Why is the Reform movement defending an antisemite?

The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s defense of Ilhan Omar is an expression of contemptuous privilege.

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). Source: Flickr.
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). Source: Flickr.
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.

A rather remarkable document was recently issued by a group of left-wing Jewish organizations, in which the task of defending a confirmed antisemite was undertaken.

This open letter, issued by Ameinu, Americans for Peace Now, Bend the Arc: Jewish Action, Habonim Dror North America, J Street, the New Israel Fund, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, sought to defend Rep. Ilhan Omar and deride House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s stated purpose (now fulfilled) of removing Omar from the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“As Jewish American organizations, we oppose Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy’s pledge to strip Representative Ilhan Omar of her House Foreign Affairs Committee seat based on false accusations that she is antisemitic or anti-Israel,” the organizations stated.

When I read this missive, I was initially put in mind of French historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet’s remark upon reading a statement by Holocaust deniers: “Epithets came to my pen.”

I shall eschew obscenity, but epithets seem in order, because this letter is a quite monstrous document.

The reason is that its assertion that the accusations against Omar are “false” is a lie. With the best will in the world, Omar’s claims that American Jews buy control of Congress via their “benjamins” and that support for Israel constitutes loyalty to a foreign country cannot be viewed as anything other than explicitly antisemitic.

Omar has never repudiated or apologized for these statements. She clearly believes that she is merely speaking truth to power—which in this context can only be viewed as “Jewish” power.

This is how all antisemites—of whatever political stripe—view themselves, and to claim that Omar has been falsely accused is, in effect, to endorse such attitudes as legitimate and defensible. The profession of Omar’s innocence, in other words, is antisemitic in and of itself.

All of this is outrageous in the general sense, but for me, there was a personal aspect to this letter, due to the participation of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

I grew up in a Reform environment, and while I have long since left it, I know it with a certain intimacy and cannot feel anything but distinct betrayal in the face of its defense of Omar. It does not surprise me that the Reform leadership, particularly its “action” wing, has taken a left-wing stance. It does surprise me, however, that it has collapsed into such debased apologetics.

But perhaps I should not be surprised, because I know Reform Judaism, and well remember growing up as a petit bourgeois among Jews far more privileged than myself. I learned then, from the haut bourgeois Jews who surrounded me, that one of the defining aspects of Reform Judaism is and always has been privilege.

Today, there is an atmosphere of near-absolute denial that the Jewish community has a class system, but like all communities, it does, and the same pathologies that afflict all upper classes afflict the Jewish one. From its inception, Reform has always been a movement of the Jewish upper class, and one of the Jewish upper class’s pathologies is a strong distaste for those Jews who are not part of that upper class.

In the modern age, the primary movement of the Jewish lower classes has been Zionism, with its roots struck deep in the firmament of the Jewish proletariat—whether it was the persecuted and traditionalist Jews of Eastern Europe or, today, the Jews of the Middle East and North Africa who constitute a plurality of Israelis.

As a result, the Reform movement initially saw Zionism as a contemptible and dangerous rival. Today, its view of Zionism is nominally supportive, due to the Zionism of most of the petit bourgeois members of the denomination, but on the part of its leadership—still drawn from the Jewish haute bourgeoisie—it is one of deep and profound ambivalence.

Albeit quietly, the Reform leadership still sees Zionists and Israel as somewhat lesser, somewhat dirty and unwashed, and, above all, presumptuous and arrogant in their refusal to conform to the values of the Jewish upper class.

In this sense, Omar was lucky in her enemies. She did not direct her antisemitism towards the Jewish left and with it the Reform leadership. She did not threaten the class privilege of the Jewish haute bourgeoisie. Her antisemitism was directed against the wretched of the Jewish earth, the Zionists and Israelis who have rarely followed the Reform leadership’s orders, and therefore more or less deserve what they get.

Privilege is everywhere and always a threat to the Jews, because it leads to forgetting, to the delusion that the knock on the door will never come. But this has never been true. When they come, they come for all of us, and this, above all, is what terrifies the Jews of privilege, and they will do almost anything to deny it.

Where this has now led them is tragic, because Ilhan Omar is a spearhead. With her compatriots such as Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, she is the first step towards the legitimization and institutionalization of systemic antisemitism in the American political establishment. The battle against her is therefore an existential struggle for American Jews. The Reform leadership has now made it clear that not only will they refrain from this struggle, they will actively impede it. They have become, in other words, part of the problem.

The Reform leadership has a right to fight for progressive values. They have a right to criticize Israeli policies should they so desire. They do not have the right to enable those who would destroy us and, with us, despite all their efforts at denial, them as well.

Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his writing on Substack and his website. Follow him on Twitter @benj_kerstein.

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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