Linda Sarsour and American Jewish politics

February 2, 2017
Activist Linda Sarsour addresses the crowd during a protest against President Donald Trump’s travel ban, in New York City, U.S. Jan. 29. Stephanie Keith/REUTERS

Those seeking to build coalitions must make a difficult decision early on: What compromises are we willing to make on other core commitments in order to effectively organize with those who share this core commitment?

The philosopher Avishai Margalit stipulates that the first way to think about this question is to determine whether we are speaking in terms of “religious compromise” or “economic compromise.” Religious compromise offers very little margin of error; in his memorable phrasing, compromising over the holy risks compromising the holy. Economic compromise is far cruder and simpler, and operates through a simpler cost-benefit analysis. Rotten compromise, the kind we must not do, entails making common cause with evil. Most coalition builders, in trying to assess with whom they can ally, struggle to determine whether they are in the religious or the economic model, and can be paralyzed with indecision in the fear that their choices ultimately produce something rotten.

This is the framework with which I have been thinking about the “Linda Sarsour moment” in American Jewish politics, wherein a major social justice and interfaith activist who was a central organizer of the women’s marches around the country — and who has a track record of outspoken criticism against Israel and Zionism — invites controversy, and hopefully more thoughtful deliberation, on the choices we make about our alliances in the pursuit of our political causes. This issue is presenting itself now, as well, in the form of anti-Trump protests organized by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), an organization with a long history of vexed relationship with the Jewish community as it relates to divergent politics on Israel. CAIR was out in force at last weekend’s airport protests against President Donald Trump’s immigration orders.  How does our community, committed to Israel as well as a host of other social justice commitments, navigate collaboration with other faith and political leaders who not only oppose one critical piece of our community’s agenda but often even militate against it?

In response to this challenge, the instinct by many communities is to create “litmus tests” — tools of assessing loyalty and commonality that establish the legitimacy of partnership. In this arena, I see two equally problematic tendencies that represent opposite extremes but that yield similar solutions.

On the left, the litmus test in vogue — and one that sometimes leads progressive activists to exclude Zionists from their camp — relies on a pure application of the academic theory of intersectionality. In arguing for the deep, structural, interdependent relationship among forms of oppression, this form of ideological purity makes acceptance of a total program or platform into a litmus test.

It may make for an incredibly powerful political community; only those who subscribe to the full network of commitments — ostensibly with equal passion for all forms of interrelated injustice — can participate as members. Yet its rigidity also is likely to yield an incredibly small group.

The opposite approach, still bewilderingly au courant in some Jewish communal circles, is the “single-issue” litmus test approach, which evaluates ideas and people on the basis of a single issue — almost always Israel politics. This is a different form of ideological purity. But rather than insisting on purity through linkages, the litmus test insists on a singular cause as the evaluative instrument of legitimacy. This is single-issue politics of disqualification, which works very well for the border police who enforce it, and is baffling and exasperating for most others who live inside or outside the enforced parameters.

If the pure intersectional approach is flawed for seeking perfect or consistent structures as the organizing principle in which to hold a wide group of imperfect and inconsistent moral actors, the single-issue approach is flawed for the perversity that it periodically engenders. As many have noted, the anger in the Jewish community about a line in the platform of the Movement for Black Lives created the risk of moral tragedy. As a friend wrote to me recently: “I can’t support black kids not being gunned down, because some of the movement leaders don’t meet my Israel ideology purity test? That’s the hill we want to die on?”

Neither of these approaches then really works. Rather, they are better at restricting, constricting, and ultimately diminishing effective political community than constituting strategies for effective organizing and growth across diversity. Most political movements actually require broader coalitions than litmus tests allow, such that the foregoing “coherence and conviction” become the discourse of a shrinking and failing minority. I want to instead propose an alternative set of strategies and considerations to replace the litmus test, and to provide some conceptual tools that could be helpful to the efforts at building community, while maintaining loyalty to the moral fabrics and commitments that community-building means to advance.

First, I suggest that we work to articulate a hierarchy of our moral commitments that we can crudely divide among what we consider moral imperatives, moral concerns, and — further down the line — political preferences. Firmly entrenched ideologies of political communities — political parties, religious denominations, etc. — make it easy for their adherents to conflate these three, but they are really separate, and precision counts.

All of us carry around with us a short list of moral imperatives that reflect our central commitments. These are ordering principles in our political universe, and it would be difficult for us to inhabit communities — or to make personal life decisions — that did not follow their mandates. Separately, however, we carry around a longer list of moral concerns — the issues we care about (often deeply) but which do not rise to the level of ordering our families, communities, and life choices. Most of us can tolerate relatively easily living in community with people who do not value the same full list of moral concerns, but we struggle to do so when it comes to moral imperatives.

On the basis of this, my suggestion for building political community is that in lieu of comprehensive or single-issue litmus tests, we endeavor to follow a “two-thirds and 51 percent” rule, which would state as follows: We identify in political communities, or organize for particular causes, with people who share, or at least do not operate in contradistinction to, two-thirds of our core moral imperatives, and with whom we agree on a minimum of 51 percent of our moral concerns.

We need both of these categories — the imperatives and the concerns — precisely because we need a weighted standard which recognizes that some commitments are more significant than others, on one hand, and because a successful political community simply needs to capture a majority viewpoint to be politically successful, on the other. “Two-thirds and 51 percent” enables individuals to belong to communities in which they broadly agree with the consensus viewpoints and are not challenged more than they can be about their central moral commitments. It means a certain degree of manageable discomfort that is implicitly assuaged by the gains accrued by belonging.

Belonging in political community to people with whom we have significant differences — that one-third matters! — does not mean we assent on those issues. We can disagree and fight vigorously on those issues where we have deep disagreement, and I am not proposing that we paper over those differences. But the major added advantage here is that we find more effective common cause than is possible in the inherently constricting litmus test approach, which not only closes off a wider network of allies that we all desperately need, but which also creates a culture of suspicion even toward those with whom we are close. The litmus test approach is a negative structure toward cultivating loyalty; “two-thirds and 51 percent” tilts toward creating cultures of broad assent. Besides, the winning causes do precisely this. It is only the losers who debilitate their own side with infighting.

I recognize that there are those people, on the right and on the left, for whom their relationship to Israel is not just a moral imperative but an exclusive imperative; and for whom, therefore, common cause with an opponent issue entails transgressing an impassable line. I respect this position, especially in its self-awareness of its hierarchy of moral choices. But I also believe it is a tragic position to take in a political moment that requires of us commitments to more than one moral imperative; and also because I wonder whether our willingness to work with outspoken critics of Israel right now, when we agree on many other issues, may in fact enable us to manage those tensions with those critics more effectively in the long run. I think a David Ben-Gurion-like position is a perfectly tenable moral position that balances multiple moral imperatives: We fight for our moral values in American political life as though there was no disagreement with our allies on these issues on Israel, and we fight on Israel with critics of Israel as though there was no domestic agenda. The existence of multiple moral frameworks with which to view the world is not a sign of confusion; it is a sign of sophistication and strength. 

All the following can be true at the same time: that we need community, that our communities stand for core values, that political community can create change, and that each of us have particular, individual moral commitments that constrain our capacity to be in relationship with others who do not share them. But we might be able to build technologies and calculations, such as the ones that I am proposing, that respond to these challenges strategically, unlike the blunt instrument of the litmus test. For the urgent goals of our community and our broader society, I believe a new approach is overdue. 

Yehuda Kurtzer is the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America

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