OpinionJewish Diaspora

American Jews are lions led by donkeys

The community deserves better than a leadership mired in decadence and denial.

“March for Israel” rally in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 14, 2023. Credit: Tedeytan via Wikimedia Commons.
“March for Israel” rally in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 14, 2023. Credit: Tedeytan via Wikimedia Commons.
Benjamin Kerstein
Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his work on Substack at No Delusions, No Despair. Purchase his books here.

In both peace and war, society’s leaders are often inferior to those they lead. A ruling class’s founding generation is usually vital and capable, but its descendants tend to collapse into decadence in short order.

This is so common that the eighth-century historian Ibn Khaldun believed that it was the driving force of history itself. He posited that tough and energetic barbarians build a civilization, following which their wealth and luxury leads to decadence. As a result, they are easily conquered by another group of tough and energetic barbarians. Then those barbarians become decadent in turn and the cycle begins all over again. There is, Ibn Khaldun implied, no way out of this.

What Ibn Khaldun did not note, however, is that only a small minority of any society can afford to be decadent. Most people remain more or less tough and energetic. They have to in order to survive. When their civilization falls, it’s because their leaders have failed them.

This is summed up in the expression “lions led by donkeys.” It likely has ancient origins, but it became idiomatic following World War I. Many of those disillusioned by the carnage came to see the fighting men as valiant, self-sacrificing heroes led to the slaughter by incompetent generals and politicians. Those who ran headlong into machine-gun fire could not be other than lions. But those who ordered them to do so again and again could not be anything other than very stupid donkeys.

Today, many Israelis likely feel like lions led by donkeys. We look to our leaders and see the disastrous failures of Oct. 7. We wonder if they really do intend to achieve victory. We worry about feckless strategy and undue deference to the Biden administration. We fear, above all, that our leaders may desire victory but are incapable of achieving it due to their own shortcomings.

At the same time, we see the soldiers of Israel raging forth like Lions of Judah. Fighting their way through the circles of hell, they are capturing and killing terrorists, rescuing hostages, absorbing terrible casualties, and returning with physical and mental scars that will last them a lifetime—all without complaint.

Moreover, the Israeli people as a whole remain absolutely determined on victory. They want Hamas destroyed and Hezbollah gelded. It is very unlikely they will relent anytime soon. If Israel’s leaders fail to achieve victory, they will fail in the teeth of their own people.

What this means is that the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces—and the people of Israel—are and always were better than their own ruling class.

To be fair, however, almost all of Israel’s top leaders have publicly accepted responsibility for their failures and even asked forgiveness. Nor should we forget that, for the moment, they are fighting. It is possible that Israelis will prove to be lions led by lions.

The same, sadly, cannot be said about the American Jewish community. There is no doubt that, for the moment, they are lions led by donkeys.

For many months, I have received messages from American Jews enraged by the constant hate and racism to which they and Israel are subjected. They want to fight back. They want to be lions but don’t know where to turn.

This predicament is a direct result of the failure of American Jewish leaders. Despite their enormous financial resources and organizational skills, they have not formed a national self-defense organization or built the activist infrastructure necessary to turn back the forces of hatred. As a result, American Jews are rightfully seething with frustration and anger.

Such a titanic fiasco is almost inexplicable. American Jewish leaders are not stupid. It should be obvious to them that we are in the midst of a two-decades-old campaign to destroy the American Jewish community. This campaign is part of a wider effort to annihilate the State of Israel and, eventually, the entire Jewish people. We know this because those involved in it say so. When they shout “Death to Israel” and “Death to the Jews,” they mean it. And they know that to realize their genocidal aims, they must break American Jewry.

Faced with this, American Jewish leaders had one job: to do everything in their power to stop it.

But they did nothing. For two decades, they stopped their ears and covered their eyes. They issued perfunctory denunciations; called for more tolerance and understanding; sought “allyship” from people who today hail Hamas on campus and in the streets; and took no action whatsoever to ensure that American Jews could defend themselves by themselves if necessary.

The scale of their failure became clear during the recent campus pogroms. Yes, there were the usual denunciations and a few lawsuits. CEO Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League actually managed to rouse himself to pen a petulant article on the subject that nobody read. But the only significant pushback came from individuals and smaller organizations like Students Supporting Israel.

Ibn Khaldun would not be surprised. Today, American Jewish leaders are a flaccid elite crushed beneath the hoofs of barbarians possessed of demonic energies. Pulling in six-figure salaries, enjoying the flatteries of subordinates and sycophants, cringing before board members and donors, terrified of defying a progressive movement that they identify with Judaism itself, there was never the slightest possibility that American Jewish leaders could ever face down the horde.

Instead, most of them simply pretended it wasn’t happening. Denial, sadly, is the most effective way of solving a problem until the problem eats you alive. We should remember that when faced with a pack of ravenous hyenas, donkeys are always devoured.

The question is whether American Jews want to be devoured along with them. I believe with perfect faith that they do not. But to avoid this fate, they must accept that their ruling class is finished. It cannot save them because it cannot even save itself. The time has come to build an alternative leadership—one that is not beset by decadence and denial.

Fortunately, there is no reason to despair. I know from my own experience that American Jews, especially Jewish youth, have the lion in them. All that is required are the leaders willing and able to set it loose.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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