Too Many Progressive Jews are Running the Wrong Way
by Lawrence BushI visited last week with a reader of our magazine, Robert Rhodes, who is a leader of Preserve Ramapo, a community group that is seeking to protect parts of Rockland and Orange Counties from the power-mongering of rapidly expanding Hasidic communities. Both the Satmar and Skverer sects have been throwing a lot of political weight around in New York's Hudson Valley through their bloc voting, which no New York politician can entirely ignore, and through their manipulation — sometimes legal, sometimes illegal, notes Rhodes — of social welfare laws, federal grants, zoning law, and other tools of governance.
I've not yet informed myself enough about the ins and outs of this struggle to write about it (Mitchell Abidor gave a fair summation here a few weeks ago in his protest against Orthodox Jews), but I am familiar, at least anecdotally, with power of Orthodox Jewish communities, and especially haredi communities, to take over a township or municipality rapidly, including its board of education and other bodies of governance, and proceed to apply a very strict and very exclusive version of "Is it good for the Jews?" to every question of funding, zoning, land use, and more. Bitter political struggles have arisen — sometimes between liberal Jews and ultra-observant Jews — in such towns as Teaneck, New Jersey; Monroe, New York; East Ramapo, New York; and other northern exurbs of New York City over the power of Orthodox communities, which are tightly insular, very disinterested in their non-haredi or non-Jewish neighbors, yet take full advantage of their citizenship and their numbers to strip local governments of tax monies and to alter local cultures. Opposition to them, of course, often fetches charges of anti-Semitism.
I came home from Bob Rhodes thinking about how much there is in Jewish life nowadays to repel your average progressive Jew. Jewish makhers on Wall Street who helped precipitate the 2008 financial crisis; the Israeli government's occupation policies and obvious lack of interest in finding a two-state solution; the rejection of J Street by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and the overall misrepresentation of Jewish opinion in the halls of power by neoconservative and oligarchic Jews.
Then I watched the excellent new film on Mississippi Freedom Summer, which is to be aired on PBS on June 18th — and I predicted, accurately, that in two hours of documentary footage, there would be no use of the word "Jewish" and no mention that more than a third of the volunteers who braved danger in Mississippi in the name of justice that summer were Jews — this out of an American population in which Jews counted as fewer than 3.5 percent.
It is only when Jews act as a religious community, or in service of narrow self-interest, that Jews are portrayed as Jews in America. When they act in the name of our finest humanistic traditions, in a univeralist cause, their Jewishness goes unmentioned.
This is not good publicity for Jewish identity.
Thinking about this dilemma, I created the broadside at the top of this blog. If you like it, you can have it for a tax-deductible contribution of any size to Jewish Currents magazine between now and June 15th. Consider it a vote for running towards the burning bush.
Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents and Jewdayo.