As we read recently, David Myers, appointed to head the prestigious center for Jewish history, barely managed to dodge a bullet, after suspicions were raised that he may be insufficiently versed in the dominant Zionist discourse. His crime? Mentioning the forbidden word Nakba (without sneering!) and failing to demonize supporters of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS).
This fortunate turn of events came right on the heels of the news that Daniel Biss, a progressive candidate for Illinois governor, had to let go of his selected running mate, Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, after one Brad Schneider, a congressman, withdrew his support. Ramirez-Rosa’s crime? Too progressive when it comes to BDS. Just like that, a congressman throws a little fit and a few days later Biss caves in, so he could remain viable as candidate. And that in a mere primary, in one state, Biss being one of several candidates, all of whom must apparently be certified kosher when it comes to Israel. In the space of a few days, even fairly mild support for BDS was red-lined, and hardly a soul in the so-called progressive left stirred.
So, win one, lose one – no big deal, right? Except that it is a big deal as the rebukes, denunciations and all too often, outright character assassination campaigns inside the Jewish community tend to score more wins than losses, with many cases failing to receive even the minimal public exposure these two events did.
Inspired by the recurrence of such events and the comments casting doubt on just how many American Jews “Organized Jewry” represents, I couldn’t stop thinking of the perils of organizing a little too well for one’s own good. Especially if the much too capable “organizers”, the ones who likely manage the strings that hold organizations together (be they empowered by elections, traction or acclamation), also deign to send forth representatives purporting to speak on behalf of the great multitude of Jewish Americans, most of whom are neither cognizant of, nor particularly enamored with said representation. The most mutinous among said multitudes may, for example, prefer to be alternatively organized (cf. Jewish Voice for Peace, IfnotNow, etc.) or have no desire to be organized into anything with “Jewish” in its title.
Now, I don’t much care to venture into some fruitless debate about what “organized” means or what “Jewry” implies (though if you must know some of my deeper thoughts on the subject, an addendum, actually, a bit of a satire, is sure to come). Suffice it to say that organized collectives of all sorts are common enough in the American landscape. Americans seem to be quite fond of organizing for just about anything, and the country is kind of diverse – and huge – meaning there are at least as many organizations as there are people, and then some. Naturally, with such a myriad of organizations, there will be quite a variety, not just in size or purpose, but especially in the degree to which they take it upon themselves to act as official or semi-official mouthpiece of an “interest group”. The “interest” may be quite focused (say, the “Cajun Navy”, of recent Hurricane Harvey fame, who were, in fact, amazingly well organized), or the interest may be entirely nebulous, and sometimes even self-conflicting to such an extent as to make one wonder whoever thought they could ever fit under a single umbrella (certain “Interfaith” organizations are a personal favorite!). So we might say that this special entity, the “Organized Jewry” of popular folklore, revolving as it does around a “Jewish” theme, is but an avatar, a euphemism, call it what you will, but in principle no different than any other loosely-branded group which professes to represent them who consent, as well as those who never knew they were supposed to belong to, much less consent to anything “organized”.
Yet, commonalities with other “organized” entities aside, there is actually something quite unique to this “Organized Jewry” collective, something beside the concern for that “Jewish” je ne sais quoi, and/or the power that comes with being “organized”. This uniqueness has to do with the fact that for all intents and purposes (which are not likely to be spelled out in a formal charter), this remarkable entity is itself captured by an interest greater still, one that claims to trump any other representation of anything “Jewish” themed in name or intent. Specifically, there happens to be a rather small Middle-Eastern country known as Israel, that for whatever reasons (which may ebb and flow with the seasons) also claims to represent all Jews everywhere (not even limited to American ones), organized or otherwise.
To add insult to injury, this sliver of a land stretched along the gorgeous eastern shores of the great Mediterranean sea, further insists upon absolute recognition of itself as The gathering place for The Jews, mostly by virtue of their say so. That includes the ones barely, hardly or somewhat organized, even as most have absolutely no intention of gathering anywhere but where they are already, doing quite well, thank you. It also includes, by implication, even the insufficiently-Jewish, the so-so Jewish (usually just before Passover), and even those Jewish-when-convenient types (say, if one wanted to publish a chick-lit novel, the sudden discovery of a long-forgotten Jewish heritage in both heroine and author could come in handy). Sure, the land allotted for the Great Gathering may be a bit on the smallish side, but it can always be made greater – by hook or by crook – if only enough Jews were to come.
