October 22, 2019

The Jewish Community’s Role in the Era of Identity Politics

In a memorable episode of the television series “The Sopranos,” Tony’s Jewish colleague Herman “Hesh” Rabkin confronts an African American music industry mogul about monetary reparations to black musicians.

“You’re talking to the wrong white man, my friend,” says Hesh, who goes on to assert that the Jewish people spent centuries in servitude before the beginning of the African slave trade. (You can watch the unvarnished and somewhat uncomfortable version of his remarks by searching for the “A Hit Is a Hit” episode from the HBO series’ first season.)

Setting aside the distasteful, racially charged language the show’s writers put into the Jewish gangster’s mouth, Hesh was articulating one of the fundamental beliefs the Jewish community carries about itself. He is saying we are an oppressed minority — or at least, we were for a long time. He reminds us we are products of our own history and self-perception, whether others share that assessment or not.

This thinking is reinforced within us with unfortunate frequency: every time nativist-driven bigotry espouses hatred against Jews from the right, and every time virulent anti-Zionism crosses the line into anti-Semitism on the left. Those haters obviously do not share our impression of ourselves. In an era of identity politics, what is our identity to them?

“Oppressed minority” is a pretty strong term and somewhat overstated. Even while we feel the growing threat of blood-and-soil racists and boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS)-motivated haters, and even as we persevere through the tragedies of Pittsburgh and Poway, terms such as “oppressed” seem like a little much. We still do feel like outsiders here, even if the blatant oppression that is a central part of our heritage is no longer part of our daily lives in 21st-century America.

Are Jews a minority — oppressed or otherwise? From a statistical standpoint, of course we are. We are approximately 2 percent of the nation’s population, which qualifies us for that status without much debate. However, much of American society considers us cultural outsiders, as well. Our faith, our history and our heritage combine to exclude us from what many consider to be comfortable societal norms.

If we still are a minority group in the eyes of many conservatives, that status disappears when we engage on the political left. Our educational and economic accomplishments disqualify us from being considered minorities in their eyes — statistically or ethnically. From the vantage point of many ardent progressives, we are not the oppressed, but the oppressors.

“People make progress and solve problems when principled progressives and equally principled conservatives come out of their ideological end zones and move closer to midfield.”

The biblical tale of David and Goliath may help us understand the predicament we face — from two very different perspectives. We still consider ourselves as David. After thousands of years as the underdog, we’ve earned that status many times over. But many liberals see us as Goliath, and the more we protest the unfairness of that designation, the more alienated they become.

On the other side of the fence, many conservatives regard us as the little guy. They like being Goliath and don’t have much incentive to make room for us at the giant’s table. The result is that on a hyper-polarized political and societal landscape, it often feels like neither of the main combatants believe the Jewish community belongs on its side. David thinks we’re Goliath, and Goliath thinks we’re David. Both liberal and conservative extremists believe us to be a problem, an irritant or a target. Sometimes, they see us as convenient collaborators and generous supporters. They rarely see us as true allies or friends.

The partisan alignment among American Jews and the reasons behind those leanings are familiar. A portion of the community gravitates toward Republicans because of issues relating to the economy and to Israel. A large majority favor the Democrats — often because our centuries of outsider status manifest as a commitment to social justice and helping the disadvantaged.

Regardless of party registration or ideological preference, each of us must make a compromise when we cast our ballots. Most Republicans do not support the anti-Semites who marched in Charlottesville, Va., but voting for a GOP candidate enlarges the platform on which alt-right haters stand. Most Democrats do not believe Jews control the world economy, but electing a Democrat of any ideological stripe furthers the reach of those who stand against Israel and its children.

Such are the limitations of a two-party system that most of us scarcely consider the sacrifice such tradeoffs require, if only because there is no alternative. Vote for a pro-Israel politician in either party and we also empower the anti-Semitic fringe that shares that candidate’s registration. We’ve resigned ourselves to the fact that elevating those who hate us — from the far right or the far left — is a necessary evil to thwart the even more despicable haters among the opposition.

This leads to a sort of selective outrage in which we ignore the worst excesses of the outliers in our own party and instead concentrate solely on the sins of our opponents. There’s no intellectually honest way for a Jewish Republican to defend Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), or a pro-Israel Democrat to stand up for Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). So why bother trying? It’s much easier and much more cathartic to direct our anger toward those who both hate Jews and disagree with us on health care reform or offshore oil drilling. However, selective outrage toward the opposition also means selective silence toward our putative partisan allies — and our silence gives them strength.

“We’ve resigned ourselves to the fact that elevating those who hate us — from the far right or the far left — is a necessary evil to thwart the even more despicable haters among the opposition.”

The result is that the Jewish community has become just as polarized as the broader electorate, even though such balkanization works against our own interests as a community. We allow both parties to exploit our support when we can be helpful and marginalize us whenever the loudest and angriest voices on the far left and far right make demands at our expense.

