It’s not the ayatollah-led Iranian regime; it’s not ISIS, or Hamas, or Mahmoud Abbas, or Hitler, or the Soviet Union, the Inquisition, or any of the myriad adversaries Bnei Israel has faced and outlived over our long history.
Without a question we have been our own worst enemy — through baseless hatred, disunity, intolerance, pettiness, and egomania. These communal issues have resurfaced in nearly identical ways in every generation, obstructing our view of the world, and failing us just as we appeared to be on track to taste the fruit of victory over yet another threat. One can write volumes on the topic of Jewish community divisions, but without rehashing the entire Jewish history, or for that matter, even the history of the American Jews, I can cite a couple of recent episodes that should be astounding, but are unfortunately par for the course.
First, there is the issue of interorganizational feuds, which are also replicated among individual activists and advocates. I get that feuds generate money and are in part meant to appeal to the donors, but they are also an exceptionally poor reflection on the Jewish communities to the outside world. For some reason, Jewish activists only care about the opinions of the outside world when it comes to appeasing yet another obscure non-Jewish fraud who expresses undying love for Israel and the Jewish people, is to the right of Bibi Netanyahu… only to turn out to be an insignificant upstart who is trying to make it by appealing to naive Jewish donors. Entire reputations have been built and crumbled on getting articles or appearances by such people, who then immediately proceeded to sow and encourage the seeds of discord within those communities, and to exploit them to their own advantage. On occasion, these allegedly pro-Israel activists turned out to be con artists, who literally stole money, from wealthy or kind-hearted members of the community, who were too ashamed to ever publicly own up to having been defrauded.
I have seen Jews block or insult other Jews on social media and in real life after some have pointed out that the great “saviors” that the activists saw in particular (usually Muslim or Arab) activist du jour were in fact deeply flawed or completely untrustworthy. So what happens? Jews abandon other Jews for the sake of some random fraud, and the divisions are irreparable, even inevitably the fraud backstabs or otherwise disappoints his defenders.
That these groups of well meaning Jewish activists have been easy to take advantage of due to misplacement of values and priorities is bad enough; worse, when there is no such external interference, and the community just goes against one another. Sometimes, again, that is encouraged by some external forces; but mutual recriminations need no encouragement. Need I remind everyone the bitter divisions that plagued our Jewish publications for weeks thanks to Qatar’s outreach campaign that targeted Jewish community leaders and led to nothing except dissemination of propaganda and protracted and bitter exchanges of articles among heads of various Jewish organizations?
Or the time when both left-wing and right-wing Jewish organizations spent two months protesting the Center of Jewish History in New York, and its completely unrelated partner organization (for their alleged support) of the Executive Director that they hired? Meanwhile, the same Jewish organizations are nowhere to be found when it comes to funding lawyers for the many Jewish students in universities across the country who are facing extreme pressure from the administrations of these universities not to report anti-Zionist incidents and assaults.With the exception of the Lawfare Project, the Jewish organizations have been focusing on “reconciliation and dialogue” even as the threats to Jewish students rise to the point that they are afraid to push back against ideological extremism, and in fact, feel physically threatened to go to classes.
Rather than dealing with the fact that organizations like SJP and JVP are completely illegitimate and funded by hostile entities and foreign governments, which have nothing to do with reasonable progressive stands on Israel, but with blind hatred — these organizations look to sweep in to claim credit for any successes scored by the students… yet I hear little besides the usual rehashing of the same old alarmed claims, and all of the support comes in the form of useless issued statements that solve nothing. Instead, there is continuous intercommunal quarreling about what is to be done. The interminable discussion ends when any proposal that requires an actual fight for the rights of these Zionist students to express themselves in a secure environment is introduced. These Jewish organizations are failing everyone except their own pockets. They have done very little to change the current environment, whether in the US or in Europe. They sit at fancy lunches, groaning about the fate of the Jews on campus and the rate of assimilation, rather than inculcating and defending pride in the Jewish identity, and encouraging strong responses to outright thuggery.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Even as these group fret and moan at the mere possibility of responding with anything but half-hearted condemnation of vicious attacks on the heart of the Jewish community – our young – they ignore any real attempts to change the worldviews that propagate these manifestations. They will align with Islamist groups that fund anti-Semitic education, and make no demands on them to advocate for change of hearts and minds within their communities. Then, same organizations will come to donors and boast about their wonderful work in interfaith dialogue. It’s not a dialogue if only one side speaks truthfully and seeks reconciliation. Same types of people will waste an inordinate amount of money buying full page ads in the NY Times (to the tune of 95K) to attack inconsequential actresses who have said admittedly stupid and damaging things about Israel.. weeks ago. Imagine how much good that money would have done if spent on supporting one child’s Jewish education and connection to Israel, instead? What about sponsoring a non-Jewish student’s study of Israeli history and society?
Everyone is free to spend his money as he wishes, of course. But when it comes to putting one’s money where one’s mouth is… that’s where we run into a little dilemma. Quite simply, the organized Jewish community turns up for the “easy” occasions – the big parties, the religious showings, the parades – and yet fails at anything that requires even a modicum of effort. That is as true for the proliferating young professionals organizations, more attuned to fundraising and resume padding than to real investment into any one particularly Jewish cause – as it is for the more seasoned folks. Up until this point I have been careful to leave out names of most of the actors involved, even though those who have followed any or all of these stories, will recognize the participants immediately. My purpose in mentioning them, however, was not to rekindle all conflicts but rather to draw attention to problematic patterns that have manifested themselves in various and multiple ways time after time.
