastically done it before. But when I told her that they couldn’t be seen associating with us, my poor heart ached as I heard the disappointment in her voice. She managed to not sound upset, but considering I’ve never met this person before, I feel like I’ve just betrayed a friend.
Reputation means everything. Breira was a 70s era Jewish peace group which aired to America the occupation opponents in Israel and even accompanied them to meet with Palestinian leadership…and quickly was accused of being non-Jewish posers or self-haters, and imploded. New Jewish Agenda of the 80s was another Jewish dove group which failed to cope with membership in the Jewish community when when “member” was defined by the arch-conservatives, and it collapsed from within. For both of those groups, their former leadership now quietly sits on the boards of present dove orgs, albeit after learning a costly lesson.
The lesson is simple as it is unfair. As much as we Jewish peace and coexistence activists want to partner with Arabs and peace-seeking goyyim, the cases where we can do so without being accused of treason are sparse. This is the reason in the early days of Brit Tzedek, the organization made the decision that to do it’s work inside the Jewish community, it had to play nice with the OJC, to pick its allies with care. Other organizations also make the same sacrifices on a regular basis. Those that weren’t careful, died. Or even worse, gained the title of the “irrelevant left.”
Reputation is all that we have sometimes in this work. It’s sad that to know that if I say “Such and such activist is kipah-wearing” or “served in the IDF” or “goes to shul” or “works in the OJC” suddenly gives that person a credibility boost. That credibility is built on stereotypes as flimsy and repugnant as any other. Yet we use them and even buy into them in order to open doors.
And it is sad to know that some of our most enthusiastic partners — such as many people of ISM or JVP or even well-meaning Christian groups — are “beyond the pale” of cooperation because their association shortchanges the credibility we have (or need) to reach the populations of American Jewry which need to hear a progressive message the most. Unless I say the magic words “Zionist” or “pro-Israel” or “two-state solution,” nary a synagogue will let me host a speaker in their space.
I know that this omission on our part is painful to those Jews who are no less Jews than “we” are, “we” being the ones who are still regarded as “within” the community. To our gentile friends, it’s hypocritical; it challenges our dedication to universalism. Despite the discomfort, it is still necessary. One progressive speaker in a synagogue is sometimes a thousand people who would never have even had a critical thought of occupation broached. Because it’s in a synagogue, or a JCC, or from a rabbi/cantor/layleader/soldier, it’s suddenly kosher. Reputation matters.
I’m sorry to the young, passionate and probably brilliant young activist whose excitement I aborted earlier today. I did it, it sucks, but I did it out of belief that to penetrate deeper into the hardened, apathetic cores of the OJC, the leadership needs to look at me and see one of its own to let me in.