Opinion |

America’s Jewish Leftists Are Heading for Self-righteous Irrelevance, Just Like Israel’s

The Israeli left shrunk to a tiny marginalized shadow when, shunning all others, it went down an ideologically pure rabbit-hole. When U.S. Jewish progressives urge AOC to shun Rabin, they’re following the same forlorn path

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is seen at a political event in The Bronx, New York City, September 19, 2020.
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is seen at a political event in The Bronx, New York City, September 19, 2020.Credit: Andrew Kelly/Reuters
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Politicians are nearly always pragmatic creatures. When Yitzhak Rabin decided to recognize the Palestinian national movement and sign the Oslo Accords with its leaders, it wasn’t a sudden rebirth of the old general as a peacenik. He had made a clearheaded assessment that Israel was secure and strong enough to relinquish control over most of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

That pragmatism doesn’t make him and the fact that he was murdered in his quest to secure peace for Israel less worthy of commemoration. There’s no need to mythologize Rabin to appreciate the historical importance of what he did.

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Likewise, when Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez decided to cancel her appearance at a memorial for Rabin organized by Americans for Peace Now, it wasn’t because she or her staff suddenly recognized a different version of Rabin’s legacy, one presented to them by left-wing Jewish activists on behalf of the Palestinian people.

Ocasio-Cortez, too, is a pragmatic politician who has built both a constituency and a national platform on social media. She doesn’t want anything disrupting that, and since her forte is in domestic policy, why anger some of her cohort by attending an event that isn’t a core part of her agenda, anyway?

AOC snubbing APN isn’t an important story. It’s just another example of politics in the Twitter bubble. The real political story in the United States is happening elsewhere right now, and the Democratic Party has wisely chosen two candidates with appeal far beyond Twitter as its champions. But the AOC-Rabin story is still a very telling episode about where the Jewish progressive left is heading.

Jewish Voice for Peace members at the Presbyterian Church's General Assembly when the church voted to divest from companies complicit in the occupation in 2012.
Jewish Voice for Peace members at the Presbyterian Church's General Assembly when the church voted to divest from companies complicit in the occupation in 2012.Credit: Jewish Voice for Peace

The Jewish left in the Diaspora, especially in the United States and the United Kingdom, is repeating the same mistake of the Israeli left (which sets an unusual precedent, since usually the left wing in the Diaspora is the one ahead of the curve). That mistake is to focus their activism more and more on one issue, making it their litmus test for ideological purity.

This is a bad mistake for a number of reasons.

First of all, single-issue movements are rarely a good idea. They run a big risk of making themselves irrelevant if the issue, no matter how important or justified they may think it, is of little interest to others.

I’m not arguing for a moment that ending Israel’s control over the lives of millions of Palestinians isn’t a critical mission. But like it or not, it isn’t high on anyone’s agenda right now, and is unlikely to be for the foreseeable future. That doesn’t mean forsaking the issue. It does mean being smart and strategic about how to continue pursuing it.

Thinking strategically means finding allies within the community you’re hoping to influence. So what allies have those who fought against the Rabin event gained? They’ve lost the possible alliance with “liberal Zionist” groups like APN and they certainly haven’t won over AOC – after this, she’ll run a mile away from any event concerning Israel-Palestine, and quite rightly, from her perspective. Why risk alienating potential supporters on either side?

Being smart is thinking seriously about the issue, not just clinging to slogans. There are much deeper reasons why the majority of Jews in Israel and the Diaspora may be supportive of the Palestinian issue in principle, but they don’t have the headspace for it right now. It isn’t on the agenda because other things are.

Even if you’re convinced that you have the ultimate solution to a century-old problem 6,000 miles away from you, other Jews living right near you have more burning problems right now.

Do progressive Jews have positions on other issues pertaining to Jewish life other than Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians? Do they have a vision of Jewish identity and a viable communal and cultural life in the Diaspora in the post-COVID 21st century? Are they trying to build these communities on a base broader than just pro-Palestinian activism?

There are certainly Jewish progressive voices articulating serious thoughts on a wide range of issues, but the political-activist muscle doesn’t seem to be there yet.

The Israeli left has shrunk to a tiny marginalized shadow of its former self because it limited itself to the one issue of occupation, forsaking its previous campaigning on matters of social justice and separation of state and religion.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Education Minister Shulamit Aloni share a laugh during the signing of a teacher's union contract at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, May 11, 1993.
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Education Minister Shulamit Aloni share a laugh during the signing of a teacher's union contract at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, May 11, 1993.Credit: AP

It wasn’t always like this. Rabin’s second government didn’t only include the Labor party, then under his leadership. It also embraced Meretz, then a new party formed out of three: Ratz, which championed civil rights for all, including Palestinians; socialist Zionist Mapam; and Shinui, which focused on the fight against religious coercion.

Meretz’s first leader, Shulamit Aloni, was also the last leader of the Israeli left who could be regarded as a serious standard-bearer for all these causes. She also understood that for the left to have any real influence, it had to compromise and sit in coalitions with centrist parties like Labor. Meretz won an unprecedented 12 Knesset seats in its debut election in 1992. Though their role is often overlooked, Rabin wouldn’t have come to power or made his historic decision to engage with the PLO without Meretz in his government.

The Israeli left was relevant then. It isn’t now.

That’s mainly because from the mid-1990s onward, the left channeled nearly all its energies into one issue. Then, when Israelis’ hopes for a historic compromise with the Palestinians was derailed by the second intifada, the left failed to come up with compelling reasons why Israel should continue to seek peace with the Palestinians – but it had no policies on the other issues.

Just when Israel needed it to confront some of the worst tendencies of the right of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – the cronyism, the hypercapitalism, the slow erosion of democracy and civil rights and the surrender to religious special interest groups – the left chose to go down a rabbit hole.

A demonstrator holds a sign during a protest against Israel's planned annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank, and over unemployment and economic issues, in Tel Aviv, June 23, 2020.
A demonstrator holds a sign during a protest against Israel's planned annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank, and over unemployment and economic issues, in Tel Aviv, June 23, 2020. Credit: AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS

The same seems to be true now of the Jewish progressive left. In these uncertain times, when the entire structure of the Jewish establishment in the Diaspora is being shaken by a pandemic and financial insecurity which is endangering its institutions, it has a wonderful opportunity to assert itself with a message of solidarity and to push its values of open and tolerant Judaism within the community. Instead, it’s wasting its times on internal squabbling and ideological purity tests.

Jewish fundamentalism, one of the root causes of the intractability of the Israel-Palestine conflict, is also a cause of the shabby treatment of converts and Jews of color. It is the reason some ultra-Orthodox communities are flouting coronavirus distancing rules, and the theology under which nearly half of all Jews born in the United States today will be brought up in institutions which won’t teach them basic skills for modern life or work.

All these solidly anti-progressive issues need to be confronted. But for too many Jewish progressives, it’s much easier to wage wars against liberals on Twitter. And rather than persuade and accrue the trust of allies they need to have any influence on Israel-Palestine, they’re marginalizing themselves into an obscure corner where no one but their own small, hermetic echo chamber cares what they have to say, and justifiably so.

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