Unfortunately for our “Organized Jewry”, living as it does in diaspora (i.e., those places contained in 99.999% of the planet’s land mass), it and all its members, movers-and-shakers included, are counted among the ones-who-failed-to-gather. As such, they are condemned to servitude as spiritual vassals of the gathered ones, with specified measures of guilt over not-gathering employed as the coin of bondage. Never mind that said self-designated Homeland for all Jews, tiny though it may be, is supposed to be a mere outpost of the mighty American Empire, in whose power structure the Jewish citizenry – both organized and otherwise – is embedded quite nicely, and more often than not, quite profitably too.
A true conundrum, isn’t it, to be a subservient vassal and a power broker at the same time?
Mercifully, a way was found to expiate the guilt over a homeland thus spurned for these exilic, diasporic, Jews, with some extra guilt-bonus thrown in for the many semi-apostates among them, being as the reformist and conservative liturgies followed by most American Jews are not actually recognized as legit Jewish per the homeland’s learned religious authorities. Heck, some might even be considered outright heretics (Unitarians? Palestinian sympathizers? Prophetics?). The recommended recipe for absolving the guilt (partially, at least) over the original sin of not-gathering (of which none can ever be completely freed), is to diligently engage in copious fund raising for the gathered ones, accompanied by further acts of contrition.
So here we have the most interesting case of an “Organized Jewry,” which, in-lieu of gathering over there, gets to gather funds over here, and send the lion’s share over there, preferably free of expectations of accounting for the details of just how the monies are distributed. They are spent, that’s what counts!
One reputable account, no less than The Forward, detailed the over $26 billion that was raised in a single year by Jewish charities, with the lion’s share of it going to Israel-focused concerns. Based on the 3,600 Jewish organizations that filed with the IRS (including 619 that are specifically Israel-focused) this study admittedly did not even account for funds provided separately through independent and/or individual donors (or their foundations), be they endowments provided to institutes of learning, grants to think tanks, sponsorships of media platforms and gifts to a host of worthy causes (save-the-bears? save-the-earth? cure everything?).
Taken together, there is staggering amount of funding provided by both “Organized” and “Unorganized” Jewry to just about every single enterprise or cause that can wield any influence anywhere, whether the influence is exercised or not. And all too often, the power of giving has been tilted – both overtly and covertly – to give Israel substantial protection from narratives deemed “a bit” too critical. (Like BDS in the cases of David Myers and Carlos Ramirez-Rosa). No small amount of the giving funds time-tested PR exercises, the cleverest being the continuous re-branding of what is essentially a colonial up-start enterprise into an enterprising “start-up”.
Indeed, the beauty of a system based on citizen generosity is that it can be weaponized, invisibly so. Private funding can be turned on and off at will, the better to reward recipients for good behavior or punish the errant by the mere threat of turning off the tap.
Naturally, this all fits quite nicely in an American landscape where private donations are the grease that helps almost everything move – or not. For example, at least one recently published study, provided considerable support to the idea that economic elites and business interests have substantial impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence (check out the link and try not to cry!). If anything we, the average citizens of an ostensibly democratic country, have been over-estimating our influence on elected institutions big time. No wonder the Republic that is supposed to also be a democracy but isn’t, seems kind of dysfunctional these days (as anything would be if it is mostly of, for and by the 1 percent).
Obviously, there is no reason to suppose that wealthy Jewish individuals and organizations are excluded from the oversized impact of wealth. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s words, issued to a reporter on a recent visit to Israel, resonate most poignantly:
If you look at Jewish history, never has the Jewish community been more influential, more powerful, in the history of the Jewish community in America … And I believe as a Jewish American — I’m an elected official — we are of more influence economically, politically, culturally, than in any other place in the world in world history.
Now, were it only a matter of somewhat disproportionate wealth possessed – and donated – by a particular group that can vaguely be described as “Jewish”, eyebrows might be raised. Though no more than they would be with any other group that uses the combined largess of its members to grease the squeaky wheels of power. Eyebrows might be raised a bit higher when it is pointed out that only a fraction of the collected funds is actually ear-marked to promote specific Jewish-in-America causes.
