Harold Meyerson's wrongheaded critique of the 'American Jewish establishment'

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Harold Meyerson's Washington Post column on the American Jewish establishment and American Jews that appeared online yesterday takes a molehill of truth and makes it into a mountain of exaggeration.

The molehill of truth is that American Jewish organizations are to the "right" of the overall American Jewish population on Israel-related issues. There's a good reason for that. As Abe Foxman, former head of the Anti-Defamation League, put it, "You know who the Jewish establishment represents? Those who care." Jews who are involved in the Jewish community on average are more hawkish on Israel than are those who are not, and, by definition, it's the former who make up the membership of American Jewish organizations. Not surprisingly, the views of Jewish organizations represent their membership.

Beyond that, Meyerson makes a series of dubious statements, to wit:

(1) He uses the votes of Jewish congressmen, most of whom support the Iran deal, to suggest that Jewish organizations are out of touch with American Jewish opinion. First, let's posit that congressmen, Jewish or not, are not elected to reflect the opinions of American Jews. Second, let's posit that all Jews in Congress right now with one exception are Democrats, and given current levels of partisanship, are very much inclined to vote with the president. Does anyone really doubt that the tally would be quite different if it were a Republican president who was pushing the same Iran deal?

(2) "The American Jewish community, like the United States itself, has seen the split dividing its left and right widen to a gulf. Most American Jews, including most of those in Congress, stand on the left side of that chasm. Most of the American Jewish establishment stands, defiantly or uneasily, on the right…. With disproportionate financial support from Orthodox and politically conservative Jews, much of the American Jewish establishment has aligned itself with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu against not just the Iran deal but also President Obama and American liberalism, too."

No, the American Jewish establishment remains overwhelmingly liberal, albeit relatively hawkish on Israel. Much to the chagrin of Jewish conservatives, the Anti-Defamation League, the Wiesenthal Center, the two AJCs, the National Council of Jewish Women, the UJA/Federation, and so forth and so on, consistently take liberal positions on domestic issues. This includes issues such as immigration, affirmative action and funding for religious schools regarding which parochial Jewish interests seem to lie more on the conservative side. If anything, the American Jewish establishment's flaw is that it fails to represent the 20 to 30 percent of American Jews who lean rightward in politics. In fact, it ranges from uncomfortable to unbearable to be involved with some of these organizations if one is conservative politically, as this dispatch from an ADL young leadership conference demonstrates. The idea that the American Jewish establishment has "aligned itself … against … American liberalism" betrays some combination of Israel-centric myopia and an utter lack of familiarity with the relevant organizations.

(3) Meyerson, commenting on what he sees as growing Orthodox Jewish influence on the American Jewish establishment, says, "Like fundamentalists everywhere, many of the Orthodox refuse to distinguish between the Scriptures' enduring moral principles and their 2,000-year-old superstitions and hatreds."

Meyerson exaggerates the Orthodox influence on American Jewish politics (though, as I've noted, it's undoubtedly growing, but from a very low base). As I said, the reason that American Jewish organizations are relatively hawkish on Israel-related matters is that they represent the views of their constituents, Jews who are involved in the Jewish community.

But beyond that, the sentence quoted above shows a lack of understanding of Orthodox Judaism. There is no such thing as a "Jewish fundamentalist," Orthodox or not. Unlike in fundamentalist Christianity, the "Scriptures" are not taken literally, but instead are interpreted through the lens of 2,000 or so years of (often inconsistent, and certainly varying) rabbinic interpretations. People who talk about "Orthodox Jewish fundamentalists" shouldn't be publicly commenting about Orthodox Judaism.

(4) "One of the most striking, but not surprising, results of the Pew Research Center survey is the disenchantment that many, perhaps most, American Jews feel toward Israel." Here's Pew: "About seven-in-ten American Jews (69%) say they are emotionally very attached (30%) or somewhat attached (39%) to Israel. These findings closely resemble results from the last National Jewish Population Survey, conducted in 2000-2001. In that survey, roughly seven-in-ten Jews said they felt very (32%) or somewhat (37%) emotionally attached to Israel."

While Meyerson is right that older Jews are more attached to Israel than are younger Jews, (a) there is reason to believe that's always been true, and that age itself is correlated with communal attachment and therefore with attachment to Israel; (b) speaking of communal attachment, Pew counts as Jews people with at least partial Jewish ancestry who aren't Jews by religion but aren't Christians and consider themselves at least partly Jewish. There are a lot more such people among the young than among the old, and they are, for obvious reasons, much less likely to be attached to Israel; (c) despite the ever-increasing fraction of Pew Jews who are marginally affiliated, the 18-29s have the same rates of attachment to Israel as the 30-49s, suggesting, if anything, an increase in attachment to Israel among Jews who are active members of the Jewish community.

And indeed, the NJPS used a narrower definition of "who is a Jew" than did Pew. As a result, Pew came up with a 20 percent larger Jewish population than did NJPS. This extra 20 percent is overwhelmingly marginally affiliated, at best, with the Jewish community. So if we were to compare apples to apples—using the same definition of Jews in 2000 and now—attachment to Israel is significantly higher than it was back in 2000. (And sociologist Steven Cohen—himself a strong "progressive"—has found that even among the Jewish population writ large, excluding the Orthodox and day school graduates, younger Jews are actually more attached to Israel than the previous generation was.)

Meyerson is yet another member of what I've called "the professional liberal Jewish intellectual elite" who seems to confuse the views of this elite, himself included, with trends in the Jewish community writ large.