Iran activism and the ‘average’ American Jew

Friday, September 25th, 2009

Yesterday Jewish Week editor and publisher Gary Rosenblatt published a blog item asking an important question: why, at this week’s rally on Iran at the United Nations, was the Jewish community so thinly represented?

There were plenty of Orthodox activists and day school students, as well as leaders of Jewish organizations, but that’s a pretty narrow swath of the Jewish community.  Why was the turnout “disappointing,” as Gary said?

The reasons, I think, are complicated, but there are few pretty obvious ones. At the top of the list: the frequently bemoaned fact  that  American Jews in general are pulling back from a close connection to Israel. Most Jews say they care about Israel, but a sense of personal connection is ebbing and commitment to its defense as a preeminent issue fading.

Those trends are not taking place in the Orthodox community, where there are religious and personal ties to the Jewish state that seem, if anything, to be deepening.

But it’s not just apathy.

Jewish leaders, it seems to me, are caught in a bind. To maintain interest and activism over a long period of time –remember, they’ve been fighting for tough sanctions on Iran for well over a decade – they keep raising the rhetorical ante. In part that’s a function of the perception that the danger is increasing by the day, but it’s also necessary to keep their own troops fired up and to get attention from policymakers and the media.

To a lot of Jews, the results sound like exaggeration that’s too reminiscent of the kind of talk that got us into situations like the Iraq war.

I suspect that for a lot of Jews outside the relatively narrow world of committed pro-Israel activists and the Orthodox, every time they hear a comparison to the Holocaust or a  Jewish leader call Ahmadinejad the new Hitler,their eyes glaze over and they emit a sigh of “yeah, right, we’ve heard that before.”

There’s also a huge gap between the perennial claims that Israel faces this or that existential crisis and a public that sees Israel as the preeminent power in the region and, while not diplomatically strong, strong by virtue of its alliance with Washington.

I’m not arguing that’s a correct view, but I suspect it’s a common one that helps explain why Iran activism tends to mobilize only  a minority with an intense commitment to the issue.

The paltry non-Orthodox turnout at Iran rallies also reflects a broader distrust in a country weary of foreign wars that start with harrowing warnings that turn out not to be true.  I’m sure you can find plenty of polls suggesting that Americans regard Ahmadinejad as a menace.  But what percentage of Americans believe Iran should be a national priority? I’m guessing it’s not overwhelming, and a Jewish community that tends to reflect centrist trends is probably in the same place.

Jewish groups say they’ve worked hard to make the case Iran isn’t just an Israel and a Jewish issue.  I don’t think they’ve succeeded at a time when we collectively seem tired and distrustful of unpredictable foreign entanglements.

And the more the Iran issue seems bound up with the Orthodox, with hawkish pro-Israel activism and with neoconservatives who seem eager for another military involvement, the harder it will be to sell the issue to mainstream American Jews.

I’m not saying that’s a good thing, but it probably explains a lot about why Iran rallies don’t draw much from the broader Jewish community.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.