A ‘big Jewish tent’ is incompatible with cancel culture

A failed attempt by leftist groups to expel the ZOA from the Boston Jewish Community Relations Council marks the end of the illusion of consensus.

Conference room. Credit: Pixabay.
Conference room. Credit: Pixabay.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

The question of what particular groups sit around the table at Boston’s Jewish Community Relations Council is not exactly one of the great dilemmas of modern Jewish history. Such organizations tend to take on the characteristics of a private social club. That ensures that the viciousness of the arguments of the participants is in inverse proportion to the stakes involved. Nevertheless, the dustup inside that city’s umbrella group of advocacy organizations over the effort by a number of left-wing groups to expel the Zionist Organization of America has far greater significance than one would expect.

Regardless of the outcome—ZOA was allowed to stay, but only after being widely smeared as an ally of “white supremacy”—the intercommunal conflict is one that illustrates just how much of a fiction the notion of Jewish community consensus has become. This is a time when the nation’s political culture is experiencing a historic crackup caused by hyper-partisanship, resulting in the breakdown of traditional guardrails that held Americans together in the past. That Jews are coping with the same sort of crisis comes as no surprise. But the circumstances of this dispute—involving as it does divisions over Israel, Zionism and the impact of toxic racial theories that act as a permission slip for anti-Semitism—is particularly troubling.

No matter what you think of the ZOA and its pugnacious national leader, Mort Klein, the strength of the push to falsely brand the group as racist wasn’t so much surprising as it is evidence of how polarized the Jewish community has become. It also showed that there may be no limits to the lengths to which their opponents are willing to go to make that point. Though they failed to achieve their goal, they did lay down a marker that they will not tolerate anyone who dares to disagree with them on issues like critical race theory and the influence of the Black Lives Matter movement. As is the case in so many other sectors, Jewish communal life has become subject to the vagaries of cancel culture in which those who offend the woke are punished with banishment from the public square. As such, the Boston JCRC vote may be a turning point that has made obsolete the very idea of umbrella groups that attempt to represent a wide array of Jewish views.

In a sense, the Boston dispute is an echo of the argument that played out on what is theoretically the larger and more significant stage of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Last spring, the selection of a representative from HIAS—the agency once responsible for helping Jewish immigrants, but which now operates as a liberal advocacy group that no longer does much for specifically Jewish refugees or causes—to be the umbrella group’s next chairperson set off a bitter fight between the ZOA and its allies on the one hand and those from more left-wing organizations on the other.

ZOA, as well as the media monitoring group CAMERA, made the point that HIAS was not a group involved in pro-Israel advocacy, which is the main point of the Conference, and that the nominee, HIAS’s Diane Lob, had no experience in the field. The dispute quickly devolved into a nasty fight in which groups who were more sympathetic to the administration of former President Donald Trump because of his historic pro-Israel stands were arrayed against those, like HIAS, who opposed him. HIAS’s advocacy for the absorption of Syrian Muslim refugees, who ZOA pointed out are more likely to be anti-Semitic, became a way for the left to label right-wingers as Islamophobic. After the death of George Floyd made the Black Lives Matter movement a central focus of discussion, ZOA’s arguments about its connections to anti-Semitism and hatred for Israel became an excuse to label Klein and his group as racists.

While Lob was eventually confirmed as chair, the Conference came close to pulling apart as the left attempted to expel ZOA while the right said that HIAS shouldn’t be a member because it was no longer Jewish.

While no one came out of the arguments at the Conference unscathed, the Boston JCRC dispute represented a serious escalation of that fight.

The claim that Klein “elevated voices of white supremacy” on his social-media accounts, which was validated by a JCRC committee, is simply untrue. What he was guilty of was strongly opposing the BLM movement and alerting the community to the connections between it and toxic critical race theory that treats Jews as being guilty of “white privilege,” and which similarly falsely labels Israel as a white oppressor of indigenous people of color. Expressing that view is neither racist nor evidence of white supremacy.

Also false was the assertion that Klein had boosted anti-Semitic “conspiracies” about leftist Jewish billionaire George Soros. The attempt to treat any criticism of a divisive political operator like Soros as anti-Semitism isn’t merely wrongheaded, it degrades the entire discussion about Jew-hatred.

Klein was also faulted for tweets in which he expressed skepticism about some of the 2020 election results. Such opinions may be incorrect, but the willingness to label anyone who complained about the election results as an “insurrectionist” is simply another way to tell conservative dissenters to shut up, not a stand in favor of Jewish ethics.

That the JCRC was willing to even entertain these absurd allegations is disturbing evidence of how cowed the Jewish community is by the cultural forces backing the BLM cause. Some on the left may consider this payback for the battle over Lob. But the notion that ZOA is somehow outside of the Jewish communal big tent because of its hostility to BLM demonstrates that the Jewish left favors diversity in everything but political points of view. The attempted purge is nothing less than a revived McCarthyism, this time coming from the left rather than the right.

It’s one thing to disagree with ZOA on BLM, or its consistently strong advocacy for Israel and the center-right consensus of the Israeli people on security issues. But to claim that such views are not merely wrong but should no longer be tolerated takes polarization to a new low.

It is also ironic given that groups like J Street and others on the left often make common cause with and tolerate anti-Zionist groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, which is not merely anti-Israel but anti-Semitic.

They fell short of their goal as the motion to expel ZOA was defeated 48-40 with 10 abstentions. That so many Jewish groups rallied behind the effort is particularly disgraceful. More importantly, it’s just the beginning of such efforts, not the end. Anyone who doubts such attempts to purge conservatives will continue hasn’t been paying attention to the way cancel culture operates. It works on the assumption that the opprobrium Twitter mobs and liberal scolds dole out never stops until they have demolished their target.

This calls into question whether umbrella groups like the Conference or local JCRCs have a future. Like the rest of the country, Jews are deeply divided by politics with the right and left no longer believing that what they have in common is more important than their differences. The idea that critics of Israel and fellow travelers in anti-Zionism should come this close to purging a Zionist group for having the chutzpah to tell the truth about BLM signals that the goal of Jews transcending their differences to work together is over. And if support for leftist doctrines about white privilege rather than backing Israel is the litmus test for being accepted by Jewish groups, then perhaps it’s just as well that any pretense of a consensus is dropped.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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