But the sorry matter of stiffing the local Jewish un-gathered yokels here, in favor of the gathered cool ones out there, is not even the wiggliest fly in the ointment. That honor belongs to the Burdensome Set of Expectations to which this one group, this “Organized Jewry’ in all its presumed prowess, is subjected to. See, not only must it toil to raise inordinate sums every month and every year. Not only is it expected to allot the majority of funds so arduously gathered to causes that benefit the gathered-in-Israel, rather than fund its own self interests like any other respectable interest group (think Big-Anything-needs-more- profit!). No, on top of all that, they must further atone for the sin of not-gathering through strenuous rituals of contrition, some of which may ill serve their very own long term self interests. Said rituals may take the form of tireless lobbying within the halls of power, the corridors of academia and the playgrounds of political power brokers, not just in DC, but in just about every city and every state that matters. This, as we may surmise, involves lots of dining on too-rich foods, much walking about, some very loud whispering (not easy to do!), and plenty of eye-straining reading of laborious policy papers.
All while holding a very large, very heavy umbrella designed to give shade to this one somewhat-ornery land of the gathering.
The outcome of all this toil and trouble is that the mighty US Empire remains hog-tied to its unruly vassal, no matter what the latter does, which means ANYTHING it does, limited neither by rules of international law, nor by acceptable measures of common decency, not even by vague prescriptions of some vaunted Jewish Values (say the ones still varnished with smidgens of “universal” flavoring and/or exotic “humanitarian” spices).
And a tough job it is too.
For when Israel is proven to be an apartheid state for all intents and purposes, our “Organized Jewry” is supposed to be behind it. Define “apartheid”! If Israel were to openly practice ethnic cleansing (as opposed to the creeping kind done now), our “Organized Jewry” would airbrush the worst excesses (just witness the collective silence that greeted the execrable manifesto of ethnic cleansing, advocated by Bezalel Smotrich, a member of Israel’s ruling coalition, which was already endorsed by at least one major Jewish philanthropic enterprise, with nary a reservation). And if Israel were to bomb every structure in Gaza to smithereens, killing not 1000’s but 100’s of 1000’s, most of the “Organized Jewry” would probably rush hither and thither to deflect international criticisms, and some would dig deep to find legalistic and humanistic rationales to “justify” the unjustifiable (OK, some would insert a little sad face on a Facebook to show some “heart”). Indeed, as we saw three years ago when Israel went on its latest rampage in Gaza, “Organized Jewry” hardly blinked. Some even praised the humanity of Israelis as they lamented the “excesses” to which their most moral armed forces were driven by an unreasonably resistant “enemy”.
One suspects that if and when Israel eventually goes entirely theocratic (which it will do, as sure as night follows day), dropping its last pretenses of religious tolerance, perhaps even banishing those pesky Reform and Conservative congregations altogether, “Organized Jewry”, including the many members who track with those denominations, would likely turn the other cheek.
In sum, as much as some hope for the great schism among the ranks of America’s Jewry, in the foreseeable future the more powerful “organized” ones will likely continue to cover (save for a few gentle slaps on the wrist) for an Israel gone mad with messianic zeal, no matter the repercussions to conscience or prestige, nor the estrangement from an increasing number of their young.
And even that is still not all that is expected of this one already over-burdened group!
As yet another ceremonial feature of the guilt-expiating rites (which some might consider to be more of a side-benefit), our “Organized” un-gathered also get to issue well-crafted panoplies of denunciations, dire rebukes, and poison-tipped defamations– You antisemite! — meant to chastise, censure and hound those errant souls who strayed from the permissible parameters of discourse, as sanctioned by the citadel of Zion. The ritual chastisements include prohibitions on say, exposition of heretical concepts such as the Jewish heritage of certain neocons (see the most recent outing and admonishments of Valerie Plame for the crime of re-tweeting a piece by Phil Giraldi, a notorious neocon-basher and a suspected “anti-semite”). Or, for another example, the prohibition on daring to advocate “universal” human rights, perhaps even suggesting that elusive “Justice” measures (long believed to be contained in that mythical concept Tikkun Olam, in Hebrew repairing the world), be stretched enough to include even those meddlesome Palestinians.
As for the forbidden words, “apartheid” and “BDS”, that’s where the sky will really fall down (not recommended for those not fond of Spectacles). These and similar pronouncements by the unwary must, by definition, result in swift condemnations, solemnly delivered through the upstanding media outlets of record.
Should the perplexed need further guidance for their endeavors, they should read the sermon recently delivered by no less than Israel’s minister of justice (yes, they have such an office), which included the immortal words:
“Zionism should not – and I’m saying here that it will not – continue to bow its head to a system of individual rights interpreted in a universal manner”.
