The Jewish Left's Tragic Problem With Solidarity for Jews

Jews on the right don't get racism. Jews on the left don't get solidarity

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Surrounded by family, David Neumann wipes his eyes as he speaks to reporters on Jan. 2, 2020, about his father, Josef Neumann, critically injured and still unconscious in an attack on a Hanukkah celebration
Surrounded by family, David Neumann wipes his eyes as he speaks to reporters on Jan. 2, 2020, about his father, Josef Neumann, critically injured and still unconscious in the Monsey attackCredit: Seth Wenig,AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Wherever there's a large and flourishing Jewish community, it's never one community. It's hundreds of them. The freedom to live as Jews and citizens with equal rights means a natural Jewish diversity is free to thrive. With no existential threat, there's no need to huddle together for protection.

So the term "the Jewish community," when used for any country where many thousands of Jews live safely and spread out geographically, is always an illusion. There are many Jewish communities. Those organized around synagogues: Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, non-denominational. Communities where Jews gather around schools or cultural centers, or youth groups, or secular Jewish culture.

Observant communities who require a more elaborate infrastructure: a supply of kosher food, Jewish schools and ritual facilities. Highly identified Jews, not necessarily religious, who need reassurance in numbers to fill communal roles, and for their children to socialize with and ultimately marry. Those with storied histories and legacy buildings, and fluid, ad hoc communities of Jews with shared interests.

The advantage of a Jewish population that feels secure and is economically self-sufficient is this free choice between different kinds of communities. Most of the time, they don’t even need each other. Some of the time, they don't even want each other.

Outsiders - Israelis, non-Jews, even those Jews unfamiliar with communities other than the one they grew up in, often find it difficult to grasp these differences, and the complex relationships they have with the world around them.

When I lived in the UK for the second time, as an adult, I found the cosmopolitan British Jews in London had very little in common with the small insular Orthodox community in Manchester I had known 30 years ago. It felt, and it still feels, that secular and religious Israelis, despite all their differences, have a lot more in common with each other, than Jews from two such separate communities in Britain.

"Britain doesn’t have a Jewish community. It has a hundred Jewish communities," says Laura Janner-Klausner, UK Reform Judaism's senior rabbi, and that strikes me as a brave thing for her to say, though she probably wouldn’t agree.

Leaders of minority groups rarely admit publicly that they represent only a small section of that group. There’s security in numbers, and prestige. If you're willing to correct outsiders who inflate your following, you need a sense of security and self-confidence. Janner-Klausner wisely acknowledges hers is only one among many Jewish communities, reflecting a belief that British Jews should feel secure enough to be whatever kind of Jew they choose.

The last four years in British politics shook this sense of security and self-confidence to the core. For the overwhelming majority of British Jews, Jeremy Corbyn and his eager outriders, represented an ideology that dismissed or excused constant manifestations of anti-Semitism.

Members of the Jewish community hold a protest against Britain's opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn and anti-semitism in the Labour party, March 26, 2018Credit: TOLGA AKMEN/AFP

The hundreds of communities suddenly found themselves facing a common threat and pushed to participate in a common cause. Moribund "leadership" organizations that had hitherto barely represented themselves suddenly took on new life.

Jews from every community and from none, found themselves together protesting in city squares, in political fora, or expressing themselves online. For the first time in Jewish history, rabbis of all streams and both genders, some of whom would not even recognize others as rabbis, signed joint letters calling out hate and giving voice to their fears.

With the exception of a tiny minority of mostly unaffiliated British Jews who supported Corbyn (perhaps they could be considered to constitute one isolated Jewish community of their own), there was a sense of unity that no one had expected they would ever see – or need.

So much has already been written about the nature of the threat that Corbynism represented - and indeed, if it was, at all. But since Corbyn’s Labour was comprehensively trounced in last month’s general election and he is now stepping down, irretrievably discredited, that argument is now largely academic.

But what British Jews went through over the last few years will continue to make waves at home and abroad.

That unity of diverse communities doesn’t come without question marks. "Can that unity be expressed also on positive matters?" asks Raymond Simonson, CEO of JW3, the successful Jewish cultural center in northern London, which is one of the few places where Jews of the different communities regularly meet and mingle.

"Can British Jews keep this sense of unity going forward..[where] we are deeply divided like our attitudes toward Israel or LGBTQ rights?" he asks. Simonson hasn’t got any clear answers. No one has.

