I was listening to the Bonnie Tyler song “Holding Out for a Hero,” which seemed apt for the American Jewish community. Where is our hero? Can you name one person these days with community-wide respect, moral authority and courage?
For me, the last hero was Elie Wiesel, who, unlike the fawning leaders of today, spoke truth to power and chastised a president to his face. By contrast, organizational leaders gushed when President Joe Biden issued his National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism, even though it called for cooperation with antisemites. Instead of reproving the president for interfering in Israel’s internal affairs, some Jewish “leaders” have been egging him on. Rather than demand that X (formerly Twitter) remove antisemitic posts, The Forward’s Mira Fox described the recent meeting between Jewish leaders and billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk as “groveling.” Musk’s reaction to this demonstration of weakness was to sue the Anti-Defamation League, which was not invited to the conclave, and criticized X’s unwillingness to act against hate speech.
ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt could be a leader but, like many other potential role models, alienates one or both sides of the political spectrum. In his case, conservatives disrespect him for being a Barack Obama acolyte (he was a special assistant to the president), and progressives reject him because he dared to call out antisemitism on the left.
One of the leaders I respected most was David Harris, but did anyone outside the American Jewish Committee know his name? And now he’s retired. J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami thinks he’s a leader but criticizes Israel almost as frequently as antisemites. Howard Kohr, AIPAC’s director, might be the most politically influential, but how many Jews other than the cognoscenti have heard of him, and given the political constraints of his job, can he stand up to a president?
The super-rich influencers—the Lauders, Bloombergs, Krafts and other billionaire philanthropists—are making extraordinary contributions to the Jewish world. Young Jews may dream of achieving their wealth, but how many would follow their marching orders?
Maybe you can think of a leader you respect. Perhaps someone from one of those lists of the most influential Jews put out by Jewish publications.
Given today’s polarization, I’m not sure a majority of Jews would accept a modern-day Moses.
On campus, the situation is worse.
One bright spot is the Jewish Studies Zionist Network (JSZN) founded by the University of North Carolina’s Jarrod Tanny to fight antisemitism and anti-Zionism on campus. He said, “We believe that there are just as many of us, if not more, who reject those efforts to vilify and delegitimize the world’s only Jewish state.”
If only it were true.
Fewer than 200 people have signed onto the JSZN. Most Jewish faculty remain closeted and are outnumbered by the Jewish faculty who have joined the demonizers. Among them is the “Elephant in the Room” group I wrote about. In addition, more than 100 Jewish Studies professors called on the United Nations to reject the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, which has been endorsed by more than 1,000 global entities, including 44 countries, the European Union, the Organization of American States, the Council of Europe, 27 U.S. states and some 314 institutions of higher education.
It is rare for Jewish faculty to stand up for Jewish and pro-Israel students, but occasionally, they do and offer some hope that they could be role models if their positive efforts were not one-offs.
When The Harvard Crimson supported boycotting Israel, more than 150 Harvard faculty members signed a statement condemning the paper. That was good news and seemed impressive until you examined the list. Most were from the medical, law and business schools; only a handful of faculty teaching undergraduates were willing to take even the minimal step of signing a letter opposing the antisemitic BDS movement. Too many Jewish faculty are prepared to fall on their swords for academic freedom but have no problem denying it to Israelis and those who want scholarly interactions with them.
Another exception occurred at the University of California, Davis, where 58 pro-Israel faculty members protested the UCD Faculty Statement of Solidarity with Palestinians that pilloried Israel for defending its citizens against the rocket bombardment by Palestinian terrorists. The demonization of Israel was published on the Asian American Studies department page with the endorsement of nine other academic departments.
“What compels the African-American and African Studies, Asian American Studies, American Studies, French and Italian, and Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies Departments to make public and slanderous attacks on Israel?” they asked. “How is this germane to their educational missions? It has not escaped our notice that Israel is the only foreign nation to receive such negative treatment at UC Davis.”
Not surprisingly, Davis’s administrators dismissed demands to remove or condemn the statement.
You might expect Jewish Studies to be an oasis for Jewish students with faculty who take pride in their identity and Israel. As others have written, Jewish Studies is anything but a haven. Tanny noted that professors in the field are more likely to remain silent or publicly side with the anti-Zionists. Even the Association of Jewish Studies journal demonized Israel in its “Justice Issue.”
Oren Gross, a professor of law at the University of Minnesota, resigned from its Center of Jewish Studies, stating: “I see no place for me to remain affiliated with CJS, which has turned into an echo chamber of silence and in which those, such as myself, who are unapologetic Zionists feel increasingly isolated.”
Even Israel Studies, which I have championed, has become a problem because too little scrutiny is given to candidates for chairs. Among the signers of the anti-Israel “Elephant in the Room” screed, for example, are the Israel Studies chairs from UCLA, George Washington, Ohio State and the University of Washington.
If students can’t find someone to look up to at the national level, it would be nice if they could find role models on their campus.
Several years ago, I met with Jewish faculty at a college. It was unprecedented for them to get together, and several were uncomfortable at the idea of faculty speaking as Jews.
Faculty must be encouraged to join the JSZN. There should also be a Jewish or Zionist faculty caucus on each campus for faculty to unite—if not over support for Israel then at least to protest tolerance of antisemitism, and be there to assist and defend Jewish students.
Instead of holding out for heroes, it’s time for some to step up.