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columnU.S.-Israel Relations

Who speaks for the Jews, and why do we let them?

Jewish organizations’ stands on partisan issues reflect their supporters’ biases, but not necessarily the interests of the Jews.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in in Jerusalem on Sept. 17, 2018. Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in in Jerusalem on Sept. 17, 2018. Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

The confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh as the newest associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court was greeted by the organized Jewish world in the same manner as his nomination by U.S. President Donald Trump. While some organizations stayed silent, liberal-leaning Jewish groups generally deplored his ascension to the high court. The far smaller number of conservative-leaning groups that label themselves as Jewish cheered him.

But the willingness of so many of the institutions that are tasked with representing Jewish interests to seek to drag the entire community into the no-holds barred brawl about Kavanaugh and the future of the court didn’t draw much notice or debate. That’s because we take it for granted that such groups rarely question the notion that what is good for the secular partisan interests that most Jews support is what is also good for the Jewish community.

Whatever American Jews feel about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu personally, it shouldn’t sap support for the State of Israel and the security of its citizens. Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90.

While just about everyone in the country had an opinion about the court fight—and is generally willing to view those who disagree as either evil or otherwise beyond redemption—this ought to be one of those moments when Jewish institutions should be particularly careful about not getting involved in partisan politics that are tearing the country apart. Yet few seem willing to stay out of even the nastiest and most divisive battles, where, as was the case with Kavanaugh, the Jewish angle is far from obvious.

The argument for their actions is based in a belief that liberal stands reflect Jewish values about social justice. For some, that means anything that is identified with liberals or Democrats can be depicted as a Jewish issue, rather than just one on which many individual Jews have strong opinions. But the problem with this sort of thinking is that once you head down that road, virtually any issue can be defined as the right “Jewish” stand, even if it is wholly unconnected to the direct interests of the Jewish people.

When groups see no distinction between those partisan affiliations and the interests of the community, they are also marginalizing those who disagree. While there is no doubt that most American Jews are Democrats, the notion that liberals can speak for all Jews is as risible as the idea that one point of view encompasses that of all women or any other demographic group, let alone giving them the right to brand dissenters as beyond the pale.

The irony here is that the one issue on which there can be no debate about its importance to the Jews or the obligation for Jewish organizations to speak up—Israel—is often the one about which American Jews are bitterly divided. Support for the Jewish state has become controversial in some quarters, with many opposing its government policies on the peace process or are offended by the closeness between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Trump. Many on the left are unperturbed by the drift away from support for Israel in the Democratic Party base or the rise of popular figures who are either critics or outright opponents of Zionism.

An example of how this worked was the battle over President Obama’s 2015 Iran nuclear deal. The pact was opposed by the overwhelming majority of Israelis and their government as a threat to their security, as well as to that of the region and the world, and many in the organized Jewish community followed their lead. But while polls indicated that Americans were split on the issue, the same surveys showed that U.S. Jews were more inclined to favor it, with 48 percent of Jews supporting the deal and only 28 percent of non-Jewish Americans doing so. Most Jewish Democrats viewed the issue through a partisan lens; even supporters of Israel among them were able to persuade themselves that it was the right thing to do.

What this means is that though support for Israel is as strong, if not stronger, than it has ever been, Jews are, like the Democratic Party, divided about it or at least far more reluctant to support Netanyahu than many Christians.

By contrast, when Jews dive headfirst into tussles like the Kavanaugh nomination, which are in no small measure primarily driven by opinions about abortion, those on the left do so in the knowledge that, as a 2015 Pew Research Survey revealed, most Jews are far more enthusiastic supporters of Roe v. Wade than they are of Netanyahu and Israeli security.

On other issues, the Jewish angle is there, but isn’t as clear-cut as some on the left assert. As the descendants of immigrants with memories of the Holocaust always present, most Jews are generally supportive of immigration and sympathetic even to those who are here illegally. But there is a difference between those principles and support for open borders, as well as opposition to enforcing the laws. When synagogues declare themselves “sanctuaries” for illegals and some Jewish Community Relations Councils embrace their plight with an enthusiasm that might exceed their level of support for Israel’s positions, the disconnect between Jewish interests (which ought to include the rule of law, as well as compassion for those who violate it) and the stands of those who claim to speak for the Jews remains clear.

Yet as long as 83 percent of Jews are in favor of legal abortion and only 28 percent oppose something like the Iran deal, liberal-leaning groups aren’t wrong to conclude that their members (and much of the community) don’t think there’s anything wrong with them being liberal or partisan.

While the numbers back up these assertions, that doesn’t necessarily mean that Jewish organizations are right to squander their clout and credibility in fights where specifically Jewish issues aren’t at stake. Not all U.S. Jews may be fans of Netanyahu, but support for Israel and the security of the Jewish people  as opposed to secular concerns—is a Jewish obligation, not an option. That is something those who claim to speak for the Jews should never forget.

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

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