One of his more immediate plans is to increase JW3's engagement with non-Jewish communities, so that those ties won’t be based solely on combatting anti-Semitism and where each community stood on Corbyn. But there are still many British Jews who are using Corbyn as their yardstick for assessing potential "allies."

That's understandable, but it's probably not a great plan for moving forwards and for navigating what will continue to be a  bitter political environment. From speaking to many British Jews over the last few months, I think there is room for optimism: there's a wider awareness of the need to engage. Some good will come from the period of Jewish unity that Corbynism precipitated.

More good could come from Jews on both sides of the Atlantic finding useful lessons in the dilemmas UK Jews faced, some of which aren't so different from those facing U.S. Jews.

For many British Jews, these elections were a replay of the judgment of Solomon. The overwhelming need was to defeat Corbyn, but former Labour voters, and pro-European Conservatives, found Boris Johnson’s increasingly nativist positions, his history of xenophobic statements and Brexit-mad Tories unpalatable, and voting for the Liberal-Democrats ineffectual.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Britain's Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn during the State Opening of Parliament at the Houses of Parliament in London on December 19, 2019Credit: AFP

The overwhelming majority of British Jews sensed that Corbyn and his followers were hostile to their communities. The Corbynists had given them ample evidence in their toxic attitude at every level of political participation, from the local branch meetings to Parliamentary events to the national media. That didn’t mean all British Jews endorsed Boris Johnson as their savior. They didn’t.

They were faced with stark and broad questions: Where did their core loyalty lie? With their terrified (and unprecedentedly unified) Jewish community, or with the many other communities and the millions who stand to suffer from a Conservative government? What if it isn’t possible to act out of solidarity with both?

In wake of this week’s machete attack on ultra-Orthodox Jews in Monsey, American Jews need to be asking themselves that question as well. Monsey, and the media attention it has received, has finally forced some Jewish communities in America to acknowledge the fact that not all violent attacks on other U.S. Jews are being carried out by white supremacists. And maybe until Monsey it was easy to ignore these attacks, because it wasn’t against their Jewish community, but against a very different and far more visible one: the ultra-Orthodox.

How do you express solidarity with other Jews whose lives are different to yours in every possible way, and with whom you agree on practically nothing? One option is low-cost, feel-good but emptily performative: Joining a Chabad Hanukkah lighting in Park Slope, or tweeting "mir veln zey iberlebn ["We will outlive them," a rallying cry minted in 1939 Lublin as Hassidic Jews faced off against Nazi soldiers]. All very nice, but it won’t help Haredi Jews who are being attacked, viciously, every day.

Solidarity, a word the progressive left loves very much, can be an ambiguous concept. Does solidarity with one oppressed side mean everyone on the other side are automatically oppressors? If others don't instinctively identify with the "oppressed," as defined by the left, are they immoral? What if there are multiple "oppressors" and "oppressed," and no easy formula to differentiate them?

Solidarity, as understood by some on the left, can lead to interesting positions when it comes to Jews, for precisely these reasons.

Back in the 1960s, rabbis and other U.S. Jews, marched for civil rights, together with African-Americans struggling against racial discrimination. It was clear they were motivated by solidarity between two historically oppressed communities.

Fifty years later, young progressive Jews in America, whose families in the meantime had largely migrated to the middle classes, seem to feel that solidarity on the basis of common oppression is no longer sustainable. Their membership of the most persecuted minority group in history no longer counts for much the moment they "pass as white." They have become part of the "oppressor" class, and must show solidarity with other minorities to expiate their white Jewish privilege.

That's why some progressive Jews have been getting themselves in to conniptions when faced with the bare facts that at least some of the dramatic rise in anti-Semitic violence in the U.S. is emerging not from white supremacists, but at the hand of perpetrators from the fringes of the African-American community.

In this process, Jewish solidarity has become a finite resource. It can be given unstintingly to particular minorities, but much more begrudgingly to others, who "deserve" it less.

Solidarity with ultra-Orthodox Jews, with Jewish communities in Britain and other parts of Europe, with Israelis, is now far from being automatic and when it is given, it must come with a contextualizing asterisk. Solidarity with other Jews needs a *caveat for gentrification in Brooklyn, Monsey and Jersey City, or for *how awful the Tories are, or for *how Trump is worse, or *for Palestinian rights. And all of these wider contexts should also be addressed, but do progressive Jews ever put in a caveat when they extend solidarity to non-Jewish groups?

