There is an old joke that if you have two Jews you will have three opinions. Former US Congressman and New York Mayor Ed Koch this weekend added, “And also four different temples.” This joke is not a joke but an indication of the fragmentation of what can no longer seriously be categorized as “Jewish political thought” when that category has been totally deconstructed.
This past weekend I chaired a conference in New York City on the Jewish Vote, the Holocaust and Israel. Speakers included Mayor Koch, present Republican Congressman Bob Turner, famous talking heads Tevi Troy and Hank Sheinkopf and several academics and authors, all under the auspices of the Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. The conference was excellent in substance, tracing Jewish voting trends from Hoover to the present from both academic and political perspectives.
As interesting were the reactions of attendees. Much of the audience was older, conservative, angry with Obama, seeing the election in terms of support of Israel. Younger attendees were almost bemused by what they considered to be a narrow view of the world and of the election, saying “this is not how the younger Jewish community views these issues,” suggesting that a focus on the Holocaust as informing current voting is old fashioned in style and irrelevant on the ground.
And after spending a whole day at the conference, locked in Fordham Law School, attendees stepped out into the bright Manhattan sunshine and confronted a demonstration by a couple of dozen Hasidic Jews, dressed in dark coats and with untrimmed hair, holding signs objecting to the conference itself as purporting to address the US elections from the standpoint of the Jewish community; these observant Jews thought that any involvement in politics as a group was wrong-minded (signs admonishing us not to address political issues “in my name”).
Whether there is a Jewish vote (which implies some sort of bloc) or just a set of statistics reflecting historical voting patterns in Jewish neighborhoods is much a matter of semantics. How Jews voted historically (typically Democratic from at least the ‘20s onward, almost without regard to attractive Republican positions) or were likely to vote this year (among the aged attendees of the conference, I don’t think Obama could get elected dog-catcher) was explored but without likelihood that the conference would change anyone’s mind.
The more interesting issue is, what if anything can be said about Jewish political views with any confidence that one is speaking for more than a fragment of the alleged cohort. There are numerous groups speaking (they say) for “the Jews.” I conclude that we too, this weekend, even as a scholarly and open forum, were viewed as just another one of many fragments. Is there merit in attempting to bond these fragments, or at least some of them? Is there any prospect for doing so?
Important here is the gap in defining what is important for the Wyman Institute, or for many of the groups focused on the Holocaust. A younger view wants relevance to the problems of today: current issues, current genocides not only focused on Jewish victims, issues currently presented to us by the world. An older view says that yes, we can hear that, but there is another thread here, that Jews must be alert to their personal and special risks as historical punching bags over centuries and across continents.
It seems to me the older view has a fear in delivering overtly the message that Jews should beware of the world even today, even as assimilated peoples in settings where the illogic of societal prejudice actually running wild seems paranoid. The older view is two fold I think: first, it is not paranoid when “they” are in fact talking about you; second, how many times do we have to replay the same conversation before it sinks in that today’s logical person is well advised to keep a weather eye peeled towards the almost inconceivably irrational beast?
I see a generational disconnect that must be overcome. I see older elements of the Jewish community hesitant effectively to express the old fears, almost dismissing younger elements as so ill-educated as to be beyond reach. I see younger elements appropriate offended that their eldest living forbears would so dismiss them after nurturing them and educating them and setting them loose to compete (and succeed) in the world at large.
There is both wisdom and lack of patience on both sides of the divide. And there are so many ancillary divides, including but not limited to the guys across the street who invoke the Bible to criticize even holding the discussion.
It is not odd that voting, viewed by historians of democracy as the ultimate expression of political freedom, should highlight the schisms within our polity, and within its constituent elements. But whoever wins the election this November, there is work to be done to bring together some of the older strands of Jewish political thinking with the J-Street crowd.