And what if Ayelet Shaked actually believes, to quote Gideon Levy, that “Israel is built on foundations of injustice and therefore must be defended from the hostile talk of justice”?
It doesn’t matter. Not Smotrich’s repugnant treatise of ethnic cleansing, nor Shaked’s misbegotten words about Zionism and individual rights have caused even a hint of a crisis in Israel-Diaspora relations. If there was a collective groan, I, with my ear pressed to the ground, haven’t heard the faintest echo.
Thus must the great but un-gatherable “Organized Jewry” of lore contort to defend the indefensible and excuse the inexcusable, even as they wrestle with both reason and sense. Thus must this collective bend over backwards en masse, more limber than the best Chinese acrobats, to fashion ever more creative ruses for an increasingly erratic entity in which they have, in fact, no agency, and on whose agenda they have little, if any, influence.
And as recompense for all they do (and a great deal that is, too), their slightly sadistic all-gathered captor continues to revel in fifty shades of white and blue with nary a little grey in between.
Now, one might be tempted to call this arrangement between the Homeland of the in-Jews and the exilic, but organized out-Jews, a Faustian deal. Except it is actually breathtakingly anti-Faustian in both spirit and scope. Israel calls the shots and gets the dough for its trouble (of having to call the shots. That’s work!). The un-gathered exile-loving Jews get to seek solace in the intricacies of organization, the joys of perpetual collection, disbursement of tributes, and the effort expanded in maintaining supine unquestioning allegiance to a rather ungrateful middle-eastern control junkie that is forever flexing its muscles for more of the same (good exercise!).
At the same time they, the hard-working super-organized ones, get to toil ceaselessly, navigating the tributaries of power and corridors of academia, forever greasing this hand, slapping the other, defaming this, derailing that, urging the other (say, more humanitarian bombing!). Their only seeming reward is to revel in the privilege of issuing well-crafted fatwas against some unruly deviant bandits within and without.
If I didn’t know any better I might be tempted to say that this organized entity, powerful and well-heeled as it seems to be, is actually trapped in the throes of a serious case of Stockholm Syndrome.
How else to explain the meek acceptance of captivity, being locked in a golden cage, festooned with the trappings of wealth and power, yet doomed to spiritual subservience, their efforts taken for granted, their religious rites spurned, their political over-reach held in barely-concealed contempt, and their ranks dwindling as more and more of their young choose the less organized roads to travel, openly pitching for universal this and justice that? One shudders, thinking of this poor little rich captive, shrink-wrapped in layers of cognitive dissonance, as they look forward to a future that promises, basically, more of the same. How they must suffer, our acrobatic lobbyists, our fatwa dispensers, as they contend with but a few scraps of praise, reeling from punishments visited upon their instruments of organization, acuity of judgment, and their mis-interpretations of “Jewish” and/or “Values”. The latter have obviously become too Americanized to conform with the dictates of the Homeland’s enlightened Education minister, one Naftali Bennett, who lately issued these ringing words of wisdom:
“We are Jews! It’s not enough to be the Start Up Nation, we must also be the Bible Nation!”
Which brings us – finally – to the reddest of red-lines – BDS.
A politician, an academic, a journalist who is caught having uttered a word of sympathy with this BDS business as either a tactic or a strategy or just as an abstract movement, and/or failed to add suitable words of instant condemnation when the subject arose– well, just ask Biss what that means, even if the association is removed by three degrees of separation. I expect that in the ultimate battle to be waged for ‘icing’ BDS, no turn of convoluted logic will be spared, no torture of truth dodged, no bounds respected in the enactment of this most important of flogging rituals: the demonization of BDS and all its proponents, no matter how weak or circuitous their position. And no, even someone like Norman Finkelstein who is willing to extend BDS “only” to settlements, so as not to upset the apple cart of the “international consensus” two-state “solution”, is not off the hook either. Indeed, his position, while it might have gotten him a couple of apples, hardly bought him the slightest reprieve (Did I miss something? Has he been invited to come back in from the cold yet?).
There are many good reasons that we, who are neither well-gathered nor properly organized, should not delude ourselves that the battle over anti-BDS legislation is over before it has even begun. It took hardly any effort to get 40 senators to sponsor something that is not only unconstitutional, but fraught with dangers to all other forms of free speech. Yes there have been some brave dissents, but imagine what a little more pressure and some finessing of the language of the bill will do to bring a few more on-board.