Was a caveat necessary when those murdering Jews were white supremacists? Of course it wasn’t. So why is it necessary when the perpetrators are less ideologically convenient?

Corbyn supporters counter-protest a rally organised by the British Board of Jewish Deputies to oppose anti-Semitism in the Labour Party.Parliament Square, London. March 26, 2018.Credit: HENRY NICHOLLS/ REUTERS

It isn’t about caring "only for Jews," the dispiriting charge some U.S. Jews on the left were quick to level at British Jews who celebrated Corbyn’s downfall. It’s about having a minimal level of solidarity and humility and empathy for those targets of anti-Semitism who do not fit into neat ideological pigeonholes.

Responding instinctively to anti-Semitism, verbal or physical, whether of the racial or ideologically selective variety, and calling it out, should not be conditioned by the source of the anti-Semitism. We rightly abhor the way Benjamin Netanyahu courts anti-Semites just because they support his worldview. We don’t ignore Donald Trump’s constant use of anti-Semitic images just because he has a Jewish daughter and grandchildren and professes to love Israel.

Condemning Jew-hate should be a basic red line across the board, regardless of whether we like the perpetrator’s positions on social policy.

That's also the background for how we should assess the Jeremy Corbyn - Bernie Sanders comparison, which has become quite the theme, especially on the U.S. Jewish right. Their similarities are largely superficial: Sanders isn’t an anti-Semite, and not just because he himself is a Jew, but because he’s nowhere near as hardcore a Marxist as Corbyn, and he hasn’t spent his entire career coddling terrorists and Holocaust-deniers, as Corbyn has.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) uses a torch to light a Menorah during a lighting event at the Chanukah on Ice campaign event on December 29, 2019 in Des Moines, IowaCredit: AFP

He does however share some of the more soft-core hard-left’s blindness to anti-Semitism on his side, as attested by some of the surrogates and minor candidates he’s chosen to endorse, and the rather blinkered view of anti-Semitism he presented in an essay he wrote recently.

But to be fair to Sanders, his associations with anti-Semites are extremely mild when compared to other Jewish politicians, not least in comparison to Netanyahu, who regularly courts anti-Semites like Viktor Orban and Donald Trump.

To be clear: The anti-Semitic candidate in the 2020 U.S. elections is Donald Trump - but Sanders is woefully inadequate to challenge him. Sanders exhibits much of the dreary doctrinaire socialism and intellectual laziness of Corbyn, and it's a proven vote-loser. No amount of empathy with the suffering of regular people that both of them have in spades can make up for that.

But Sanders' lack of suitability as a candidate is not the immediate concern of Jewish communities. Not when Jews are being shot and hacked to death.

And it's wrong to only single out the Jewish progressive left for having an anti-Semitism problem. The Jewish right has a far bigger problem of tolerance for selective anti-Semitism – and a racism problem in general.

But the Jewish left has a solidarity problem. A problem of selective solidarity. And the Jewish left needs to do better because the easy answers are on the right. The politics of divide and rule, of pitting communities against each other, come naturally to nationalist politicians. And they win elections.

An Orthodox Jewish man in a Brooklyn neighborhood on December 29, 2019, a day after five Orthodox Jews were stabbed by an intruder at a rabbi's house during a Hanukkah party in Monsey.Credit: AFP

Left-wing populism of the "many" against the "few" tend to be a lot less popular with the general public. Not only are they election losers, they create a back-door for violent and racist tendencies that are too easily excused and explained away. For Jewish communities engaging in these politics, it can also mean relinquishing solidarity with other Jewish communities for fear of offending prescribed or expedient "allies."

Coming up with a way to show solidarity both with other Jewish communities and with other minority groups means looking for more complex solutions than the usual ideological slogans and gestures.

There is an alternative, which is having a meaningful dialog with other Jewish communities, listening to their concerns and according them a similar level of respect. But it can’t be done without putting rigid ideological certainties aside. The Jewish progressive left is correct in its concern that in responding to real and perceived threats, other Jews fail to take the concerns of non-Jewish communities in to account. But it is up to them to show others a better way to show solidarity both 'in-house' and outside.

The Jewish communities of Britain managed to come together when they felt under threat, even though it meant making genuinely difficult choices. Many American Jewish communities are now doing the same. It would be a shame if those progressive Jewish communities who are best equipped to engage with the concerns of other minorities failed to become part of that.