October 21 2018

Are American Jews in Deep Trouble?

by Santiago Slabodsky, Hofstra University

an image of an American flag sumperimposed on top of crecked, dried bed of clay

No, they are not. But the American Jewish establishment might be. For the American Jewish communities at large, however, Donald Trump’s presidency may well be a once in a lifetime opportunity.

For the last two generations, American Jews have been taught to analyze national politics through the lenses of a very simple slogan: “what is good for Israel is good for Jews.” Over the last fifty years, this narrative was nourished by robust institutional support through educational structures, advocacy organizations, tourism programs, powerful museums, and political lobbies. Yet the equivalence between Israel and the life of American Jews is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain.

On the one hand, while past American administrations reaffirmed the strategic alliance between the United States and Israel, their aim—successful or not—was to preserve an appearance of neutrality in order to play a role as mediator. One year into his presidency, it is clear that Donald Trump has decisively altered this appearance. Some may argue that this shift attests to the influence of evangelical Christian Zionism, while others may attribute it to the identification with Western settler projects, but Trump’s words and actions are unequivocally partisan. Just to name a few indicators, early on in his term he appointed a controversial ambassador who vocally supported settlements in and the annexation of Palestinian territories. Shortly afterwards, he designated his son-in-law, a person with deep personal and financial ties to Israeli nationalist elites, including the prime minister, as the “deal-maker” in the region. And, as his first year in office drew to a close, he announced the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and threatened to cut off Palestinian aid if they refused to accept his terms. It is clear to any political analyst that the US-Israeli strategic alliance continues to hold, but is soaring to new heights beyond appearances.

The American Jewish communities may be experiencing the current administration differently. In November 2016, following a convulsive electoral campaign, Jews held fast to their historical loyalty. They voted overwhelmingly for the defeated Democratic candidate (71% vs 24%), showing a larger gap between their support for each party than in the 2012 presidential elections won by the Democrats (69% vs 30%). In the months that followed, Jewish institutions were the targets of threats or attacks, joining a diverse group of collectivities (Muslims, African-Americans, LGBTQI, Latinxs, and others) that reported harassment by either agents of the new administration or self-appointed representatives of the new era. The voices of Holocaust survivors began to inundate the press in full-length articles linking the present-day rhetoric with their European nightmares while the new generation ensured that this memory was overrepresented in protests against the successive immigration bans of Muslims and/or the raids against Latinxs. Late in the summer, white nationalists, officially characterized as “fine people,” marched in Charlottesville, not only shouting the Nazi slogan “Blood and Soil” but also more straightforwardly the anti-Semitic motto “Jews will not replace us.”

nt divergence between the international and domestic realms has made it increasingly difficult to sustain the dictum that “What is good for Israel is good for (American) Jews”. This is, of course, a problem for American Jewish institutions that, for two generations, have been capitalizing on the connection between the one and the other. This is less of a problem for the American Jewish communities at large. For them, it stands as a once in a lifetime opportunity to awaken from a rare trend in Jewish history: the existence of a hegemonic dictum and the power to enforce it nationally (and, one could even argue, globally). This sheds light on how all ideological constructions—from nationalist ideologies to intergovernmental alliances to nation-states themselves—are not pure, natural, or eternal. Just as historical-political motivations sustained the construction and “naturalization” of the relation between the State of Israel and the American Jewish community, contemporary politics may require a reevaluation of that relation.

During the first half of the twentieth century, the Zionist project only garnered the support of a minority and was in constant competition with more persuasive alternatives. The American Jewish communities were no exception and only a small elite supported Zionism. This was not a surprise. Most Liberals viewed Zionism with distrust, as their own efforts aimed to practice Judaism in in the private sphere, in the hope of enhancing assimilation to American society and escaping prevalent anti-Semitism. The minority of religious orthodoxy generally refused to support Zionism, which they perceived as a secular project that tried to impose an anthropocentric perspective which rushed messianic times, and insisted on transnational ethnic networks of support. And the majority of Jewish radicals, largely socialists of different persuasions, trusted more in internationalist revolutions that would create a new humanity and overcome the need of ethnic identification or nation-state building.

It is commonly argued that it is the Holocaust that changed this situation. But this justification is largely anachronistic. Between the late 1940s to the mid-1960s, the majority of local Jews had little use for empowering Holocaust narratives. American Jews, thanks to federal programs including the GI Bill, were too busy becoming white in America to make themselves vulnerable to the accusation of dual loyalty. This accusation of dual loyalty was particularly dangerous considering that the position of Israel in the Cold War struggle was not clear until 1956, when it sided with European imperial powers during the Suez crisis. During the intense McCarthyist witch-hunt, a community that was already associated with international socialism/communism in the Euro-American imaginary was logically cautious of demonstrating any allegiance that contradicted its aspirational middle-class Americanism. In other words, Jews would have been more inclined to support the Yankees than Zionism.

What made support for the Jewish State a distinctive mark of the American Jewish community was not an allegedly timeless Zionist longing, nor was it the Holocaust. It was the Americanization of the Holocaust narrative that turned the State of Israel into the natural solution for this narrative. During the Six Day War (1967), a State of Israel successfully mobilized the fear of a new Holocaust among Jewish communities worldwide. Despite its quick victory, which should make us question how imminent the threat was, Israel not only gained the support of a new active generation of Baby Boomers, but the latter started to become avid consumers of what would be known as post-Holocaust thought, action, and institution building. The Baby Boomers and the early Generation X were the ones who ultimately naturalized the dictum (“What is good for Israel is good for Jews”), justifying Jewish empowerment, often in relation to other historically racialized communities, as a way of preventing a new Holocaust. What they omitted was that the perpetrators of the first Holocaust were not these communities but some of their new allies. 

