Identity, Israel, Justice, Politics, Religion

Choosing your allies with care

(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.

13 thoughts on “Choosing your allies with care

  1. Um… welcome to activism?
    This is a political game your playing, so realize that who you ally yourself with and who you let speak for you matters. Yea, if you let ISM speak for you, you’ll be marginalized. I once had this happen from the right as well when we let a speaker in at Berkeley who we warned off certain topics but he went into them anyways. And we got serious blowback.
    Look dude, Jewish people aren’t stupid. You can’t bring someone into a mainstream synagogue who isn’t a Zionist and expect not to get hit. I mean, duh. If you can’t separate being progressive and being anti-Zionist, then, well… Israel activism (that is, if you want the state to continue to exist as a Zionist entity) is in trouble.
    And, i have to ask, by leftist, do you mean communist/socialist? I mean, isn’t it a no-brainer that to appeal to the mainstream you use a mainstream message using groups that don’t have way out there messages?

  2. Wow. I know how true this is from my own years of J. Community work, but, to see it laid out so starkly is pretty crushing. Yet another element of the dynamic that leads me down the path away from the organized Jewish community.

  3. I understand how true this is, Mr. Kung. Accepting this reality is fine provided that you work to change it. Our “established” Jewish community is too exclusive. Just read “Chorus of Apes” comment – we are losing membership. The great minds and hearts of our generation are looking elsewhere because they don’t want to play this particular over-glorified political game. Ask why so many Jewish Americans want nothing more than to be far away from the Jewish community…

  4. This cuts two ways. There are many, many of us who work in progressive politics, both professionally and as activists who end up being completely silent when the Middle East is brought because we are “Zionist” or “pro-Israel” and support “the two-state solution”. In order to get into the discussion many times, you have to apologize for Israel (“Of course Israel commits atrocities during the occupations, and I grant the some of what Walt and Mearsheimer say is true…..) before you can start to make your point….which is lost anyway, because if you are Jewish, as long as you grant those points, nothing else you say matters.
    The most persuasive messenger for an unpopular message is always from someone inside a community, because they are viewed as wanting to improve the community from inside, not hammer it from the outside. It doesn’t matter what community it is. If your brother is a ne’er do well, you may yell at him on a daily basis, but god help someone who doesn’t know him from saying the same things. Its human nature

  5. 1) I think that the challenge is to find way to bring decenting voices into the picture without sacrificing the core of our beliefs. If we can convince members of our community that there is value in understanding the other perspective then we have come a long way.
    2) This phenomenon is also very present in Palestinian groups. For years I tried to get the Students For Palestinian Rights club at my university to co-sponsor a day of dialouge and mourning for all the innocents who have died in the Arab Israeli Conflict. They simply refused to consider it because they didn’t want to do anything with the evil Zionist entity on campus.

  6. “And it is sad to know that some of our most enthusiastic partners — such as many people of ISM”
    Oh, I am quite sure everyone at the ISM would be “most enthusiastic partner.”
    Are you kidding me? Are you fucking kidding me? The ISM? That’s the people who you are shedding tears about not being able to “work with?” What’s the matter with you? You are a smart kid. What’s the matter with you?

  7. DK… thank you.
    I was wondering how many other people were floored like i was when i read that in the post.
    Now… i’ll sit back and wait for the people here to defend ISM.

  8. DK, I’m glad you think I’m a smart kid. But did I laud ISM somewhere that I’m not aware of?
    Bears, not the commies. I meant more of the Jewish groups who managed to discredit themselves — like Jewish Voices for Peace in some places, Tikkun magazine in others, Women in Black, whatever. They’re Jewish in composition if not in name and they’re not even that radical, but they certainly don’t have any cred in the Jewish world.
    For those who live and work solely within the Jewish communal bubble (and I really count myself in that group) I imagine this post is met with a “So what?” But for those in a more diverse political atmosphere, especially in the wider left wing movement, this is a big deal. Suddenly you are “too good” for your friends or they’re “not Jewish enough.” It’s curious and it’s insulting. But then again, I care about people’s feelings entirely too much.
    Meanwhile, Tal and Apes, doing this successfully should pry the fingers of the right wing’s inane objections from the door posts of our communal gates and broaden the kind of political perspectives acceptable. It takes time. I’ve always believed that engaging the establishment is better than abandoning it to the nutbags.

  9. I think this is a major cop-out. Have some guts and find a way through the minefield. Bring in some right-wing or Christian groups for “balance.” Get creative. (The fact that you’re talking about “Palestine” is already enough to make the people you’re afraid of go apoplectic).

  10. Again, Kung Fu, I appreciate this perspective, but you say that you live and work in primarily the Jewish world. I live and work primarily in the world of progressive politics, And this EXACT situation plays out exactly in the reverse. Supporting the very existence of the State of Israel, in some circles of progressive, particularly those online, is a radical a proposal as ceding parts of Jerusalem is to some in the Jewish world. And I’m not trying for false balance here. Its is my unending frustration that in order to work on issues such as children’s health care, union organizing, environmental protection, civil rights and liberties, etc. that I remain mostly silent on Israel issues.

  11. I agree with Just An Apikores. Just supporting peace with Israel still in existence can be a tough position for groups on the Left to take. Find a way to work with these people, who are reaching out to you, instead of saying you’re too afraid to stand up for what you believe in.
    And working with these groups can do wonders for Israel among the Leftist groups too. Just look at Engage in the UK, ( that was set up by Jews and non-Jewish Leftists to fight anti-Semitism. (And look at who their friends and allies are by checking out their “links” page).
    Sure, they probably get some flak from the likes of the ZOA. But no sensible person can say that they are enemies of Israel.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.