How Not to Piss in a Tent: Or the Story of American Jewish Leadership – by Peter Eisenstadt

How Not to Piss in a Tent; Or, the Story of American Jewish Leadership
Peter Eisenstadt

This is one of my favorite political stories, like all good stories probably apocryphal and a bit risqué, and I hope no one is offended. Lyndon Johnson, the story goes, was bothered by a rival giving him fits. He told an operative to make a deal with him, get him within Lyndon’s coalition, beneath his big tent, because, when it came to tents, it was better to have someone inside the tent pissing out, rather than outside the tent pissing in. Lyndon Johnson knew from big tents and broad coalitions. Malcolm Hoenlein and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations does not. And now, Mr. Hoenlein, we know what direction to pee in, thank you very much.

It is unfortunate that the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, in an election that made the Electoral College and the College of Cardinals seem like models of democratic suffrage and transparency, decided to exclude J Street from its august ranks, but as some have suggested, it is probably for the best. Because I think in a short while, if not already, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations will need J Street more than J Street needs an imprimatur from this bunch of reactionary old fogies.

Perhaps (probably) I am making too much of this, but I wonder if we are not at one of this turning points in American Jewish history, and we are witnessing the breakdown of the post-67 consensus that has governed American Jewish politics for many decades. As students of American Jewish history know, once upon a time, major Jewish organizations bitterly and very publicly argued. There was the Jewish Workers Bund against the Jewish Communists, the American Jewish Committee versus the American Jewish Congress, the American Council for Judaism vs the Zionists, and within Zionist ranks, the Labor Zionists versus the Revisionists. Being in a constant state of intemperate disagreement with political rivals can be wearying (as in the vituperative and witless prattle that passes for contemporary political debate in this country) but it has the advantage of, at least, of avoiding the coercive sentimentality of imagining that everyone does, or at least should agree, and that disagreement and real political differences are somehow unseemly.

This has been the position of the American Jewish establishment for many decades. There is no Jewish cliché that annoys me more than the old saw “two Jews, three opinions.” I have never found Jews to be any more or less disputatious than any other religious or ethnic group, and for too many years, when it comes to Israel, the rule has generally been “three Jews, one opinion” (or else.)

It’s an interesting question of how this came about, and it seems to me that it is primarily a post-1967 phenomena, though a case can be made that it began after 1948, when non or anti-Zionism became a non-factor in American Jewish life, and defense of Israel became its paramount cause. And when you are defending, dissent becomes a dangerous luxury that can’t be allowed. And for decades major Jewish organizations have worked, successfully, to marginalize dissent, to keep it out of the headlines, out of the story. But this no longer is working.

It is not working for the same reason that American politics is not working. There is no center, there is only an increased polarization between right and left. It is no longer sufficient to just say that you support Israel—you have to state how you support it. Israel, rather than bringing American Jews together, has become polarizing, something not to talk about in polite company. Rabbis are afraid to discuss Israel with their congregations. Jews are hesitant to discuss Israel with other Jews, at least other Jews whose positions on Israel they do not know. And the old glib answers aren’t working anymore, for anybody. There is a general sense of confusion underlined by the failure of the Kerry mission, and the uneasy feeling, on all sides of the American-Jewish political spectrum, that we are wading into deep and troubling waters, with no real sense of where we are going.

And the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations has become irrelevant and much of its undergirding. It is a time of crisis, and a time for the tumbling down of old Jewish institutions, and building new ones. In the response of the American Reform and Conservative movements, one can see the stirrings of change, a change that has been, for many decades, too long avoided, and too long evaded.