It’s time to get specific and personal, however, because one issue that is particularly bothersome had to do less with laziness and pettiness than a particular ideological worldview that is counterproductive to overcoming some of our external problems. Last week, the American Sephardi Federation and the Conference of Presidents of Jewish American Organizations jointly hosted the Muslim World League’s director, Dr. Mohammed Al-Issa at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, where Dr. Al Issa spoke about the Holocaust, and the importance of interfaith dialogue, and where the Conference honored Muslims who saved Jews during the Holocaust. For the record, the Muslm World League is based in Saudi Arabia.
The event followed Dr. Al Issa’s letter to the US Holocaust Museum, acknowledging the Holocaust, and decrying Holocaust denial, as well as his interview with the Algemeiner, and participation in other interfaith events. One would think that the event would be mobbed, with a waiting list numbering multiple pages. Instead, most of the invited Jewish organizations did not show up at all, not even with a single representative, much less fulfill allocated numbers of seats. The fact of the event was a fantastic success; but the numbers of people involved made it a profound the failure. The failure, however, lies not with the Saudis who did exactly what was asked of them; in fact, Dr. Al Issa brought a whole delegation of young lobbyists with him, which indicated the interest and the importance the Saudi government gave to this event. On the other hand, the auditorium was half empty. The people who were there, were, of course, for the most part intrigued and open minded, if not outright enthusiastic and supportive.
Still, it bothered me that some of the groups who were all too happy to run to the meeting with KSA’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, when he was visiting the United States (and some of whom made a big deal about visiting Riyadh or other countries in the region in the past), seemed more interested in access and appearances of coolness than in any real impact. They were there for the show when they could boast about meeting a big celebrity, but they could not be bothered to do the minimum with helping him implement his agenda, even if it would directly help their own organizations and the Jewish community as a whole. The fact of such utter superficiality is perplexing enough; what is no less interesting, however, is that many of these same activists who claim to prioritize Muslim-Jewish dialogue want to have very little to do with any actual Muslims. Some will only deal with Islamists; yet, the possibility of an actual state liberalizing enough to deal wit Jews in any manner that does not involve outright demonization is apparently not interesting or challenging enough.
The second category of people only seems interested if said state engages in disrespectful and divisive tactics in courting Jewish attention for the sake of entirely self-serving agendas that are of no benefit to the Jewish community. Finally, the third segment consists of right-wing Jews (and is generally reflective of the conservative community as a whole), who either believes that Islam in any form or manifestation is a demonic cult, and anyone who chooses to interpret the tenets of the religion differently is not a real Muslim or is quite simply a liar, or in a second camp, believes in supporting ex-Muslims or “our” Muslims (however that is defined) but will not deal with “someone else’s” Muslims (to put that sentiment very charitably, they only trust the people they themselves found somewhere, and are deeply suspicious of anyone introduced by someone not from their immediate circles; alternatively, in the spirit of petty competitions, they will only play a part with such people if they themselves get full credit and front row seat).
I have talked to a number of people who exemplify such psychology; they seem to derive a sadistic enjoyment of hating a category of people broadly, without allowing for any possibility of change, repentance, or growth. Indeed, punitive attitudes and schadenfreude seem important to their definition of the world. If they stop to believe that country X or group Y or person Z is forever tainted, their understanding of life will collapse and they will have nothing left to fight for. Believing that country X is evil in all ways and will always be evil, no matter who is at the helm, and what is happening makes them feel virtuous, just as believing that the issues Islam is undergoing will never be resolved without eradicating the entire religion as such makes them feel like they have an important role to play. If, on the other hand, Muslims themselves are catalysts of change in their own world, then what role do such people have? They become completely irrelevant, and their virtue signaling likewise becomes of no import to anyone. Having imaginary ongoing feuds with 1.6 billion Muslims, while making them feel beleagured, is actually preferable, in their minds to feeling no threat from that entire portion of the world population. Because if you have 1.6 billion potential enemies, you have a purpose in life – to protect the Western civilization from evildoers; if, however, these people are too preoccupied with each other and with solving their own problems, just like any other normal society – there is nothing in it for you at all. Such attitude comes from basic incompetence, for truly successful people do not need to have enemies, real or imagined, in order to have positive impact on the world and to feel worthy.
In any case, even with the understanding of these factors, I was still deeply disappointed to see the kind of disinterest in such a major development. Much of my disappointment lay in the fundamental sense of injustice towards Dr. Al Issa, who is taking on a tremendous risk just by being there, and who is attacked on Al Jazeera and elsewhere relentlessly and viciously day and night. He is also facing extraordinary challenges within his own world, and I thought that the least he could count on was reciprocity and a strong show of interest support from the very people he was supposed to be partnering with. Instead, he saw a relatively limited number of people from just a couple of organizations. What kind of message does that send? Perhaps, it will cause the Saudis to try harder and continue with a more aggressive outreach; perhaps it will inspire them to take bolder steps. On the other hand, it is also possible that given the number of challenges they are facing, they will simply turn their attention elsewhere. Regardless, I am concerned that the pettiness richly manifesting itself across the political and religious spectrum may have led to a major missed opportunity – one that I had cherished and thought that it had a great potential for the future.
I hope this post raises some awareness of the ongoing issues, leads to introspection within the Jewish community, and steers us away from making choices damaging to our interests in the future.