The political gymnastics Democratic House leadership has performed to delay a vote on the pending anti-BDS resolution would be comical if it were not so appalling. But it has nothing on the rationalizations and excuses leading Republicans offer when President Donald Trump’s administration invites known anti-Semites to the White House.

And finding members of Congress willing to criticize both these outrages rather than taking the easy way out and targeting their fire solely toward the other party’s cowardice is no easy task.

Republicans are full-throated in their support for Israel because Zionism resonates with their non-Jewish voters, too. But the reservations of their Jewish supporters are largely ignored on domestic, social and cultural issues such as abortion rights and same-sex marriage that motivate conservative grassroots activists. On the other hand, Democrats can commit fully to those same domestic policy matters knowing their loyalists — both Jewish and not — are in strong agreement. However, they must be much more cautious regarding Israel because of the animosity many progressives harbor toward Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

The result is that Jewish voters on both sides largely are taken for granted. Democrats and Republicans know their Jewish supporters — and donors — will remain loyal and will vote in large numbers. Both parties’ leaders have become proficient at proclaiming Israel should not be a partisan issue, even as both sides assiduously work to ensure that its side is seen as a more effective partner for the Jewish state. Because 21st-century elections are won by motivating the party’s ideological base, placating the anti-Zionist progressives and the alt-right nativists almost always take priority over addressing the needs of American Jews.

Political parties address our goals only when they don’t conflict with the demands of the hardliners, because we don’t threaten to switch sides or stay home. As the two main parties continue to move further from the political center, the need to cater to their true believers continues to grow, and the importance of Jewish voters on both sides continues to shrink.

Both liberal and conservative extremists believe us to be a problem, an irritant or a target. Sometimes, they see us as convenient collaborators and generous supporters. They rarely see us as true allies or friends.

There are many reasons to rebuild our nation’s political center that have nothing to do with either Israel or Judaism. A functioning government capable of confronting and resolving our most pressing challenges is foremost among them. Young people today read stories in history books about former President Ronald Reagan and former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill working across party lines to save Social Security, or former President Bill Clinton and former Speaker Newt Gingrich teaming up to balance the budget. But for millennials who grew up in an era of scorched-earth partisanship, they may as well be learning about the butter churn or the eight-track tape player. They don’t doubt these things ever existed; they just dismiss them as ancient artifacts — from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Growing up in that far-away galaxy, I learned at a young age the essential difference between politics and football is that in politics, victories come between the 40-yard lines. People make progress and solve problems when principled progressives and equally principled conservatives come out of their ideological end zones and move closer to midfield. What ideologues deride as the “mushy middle” is the space where successful leaders on both sides can achieve many of their goals by realizing they must allow their opposite numbers to achieve some of their goals, as well. They understand progress is not the enemy of perfection, but a way of moving closer toward it.

For American Jews, a revitalized political center would mean we no longer would be held hostage to the agents of intolerance that control the agendas of both major parties. When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) minimizes the horrors of German death camps, honorable centrists in both parties will denounce her conviction, the same way they will condemn political strategist Steve Bannon when he flirts with the Nazis’ modern-day descendants across the globe.

Our incentive to assist in the efforts to create a common ground on which leaders from both sides can come together is not just so we can help repair a broken political system; it’s to build a political home for ourselves — one where we can feel welcome and truly belong.

Excusing the bad behavior of a fellow partisan is easy to justify when pledging allegiance to a political party comes before allegiance to a flag or the principles of fairness and tolerance the flag represents. When we remember there are good people on the other side of the 50-yard line, too — people who may disagree on how to solve a community’s problems but agree on the need to work together to resolve those problems — it becomes much easier to call out the haters in our own ranks and move forward without them.

Most Jewish voters will never feel at home in a party of extremists — whether that extreme is on the far left or the far right — but the zealots are growing in strength and numbers. The same potion of economic inequality, social media provocation and radical populism drives an impatience with traditional politics and hatred toward “outsiders” like us. Our incentive to assist in the efforts to create a common ground on which leaders from both sides can come together is not just so we can help repair a broken political system; it’s to build a political home for ourselves — one where we can feel welcome and truly belong.

The concept of belonging is one that doesn’t come easy to us. We’re much more accustomed to marginalization and persecution, so we’re naturally suspicious that assimilation can be a slippery slope toward loss of our hard-won identity. Throughout history, the worst oppression the Jewish people have faced originated with the ideological outliers on the far right or the far left, which gradually infected the mainstream.

Building a bulwark against those extremists by strengthening a bipartisan center is both necessary self-protection and smart politics — but it can’t happen until our community decides to stop being manipulated by the two political parties to achieve their goals, and start using them to achieve ours.


Dan Schnur is a professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies and Pepperdine University.