Seeing what Israel is devolving into, the increasing arrogance and over-confidence of a rogue state that has effectively bent an entire Empire to do its bidding, there is every reason to believe this self-appointed Homeland of the Jews (which has more than enough of the mad among their already-gathered) will continue to pull all the levers of power they can, no matter the consequences.
And there will be consequences. Because at its core, the anti-BDS fight is, in fact turning into a fight against the First Amendment, enshrined in a constitution most American Jews consider sacrosanct. Indeed, the ACLU and its coterie of capable constitutional lawyers, many of them quite Jewish (albeit differently organized), are licking their chops, looking forward to a mother-lode of all battles. Just the other day, we heard that the small town of Dickinson, Texas, has put its residents and businesses on notice that in order to partake of the help offered in the wake of Hurricane Harvey they, the recipients, who know nothing of Israel, and whose community includes not very many Jewish residents, must foreswear any “boycott” of Israel for the term of the assistance.
In other words, if you want to rebuild Dickinson, Texas, you must first acquit the great land of Israel of any and all blame for misdeeds. Never mind what those might be. If that doesn’t sound kind of “Stalinist” in scope’ and/or Orwellian in intent, I don’t know what does.
This is just the beginning of what’s coming down the pike. This and more. This and worse. Much worse. So I ask: Is this a battle “Organized Jewry” wants to fight? The Bill of Rights vs the State of the soon-to-be-mad gatherers? The right of free speech vs the self-imposed obligation to engage in rituals that make the likes of Shaked and Bennett and Netanyahu the final arbiters of “Jewish Values”?
What about all that Tikkun Olam business, anyway? Should they, our notable if somewhat elusive “Organized Jewry” ever find a spare a moment in the midst of their Herculean labors, they, or at least some of them, might start to wonder what happens when more people across the land (this one), begin to ask, What’s the matter with all this “Organized Jewry” anyways? The question may beget more troublesome questions still. Like, is there such a thing as being too organized? And what does this “Jewry” thing consist of exactly? Or, what other pledges will people in need of help have to sign to get it?
So, I wonder, given the stakes, will enough of “them”, the “organized” ones, find the wherewithal to finally pull their punches? Will they have the cojones to present at last a modicum of resistance to their captor (that overbearing little “homeland” that actually cares little about those who failed-to-gather). One would hope that there are enough among the “Organized Jewry”, who are astute enough to realize that an ill-conceived anti-BDS bill, once out in the open and garnering sufficient support, could potentially blow wide open the tenuous establishment consensus on Israel they have worked so long and hard to maintain.
And once the proscriptions on citizens of states and locales that already instituted anti-BDS prohibitions become more widely known, these may well precipitate an open and bitter rebellion by members of the progressive community, Jewish and not, who already have serious reservations about the unquestioning tributes and cover given to Israel all these years. One could also hope that even Israel’s staunchest defenders, the ones who stopped at nothing before, including giving offense to the office of the presidency itself, will at last balk at the prospect of embarking on a slope so slippery as to constitute a serious hazard, and not just a moral one. I would like to think that many have already balked at stepping over this one red line, which explains why most Democrats have not jumped on the bandwagon – yet.
Still, there are reasons to worry. Things are not well with the country, and the Empire has entered a steeper decline phase (we already have our Nero!). Declining Empires do strange things, counter-productive ones that merely accelerate the decline (yes, I’ve been reading about Rome lately). Israel’s fortunes are entirely tied in with the fortunes of the Empire, what with the US possibly being the only country willing to give it across-the-board cover. At least for now, Israel still has enough strategic minds that know things will be coming to a head not so long from now, just as some of us do. But as the trends inside Israeli leadership bend sharply towards the religious, collecting ever more zealots along the way, rising to positions of power, the sensible minds are getting chipped away; and in time, we can expect Israel to up the ante.
Strangely, I happen to believe that we could, eventually, find many more allies among that “Organized Jewry”. I sure hope there are more than a few already hardy enough to peer into the darkness ahead, even from their secure establishment perch. Perhaps some will notice that there are flickers of light out there, just beyond the tunnel. Heck, maybe they’ll even notice we have already entered the tunnel.
I take comfort from the fact that there are documented cases of people getting over a Stockholm Syndrome. Maybe collectives can be liberated too, Inshallah.
H/t to Annie Robbins for inspiration