by Lawrence Bush
From the Autumn, 2014 issue of Jewish Currents
IF YOU JUDGE from the mainstream media, you would think that Jews are one of the more conservative ethnic groups in our country. Here are some events in recent months in which Jews were clearly identified as Jews in media reports:
When J Street’s bid for membership in the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations was rejected in April, the New York Times described it as a “closely watched” decision “because it comes as many Jewish institutions face controversies over how much debate over Israel they are willing to tolerate within their ranks…”
When a Jewish real estate developer was investigated by the FBI in March for voter fraud in connection with his efforts to help turn Bloomingburg, an exurb of New York City, into a Satmar hasidic stronghold, the Times wrote about a small town losing its “homogeneity” because of the ultra-Orthodox influx.
When Israel allowed talks with the Palestinian Authority to collapse in June, newspapers and magazines were filled with speculation about the future power of AIPAC, the ever-more-conservative lobbying group.
Here, meanwhile, are some stories from the past several months in which Jews were by and large not identified as Jews in the media, apart from the Jewish press:
When the fiftieth anniversary of Mississippi Freedom Summer was commemorated on PBS with the airing of Stanley Nelson’s excellent documentary, Freedom Summer, viewers did not once hear the word “Jewish” or “Jew,” despite the fact that more than a third of brave young men and women who went South to Mississippi in 1964 were Jews — including many who sat in front of Nelson’s camera.
During a run of twenty-four consecutive courtroom victories for marriage equality in states across the U.S., Evan Wolfson, the founder and president of Freedom to Marry — a key organization in the march to full marital rights — has only rarely been identified in the mainstream media as Jewish. Even a story in the New York Times about Wolfson’s own wedding day in 2011 was mum on the subject.
When Judge Shira Scheindlin last August banned the racist use of “stop-and-frisk” techniques by the New York Police Department, her Jewish identity was hardly a subject for discussion — with the notable exception of The Nation’s Emily Jane Goodman, who wrote of the “empathy [that] allows a middle-aged, white Jewish woman to feel the excruciating pain of a black high school kid thrown against a wall or sidewalk, handcuffed, while police put their hands on him because one officer said he saw a bulge in a pair of jeans.”
WHY DO THE JEWISH IDENTITIES of progressives generally go unreported, while the hijinks of ultra-Orthodox Jews, Likud-oriented Israel lobbyists, Jewish organizational oligarchs, or the Republican Jewish Coalition get media visibility?
The answer is actually a blessing for American Jews: We are considered to be simply a religious group in the U.S., not a national or racial minority, so the Jewish status of Jews in non-religious matters usually goes unremarked. This status shields Jews from discrimination — but it is a mixed blessing for those of us who actively seek to shore up Jewish progressivism and hold at bay the forces of reaction and elitism within Jewish life. After all, if the xenophobia of ultra-Orthodox groups and the hawkish policies of mainstream Jewish organizations are the items getting publicity, while Jews acting in universalist causes are generally unidentified as Jewish, progressive Jews are liable to form an impression of our community as fundamentalist, undemocratic, warlike, and generally monolithic. It is not a community to which any self-respecting progressive would want to belong. But it is not the real Jewish community!
The real Jewish community gave more than three quarters of its vote to Barack Obama in 2008, more than any other ethnic group but African Americans. The real Jewish community has strongly supported a two-state solution in the Middle East and has not been happy about the power of the Israeli settler movement. The real Jewish community is solidly in support of liberalizing American immigration policies. And so on. As the arch-conservative writer Don Feder remarked with chagrin before the Heritage Foundation years ago, “shrimp will learn to whistle ‘Hava Nagila’” before the great majority of American Jews cease to be liberal.
Of course, there is more to progressive Jewish alienation from Jewish life than bad public relations. There is an internationalist element to progressive identity that makes “Is it good for the Jews?” an embarrassing, politically incorrect concern. There is a bourgeois element to the American Jewish success story that discomfits Jewish leftists. There is an untutored associating of “Jewish” with “religious” and “religious” with “reactionary.” There is a desperate unhappiness about Israel’s occupation and domination of the Palestinians, and even a feeling of uncertainty about the legitimacy of Jewish claims to “nationhood.” There are elements of internalized anti-Semitism at work, too, including a reluctance to make a “big deal” about anti-Semitism in the modern world, and a shame fostered by the “sheep-to-slaughter” mythology of the Holocaust.
Our magazine has long been devoted to sustaining and renewing the links between Jewish identity and a commitment to social justice. This involves honest acknowledgment and exploration of all of these biases and mindsets. Our “progressive Jewish identity therapy” would be greatly helped, however, if activist Jews more often “came out” as people who don’t merely “happen to be Jewish” but are politically active, at least in part, because they are Jewish — and if the media more often reported on the Jewish roots of contemporary activism.