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Let’s Not Forget About the ‘OG Jews’

While disillusioned "New Jews" are getting all the attention, there's a generation of more traditional Jews who never needed a wake-up call.
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January 26, 2023
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have so many friends who identify with the portrait of the “New Jew” that Karol Markowicz draws in her piece for RealClearBooks. The phenomenon she describes is that of traditionally liberal Jews who are being forced to reckon with what has become of their political home on the American Left, where they either no longer feel comfortable, or are made to feel unwelcome. This challenge has followed them into many of their Jewish institutions, especially their synagogues, some of which have transformed into centers of the most extreme liberal political ideas. These places have become inhospitable as well, especially for those who love Israel, leaving many feeling homeless. 

This lurch to the left has produced such overt antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment that Jews can no longer ignore what has happened, and many don’t want to. For some, the response has been to reassert their Jewish and Zionist identities with new energy, and to seek new spaces where their sensibilities are honored. It can be frustrating at first to find those spaces in precincts traditionally associated with the Right. But after a while, the frustration wears off, and a kind of comfort, if not permanent residency, sets in. As these “New Jews” lean into their new identities and the environments that support them more openly and proudly, there are potential “realignment” implications for the long term, as Markowicz points out, both in American politics and in American Jewish life. 

The ”New Jews” aren’t entirely new, of course. The story of a successful, fully integrated diaspora community that is forced to face the reality that others might not see them the way they like to see themselves, is actually an old one. Throughout our history there has always been a certain percentage of Jews that reacts to this kind of confrontation with a deepening, defiant commitment to Jewish identity. That reaction often expresses itself as a proud, Jewish doubling down, publicly displayed, to send a message to the antisemites that they will be denied their victory. These are the “New Jews” Markowicz describes in America today, and they are a welcome bunch of feisty activists. And there are too few of them.

But while these “New Jews” seem to be getting all the attention, I resist over-celebrating them, even though I love them. Perhaps the reticence is my lingering resentment over the contributions they made to the system they now see poses a threat to us all. It takes a certain amount of humility and courage to acknowledge that you helped create the destructive threat you now want to help take down. Credit is due. But it would have been better not to create it at all.

The destructive threat is identity politics. Many Jews embraced it because it seemed born of a compassionate, liberal impulse for “justice.” Leadership reinforced that narrative, and a lot of good people propped up a very bad idea that would have terrible consequences.

But all along, there were Jews among us who weren’t contributors to the mess in which we now find ourselves — the ones who could see where this was headed well before any wake-up call was required. Markowitz notes that not all American Jews have been politically and culturally of the Left. They weren’t primed to welcome the new order. In fact, many were perfectly positioned to reject it.

For the Sephardim, the Russians, the Orthodox, the Mizrachim and the politically conservative Jews in the United States, Ilhan Omar was not a shock, but, rather, the logical result of the threat that had been unleashed through identity politics.

For the Sephardim, the Russians, the Orthodox, the Mizrachim and the politically conservative Jews in the United States, Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) was not a shock, but, rather, the logical outcome once the threat had been unleashed through identity politics. These were the Jews who had been chased out of Aleppo and Iran, and down the streets in Brooklyn. They were imprisoned by Communists, and canceled by universities across the country long before Congress decided to keep an antisemite on the Foreign Relations Committee. They had a view of the dangerous trends inside the Democratic Party that those committed to the party for three generations were unable, or unwilling, to appreciate. They tried to warn us.

While most of American Jewry floated along in a dreamlike haze of social action pseudo-religion and dangerously and naively attached itself wholly to one political party, these old-fashioned communities of “OG Jews” stood apart. 

These are the “OG Jews”, the “original gangsters” (an internet slang to describe an extraordinary person) whose old-school attitudes and personal experiences made them acutely sensitive to the old story of the Jewish diaspora and how it always unfolds, even in the United States. While most of American Jewry floated along in a dreamlike haze of social action pseudo-religion and dangerously and naively attached itself wholly to one political party, these old-fashioned communities of “OG Jews” stood apart. 

They made sure we still mattered to the other major American political party. They saw the dangers of the rising Marxist wing of the Democratic party and its penetration into academia, the media and popular culture, and they waved the red flag. Words like “collectivism,” “intersectionality,” and “socialism” made their skin crawl. Racial division was something to defeat, not exploit. “OG Jews” cautioned us about Oslo and the Iran Deal and BLM. Their rabbis preached Torah in their sermons rather than Tikkun Olam. They lived Jewish lives when most other Jews didn’t, and fought battles for Israel that others weren’t aware were happening — yet.

