How progressives are destroying the Jewish ‘big tent’

The Boston JCRC’s vote banning members from partnering with anti-Zionists sets a necessary limit to inclusion, even if it mean offending those on the margins.

Members of the Boston Workmen’s Circle attending a rally. Credit: Boston Workmen's Circle via Facebook.
Members of the Boston Workmen’s Circle attending a rally. Credit: Boston Workmen's Circle via Facebook.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

What the Jewish world needs most these days is inclusion. Yet the only sensible course of action open to Jewish community relations councils and other outreach groups is to set firm limits on who can or cannot enter the proverbial big Jewish tent.

That sounds like a contradiction in terms, and in many ways it is. But the fact remains that at the very moment when institutions need to keep the gates wide open to attract as many Jews as possible, it’s just as important to send a loud message that there are some lines that cannot be crossed. While inclusion is vital, it’s not the only value that Jewish groups should venerate.

That’s why the Boston Jewish Community Relations Council was correct when it voted last week to start the process by which one of their constituent organizations might be booted out of an organization that seeks the widest possible membership.

The issue at stake was whether those who claim to be part of the big Jewish tent can reasonably maintain that claim while joining forces with anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic groups bent on destroying the State of Israel.

The action that precipitated the vote was a decision made by the Boston chapter of the Workmen’s Circle, an organization dedicated to both social-justice advocacy and preserving Yiddish culture. While its cultural work has dwarfed its political clout for decades, it can also claim the mantle of the Jewish Labor Bund, the Socialist and anti-Zionist party that was a dominant force in Jewish life in the decades before the Second World War. Since 1948, it has reluctantly made its peace with the Jewish state while struggling to remain relevant. But the revival of interest in Yiddish and the popularity of left-wing politics among Jews have ensured that the group hasn’t died out.

But when its Boston branch signed a petition organized by the anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) group defending the BDS movement, it started a controversy whose implications transcend local Jewish politics.

The petition asserted that “criticism of Israel” should not be equated with anti-Semitism. Of course, mere criticism of Israel’s government is neither anti-Israel nor anti-Semitic. But the groups that signed that document don’t merely engage in critiques of the administration led by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Jewish Voice for Peace is an avowedly anti-Zionist organization opposing Israel’s existence as a Jewish state and supporting the so-called Palestinian “right of return.” It doesn’t merely support BDS efforts to isolate the Jewish state and attack Israeli measures of self-defense against terrorists; its claims that exchange programs that bring U.S. law-enforcement officers to Israel for training are responsible for the deaths of African-Americans are nothing short of a blood libel lodged against supporters of the Jewish state. Like other signatories to that petition, JVP engages in advocacy that is indistinguishable from anti-Semitism.

Seen from that perspective, the decision by Workmen’s Circle to sign the petition merited pushback from other members of the Boston JCRC. But doing so also goes against the prevailing philosophy most in the organized Jewish world have adopted that holds that drawing such lines in the sand is suicidal.

Inclusion has become the watchword in Jewish life because of the way traditional institutions like synagogues and umbrella philanthropies like federations have been in rapid decline. As surveys have shown, a population that is increasingly assimilated and intermarried has no use for the old paradigms of Jewish life. The 90 percent of North American Jews who are non-Orthodox are increasingly disinterested in expressions of Jewish identity that are tied to concepts of Jewish peoplehood like Zionism.

Just as important, young Jews are also turned off by groups operating under the assumptions of past generations, as well as by the false perception that support for Israel is incompatible with being a modern progressive. Add to that a popular culture in which all expressions of parochial identity (except those identified with minority groups)—let alone an ideology like Zionism that is demonized by the far-left—are presumed to be racist.

Under these circumstances, finding ways to include Jews who are on the margins is a must. Drawing lines that will exclude or alienate people is not unreasonably seen as exacerbating a problem that stems from a demographic implosion among the non-Orthodox.

And yet, drawing some lines isn’t so much an option as a necessity for Jews.

Consensus is an impossible goal for Jewish groups these days, which need to work harder to agree to disagree about many contentious issues. But the notion that Israel’s right to exist is debatable is not such an issue. Nor should it be a matter of opinion as to whether Jews should engage in activities that aid the efforts of anti-Semites like those promoting the BDS movement or others bent on waging war on Israel.

It’s crucial to draw a distinction between anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic groups, and Jewish organizations that are merely critical of Israel’s government. Groups like J Street adopt positions that I believe are profoundly wrong, as well as utterly irrelevant to the realities of the Middle East, and have little support among Israel’s people. But as long as it and other like-minded groups are truly “pro-Israel” and “pro-peace,” and consistently oppose BDS, then they deserve a place at the table.

But there should be no such seat for JVP, IfNotNow and other anti-Zionists that dabble in anti-Semitic agitation while falsely posing as repositories of Jewish ethics. The same goes for those, like Boston’s Workmen’s Circle, that join with them.

A Jewish community that prizes inclusion above all other values may have a big tent, but one that treats allies of anti-Semites as accepted members is one that will ultimately stand for nothing. And a community that stands for nothing cannot survive. It might turn off those who have no interest in Jewish peoplehood, but it’s high time for all Jewish organizations to make it clear that those who are bent on aiding Israel’s enemies have no place inside our big tents.

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

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