November 10, 2011
Confusion Reigns in Public Discussions of Judaism and Israel
— Sam Brody
A recent New York magazine cover featured a picture of Barack Obama's head covered by a yarmulke, under the headline "The First Jewish President." The story purported to counter a narrative gaining traction elsewhere in the media: that American Jews are increasingly dissatisfied with Obama's policies relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that they are souring on his presidency as a result.
Narratives of this nature pop up like clockwork in advance of every presidential election. They represent the fruit of continual efforts by the small lobby of Jewish conservatives and their allies in the larger Republican Party to change the voting patterns of American Jews, who consistently and repeatedly number among the most liberal of American voting blocs. Typically, the State of Israel is used as a wedge issue in this effort, ignoring the fact that American Jews have demonstrated over and over again that they are not single-issue voters and that (hypothetical) dissatisfaction with a Democratic presidential stance on Israel is hardly enough to overcome the wide array of objections that Jews typically hold to the Republican social and economic platform.
There is, however, a deeper confusion present in that New York cover: the notion that even if we accept the article's contention that Obama has, in fact, been one of the State of Israel's closest friends on the world stage, and that he ranks as high as any other president in recent memory in terms of his accommodation to the perceived self-interest of successive Israeli governments, that this would make Obama the "first Jewish president." Such a claim implies strongly that New York holds the same misguided view as the Republican strategists it criticizes: that "Jewishness" varies according to the degree of one's alignment with the outlook and policies of the government of the State of Israel.
A separate, but related confusion is manifest in recent coverage of supposed antisemitism in the Occupy Wall Street movement (OWS). Weekly Standard editor and conservative fixture William Kristol, who naturally opposes the goals of any movement for greater economic equality as a believer in the unregulated "free" market, chose to express this opposition in the form of a misleading advertisement claiming that OWS is shot through with antisemitism and that reputable people should therefore distance themselves from it.
Coverage of Kristol's advertisement has correctly noted that it ignored a prominent Jewish presence among the OWS protesters, and vastly overstated the miniscule presence of a few cranks. But this same coverage usually fails to explore the reasons why this charge in particular seems to hold so much promise for the opponents of OWS—reasons that lie in the history and nature of antisemitism itself.
Far from being merely theological prejudice or personal animosity, antisemitism has historically functioned in a very particular way: to mask and obfuscate the true relations of power in a given society by creating a powerful-seeming scapegoat. This goes back to the earliest settlements of Jews in European lands, when a king would grant a charter to Jewish merchants to lend to the crown and later blame "his" Jews if monarchic management of war or treasury turned sour.
August Bebel had a similar dynamic in mind in the age of mass labor politics when he called antisemitism the "socialism of fools," and one could argue that it continues to serve this function in Arab countries today, as Arab leaders try to distract their peoples from their own malfeasance by manufacturing global Zionist conspiracy theories. In this sense, then, any movement that targets the unfair prominence of a power elite is in danger of succumbing to antisemitism if its members can be convinced that it is the ethnic/religious identity of the elite that is the problem, rather than the structure of the system that skews power in their favor. (The actual proportion of Jews among the elite is, of course, irrelevant for the purposes of antisemitism; only a few visible individuals are required for the propaganda to work.)
What does it mean, however, that so much of the public focus on Jews and Judaism in our time still revolves around the dual axis of the State of Israel and antisemitism? Jewish religious leaders should be concerned about this insofar as it creates an image of Jews as exclusively concerned with their own physical survival—one of the classic images, in fact, of antisemitism itself.
Countering this image would require a concerted effort to bring a Jewish spiritual message to the public square—an effort most recently exemplified by none other than those Jewish groups at OWS who held a public Kol Nidre service at Zucotti Park on Yom Kippur, and who set up Sukkot a week later at OWS offshoot protests in cities across the country, including Boston and Chicago. Let us hope that in the future more public attention may be devoted to the living content of Judaism itself, rather than to the power position of Jews relative to other groups in society—a focus that repeats and mimics the antisemitic gesture.
Sam Brody is a PhD candidate in the History of Judaism currently writing a dissertation on Martin Buber's theopolitics. He is also a Martin Marty Center Junior Fellow.