The “OG Jews” have earned respect. For years they didn’t get enough of it. Many in mainstream Jewish circles viewed them as outsiders with outdated ideas that didn’t comport with where the community thought it was heading. But that was then, and this is now.

The “OG Jews” have earned respect. For years they didn’t get enough of it. Many in mainstream Jewish circles viewed them as outsiders with outdated ideas that didn’t comport with where the community thought it was heading. But that was then, and this is now, and if the “New Jews” are telling us anything, it is that the “OG” have been vindicated on several fronts. 

The “New Jew” is shocked by the dishonesty of The New York Times, but the “OG Jew” canceled her subscription 25 years ago. The “New Jew” joined his temple because its brand of universal Jewish values mirrored his liberal ones. Now he flees his rabbi’s hostility toward Israel from the pulpit and, to his own astonishment, he finds himself encouraging his son to seek out the Chabad house on campus that the “OG Jew” helped to build. 

American rapper Ice-T released an album in 1991 titled “O.G. Original Gangster,” which popularized the expression. The lyrics in the record’s title song tell us exactly who the OG is and why he earned his title:

“I aint no super hero / I aint no Marvel Comic
But when it comes to game I’m atomic
At droppin’ it straight / Point blank and untwisted
No imagination needed / ‘cause I lived it
This aint no f-ing joke / This s-t is real to me
“I’m Ice-T / O.G.”

I can almost hear Dennis Prager, Caroline Glick, Anne Bayefsky and all the other “OG Jews” singing along. In another universe, one might hear these lyrics and imagine the late Charles Krauthammer having dictated them to Ice-T, but in better grammar and with more humility.

The “New Jew” is having an allergic reaction to the American identity-politics toxin unleashed by the Left (and its attendant outbreak of antisemitism), and rightly so. But one worries that when the rash goes away, so too will the new passion for Jewish identity and the receptivity to political reevaluation. This is a moment to appreciate and learn from the “OG Jews” who were open Zionists and committed Jews even when it was safe to wear a kippah on the streets of LA. They knew there was a repeating pattern of Jewish instability in the diaspora and recognized the warning signs. Learning from those who saw, decades ago, what you came to see just yesterday is the best way to make sure you never get caught off guard again.

I think of Bari Weiss as the most publicly recognized “New Jew.” It isn’t clear that she would necessarily define herself that way, but every “New Jew” I know reads her and reposts her work as if she is their North Star. Weiss famously left her job at The New York Times when the woke wave became intolerable. Her book on antisemitism generated an audience of American Jews for a conversation they weren’t having, and might not have had were it delivered by a different messenger. This is a serious contribution. For that, and for other important work railing against cancel culture and the Left’s war on academic freedom, she has become rather famous in Jewish circles and beyond.

That is a good thing, but I lament that even more Jews don’t know the work of Professor Ruth Wisse, the revered Jewish scholar, Harvard Professor Emerita, and writer, who, in educated Jewish circles and among those on the right, is as looming a “Jewish celebrity” as one can become. In her decades’ long career, she not only wrote about antisemitism but defined it brilliantly as, “the organization of politics against the Jews.” Thus, she framed for American Jewry the way in which to overcome its willful partisan blindness, and to investigate the Jew hatred that actually plagued it. The gift of that insight was overlooked by most American Jews who found it uncomfortable, until the overwhelming truth of it forced them to become the kinds of “New Jews” who had no choice but to accept it. 

I think of Professor Wisse as the poster-child for the OG generation of Jews in America. All the Bari Weiss fans out there would do well to become Ruth Wisse fans as well. Her accumulated wisdom over time is exactly what impassioned “New Jews” need to hear. Had they read Wisse years ago perhaps they would have become “New Jews” a lot sooner.

The truth is, we need the new and the old. There are too few Jews who care at all. 

The truth is, we need the new and the old. There are too few Jews who care at all. But the “New Jews” should remember to acknowledge the “OG Jews” who arrived at the same conclusions years ago, even without Apartheid Week on campus to shock them into their senses. Whatever they knew then, and the “New Jews” know now, should help prepare everyone for the next turn of events and for the arrival of the next batch of “New Jews” it creates.


Rebecca Sugar is a writer living in New York. Her column, The Cocktail Party Contrarian, appears every other Friday in The New York Sun.

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