Five months ago at the J Street conference in Washington, Jane Eisner, the editor of the Jewish newspaper The Forward, gave an important speech about Jewish power (video above). I’ve been meaning to type up her comments ever since; and now’s the time.
Eisner spoke as a progressive and a religious Zionist, thrilled by the Jewish presence in Occupy Wall Street. Those ideas made up the body of her speech, and I have no truck with them. In fact, I don’t believe that anyone can bring “Jewish values” into the public square without dealing front and center with religious persecution in Palestine.
But Eisner is an accomplished journalist, and she spoke as the head of a news organization, and she and I are in agreement about the NEWS: American Jews have a responsibility to recognize our historic new position, a role of power and wealth; and it is absurd to claim that we are persecuted outsiders. But Eisner can speak for herself. Excerpts:
What I can contribute I hope are a few words not of text but of context. [As journalists] we tell stories, and we try to tell you what they mean. The story happening here and around America is one of a Jewish community at a historic turning point. We face challenges that we might not even have imagined a generation or two ago, challenges brought by our prosperity, our transition from a victimized minority to a group with extraordinary wealth, social status and political power.
Alongside the challenges that come with power– that is, first and foremost to use it well– we have an unprecedented opportunity to take our religious values and our faith commimtnet into the public square…
There’s an old saying that good journalism is all about Comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. We Jews are for the most part the comfortable in 21st century America, and we need to recognize that, to absorb that, to allow it to shape our public behavior, our religious expression, and our pro Israel advocacy….
[Eisner says that one challenge is for liberal Jews to accept that conservative Jews will be active politically]
An even greater challenge is to incorporate a realistic appraisal of who we are in this society into our public role. It seems to me that most of the establishment Jewish organizations operate under the assumptions of the last century, that Jews are vulnerable and this close to another disaster [thumb and forefinger an inch apart] and that the best people to lead those organizations are white men of a certain age and experience.
I understand where that comes from. Our history is littered with examples of Jews attaining great wealth and status, think of Spain in the 14th century or Germany a century ago, only to have that privilege crumble under the oppressive weight of an inquisition or a holocaust. I understand the fear that good moments will evaporate in an instant. Hey im a Jewish mother. Guilt and anxiety are my constant companions.
But those episodes in history didn’t happen in America, which I believe has a far more tolerant DNA and, despite our sometimes ugly past, has a far better chance of guaranteeing the rights of minorities than any other place on earth. Never mind the fact that Americans love us here. They really do. Robert Putnam in his recent seminal work American Grace: How Religion Unites Us and Divides Us, asserts that we Jews are the most popular religious group in America, and he offers the data to back it up. This very fact I know does create a kind of cognitive dissonance with some Jews. I actually spoke to Putnam about this and he told me that when he lectured at his own Reform synagogue just outside Boston, and I am quoting him, People said, “you’re wrong, they do hate us” and he replied to them, “Best as I can tell they don’t.”
They don’t. So as you chart the future of pro Israel advocacy, I urge you to do that in the context of this new reality. We are a vulnerable people in many places in the world. The tragic events last week in Toulouse are just only the latest reminder. But right now here in America, we are in a fundamentally different place, and we are a fundamentally different people. We should never forget that power is always a privilege, that it can corrupt those who wield it, and that it comes with its own sense of demands and responsibilities.
As we become more asserted in the public square we should also be mindful to support and maintain the constitutional separation of religion and state that I believe has enabled us to function as such a free minority and ethnic group here in this country.
One addendum: Will Jane Eisner apply her highest American ideals — protection of the minority, separation of church and state — to Israel and Palestine?