Ideological constructions, however, are not eternal and can be ultimately deconstructed. The clear gap opened during the Trump era can offer an opportunity to reevaluate whether this construction continues to be current. This new political stage, however, may not be completely new. The opposition to Trump may be correct in its assessment that the new stage exacerbated divisions and prompted mobilizations against them. Yet, a quick look beyond Jewish life will show with clarity that neither Trump nor Trumpism are responsible for inaugurating the concentration of wealth, the disregard for Black lives, the invisibilization of Native communities, violent Islamophobia, and the deportation of human beings without papers. Indeed, movements such as Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, and the Dreamers’ networks took shape during the Obama years and followed in the steps of movements that emerged during both Democratic and Republican administrations. It is in this context that some Jews, especially Millennials and veteran activists of the previous two generations, have been engaging in community building to confront dehumanizing trends that, half a century after the Holocaust, seem to have again begun to target Jews. Some organizations have been at the vanguard in extending their solidarity to racialized communities, both within and outside the United States, even before this racialization touched Jewish bodies and voices. These organizations include but are not limited to Jews for Racial and Economical Justice, an NGO led by Jews of color, and Bend the Arc whose focus is urban advocacy, the alternative religious community Tzedek Chicago, Open Hillel whose focus is campus life, If Not Now and the more longstanding Jewish Voice for Peace for justice in Israel/Palestine. While these organizations are better equipped to deal with the new era, the official representation of the community still remains in the hands of outdated institutions.

The election process of 2016 was indeed a turning point, not because it inaugurated a new era but because it exacerbated previous tendencies. The Democratic and Republican establishments were both situated in a spectrum marrying neo-liberal economics and liberal social policies. The rebellion in the Democratic Party critiqued the former and the insurrection in the Republican Party largely targeted the latter. And the establishment’s failure to understand how their defeat revealed something about them follows their inability to recognize that their proposal was exhausted. Problematically for the establishment of the Jewish community, this was not the only proposal that was shattered. Much can be said about the alliance of Jewish institutions with the Democratic version of both neo-liberal economics and liberal social values. I will focus here on their common failure to grasp the internal contradictions of their outdated proposals. While Jewish institutions are shedding tears over the abysmal un-affiliation of late Generation X and Millennials, they remind blind to how their institutional inability to recognize the new reality is self-defeating. It is important, however, to recognize that some may want (and have the right) to support the dictum twinning the well-being of Israel and that of all Jews. But the gap between the two invites them to critically engage with this dictum, evaluating its currency, questioning its monopoly, and taking responsibility for the implications of this position in the alliances and tensions that it requires. The new generations are creative, original, and are developing other struggles. And we may need to start paying more attention to their networks of solidarity in order to recognize the part Jewish collectivities could play in American politics in the next decades.

The new activism is generating new solidarities that extend domestically and internationally well beyond a hermetic community that seems to constantly compete for its supremacy in the Olympics of suffering. Decades ago Frantz Fanon reflected on a comment from a philosophy instructor: “ ‘When you hear someone insulting the Jews pay attention; he is talking about you’… And I believed at the time he was universally right… [W]hat he meant quite simply was that the anti-Semite is inevitably a negrophobe.”1 Building on Fanon, we can see not only that “the anti-Semite” is inevitable “a Negrophobe,” but also that it is a system, one that predates the current administration by decades if not centuries and that operates domestically, internationally, and transnationally to strip Black, Brown, Muslim, Cis-Women, LGBTQI, and Palestinian bodies, among others, of their humanities. This system would sooner (for those with overlapping disfranchised identities) or later (for others) come for Jews, no matter how white they appeared to have become after their post-war reclassification. This is why dangerous exacerbations of longstanding processes may well provide an opportunity for Jewish voices and bodies to overcome anachronistic dictums, learn from past struggles and join in solidarity communities that they should never have abandoned.

 

Notes

Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 2008), 101.

Resources

Brodkin, Karen. How Jews Became White Folks and What that Says About Race in America. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1988. 

Ellis, Marc. Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2011. 

Feldman, Keith. A Shadow Over Palestine. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.

Magid, Shaul. American Post-Judaism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013. 

Shohat, Ella. On the Arab Jew, Palestine and Other Displacements. London: Pluto Press, 2017. 

Slabodsky, Santiago. Decolonial Judaism. New York: Palgrave, 2015.  

Smith, Gregory, and Jessica Martinez. “How the Faithful Voted: A Preliminary 2016 Analysis.” Pew Research Center, November 9, 2016. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/11/09/how-the-faithful-voted-a-preliminary-2016-analysis


Santiago Slabodsky is the Florence and Robert Kaufman Endowed Chair in Jewish studies in the Department of Religion and associate director of the Center for Race, Culture, and Social Justice at Hofstra University in New York. Previously he directed the doctoral program of Religion, Ethics, and Society at Claremont School of Theology in California. His main area of research is the relation between Jewish and Global South social theories. His book Decolonial Judaism: Triumphal Failures of Barbaric Thinking (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) was awarded the 2017 Frantz Fanon Outstanding Book Award by the Caribbean Philosophical Association. At the American Academy of Religion, he cochairs the Liberation Theologies Unit and is an elected member of the Program Committee. Internationally, he is the founding codirector of the trilingual journal Decolonial Horizons (edited at GEMRIP-Argentina and published by Pluto-UK) and has served as concurrent visiting professor at institutions in Europe, Latin America, and Africa. 

 

Image: Lev Dolgachov / Alamy Stock Photo