The American Jewish Thought Police on Patrol: A Political "Big Tent" Would Be Better for Washington, DC's Theater J and Everyone Else

By Breger, Marshall | Moment, November-December 2013 | Go to article overview

The American Jewish Thought Police on Patrol: A Political "Big Tent" Would Be Better for Washington, DC's Theater J and Everyone Else


Breger, Marshall, Moment


The recent publication of the Pew Forum's survey of American Jews has raised many useful questions about the boundaries of Jewish identity at a time when 22 percent of Jews describe themselves as having "no religion." Thus it is not surprising that the Jewish community in America has always taken a "big tent" approach to religious views. Federations accept Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and in some cities, Humanist Jews, all on equal terms.

But just as the organized American community becomes ever more inclusive on the religious front, it has taken the opposite approach on matters of politics, particularly related to Israel. The past few months have seen increased pressure for conformity and "orthodoxy" in political views: recent bans on the use of Hillel facilities by Jewish students who support the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement; efforts to cancel Jewish Federation funding of theater groups that mount controversial plays drawn from conflicts in Israeli society; and efforts to deny a communal voice to Jews who oppose settlement on the West Bank. This is troubling for anyone who cares about the American Jewish community and the future of Israel.

The question of what views a Jew can have and still be accepted by the Jewish community is a difficult one. In the past, religious orthodoxy ruled. Remember Spinoza. In 1656, the freethinker was excommunicated by the Jewish community of Amsterdam because of the "abominable heresies which he practiced and taught" and his "monstrous deeds" (although today most of us are a bit embarrassed by the entire affair). And in Israel, Brother Daniel, a Polish Jew who converted to Catholicism and became a priest, was denied entry under the "Right of Return" in 1962 on the grounds that he had cut himself off from the "community of fate" (brit goral) that is the Jewish people. But that was all about religion. When it came to politics, both European and Israeli polities hewed closely to the adage "two Jews, three opinions."

For the past few decades, American Jewish leaders have worried that disunity might translate into a lack of political clout. For these purposes, American Jewish unity meant the rejection of those who held positions on Israel far outside the "vast edges drear" of the communal world. Now, however, the drive for unity encompasses the rejection of controversial political positions even when they are held by a substantial number, albeit a minority, of Israel's population. It is passing strange that even where 35, 40 or 49 percent (let alone 51 or 55 percent) of the Israeli population is prepared to criticize specific actions of the Israeli government, the American Jewish thought police will censor similar discussion. Even more absurd, any semblance of the robust political debate one can see daily in Israeli newspapers and in Israeli plays, books and movies is verboten in the American Jewish establishment's vision of a Jewish polity.

Just consider the Jewish Student Union at the University of California, Berkeley. …

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