At a recent conference in Philadelphia, Bret Stephens coined the term, “October 8th Jew.” It was meant especially for left-wing Jews who, observing the glee with which their ideological fellow travelers responded to the previous day’s mass murder of Jews, belatedly realized that progressive politics are no safe haven from antisemitism.
Now, it’s time for Jewish organizations to act on the realization. But how?
Over the course of 30 years or more, the priorities of national and local Jewish agencies dedicated to intergroup relations — the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the leadership of America’s synagogue denominations, the Jewish Federations, the Jewish Community Relations Councils (JCRCs) — haven’t changed much. They have focused on partnering with non-Jews, often on the Left, who share a commitment to civil rights but who, left to their own devices, might embrace anti-Israel positions. The goal of Jewish community relations has been to work toward a more just society while keeping these fence-sitters from embracing anti-Israel narratives.
This work once had a good track record. No longer. Given how thoroughly radical left-wing voices now dominate so much of progressive politics, and particularly in light of their de facto support for Hamas, it’s high time to rethink the whole strategy.
Here’s what needs to change:
1. Be unflinchingly honest. Don’t mouth false niceties to curry favor with non-Jewish interlocutors. Last week, a Jewish community-relations professional declared on social media, “Hamas does not represent all (or most) Palestinians….These terms and concepts are hurtful and make productive discourse impossible.” I pointed out that Hamas may indeed represent a strong majority of Gazans, and I posted an article by Democratic pollster Mark Mellman that noted, “Gazans give [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas just 33 percent, while 64 percent would vote for Hamas’s [Ismail] Haniyeh.” The JCRC professional responded, “Regardless of what the polls say or how you interpret them, it’s not a statement that’s helpful in a conversation about finding common ground.”
By contrast, I participated in a remarkable high-level Muslim-Jewish dialogue in late October, in which Jewish participants engaged forcefully and unapologetically. One prominent rabbi told the group point-blank that “antisemitism is a much more serious problem than Islamophobia.” This was jolting for many of the Muslim participants and not a few of the Jews. Not one Muslim participant, however, left the Zoom conversation. The typical dynamic in Muslim-Jewish or Arab-Jewish dialogue is for Jews to be nuanced about Israel, acknowledging Israeli excesses and decrying the occupation, while our interlocutors offer an unqualified defense of every Palestinian act of rejection and violence. It’s fine for Jews to be nuanced, but it’s long past time to expect the same from our interlocutors. We should ask, “Why is it that you never find fault with anything that Palestinians do?” If they are incapable of engaging in such conversation, then it’s time to move on, lest we become complicit in their denial. We know where that gets us.
2. Don’t partner with people who think it’s okay to murder Jews. I’m generally averse to most litmus tests. I’ve had a drink with a staff member of the anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Peace, and I’ve had coffee with a radical leader of CAIR (the Council on American-Islamic Relations). But I don’t think any self-respecting Jewish organization should sit on a public panel, join a coalition, or be in dialogue with people who supported the murder of our brethren in Israel. The ADL’s Jonathan Greenblatt got it right when he stated, “I’m not going to humanize people who dehumanize others.” We should be isolating, not platforming these extremist voices. If larger coalitions insist on giving them a place at the table, we should withdraw, whatever the temporary loss of influence.
3. Don’t pay the price of admission. There’s an old adage in Jewish community relations: “If you’re not at the table, then you’re on the menu.” The problem is that you can be both. Too many Jewish groups have been willing to parrot rhetoric about America being a “white-supremacist society” in order to be at the table. For example, they were willing to go along with California’s highly ideological ethnic studies school curriculum, with its lesson plans about “de-colonialism” and “settler-colonialism,” provided it didn’t explicitly denounce Israel or insult Jews.
But supporting outrageous political positions completely at odds with the traditional Jewish understanding of America is dangerous. It feeds belief systems that may not be antisemitic on their face, but are “antisemitic-adjacent” and descend easily into open antisemitism when given the opportunity. Just as we wouldn’t support an “America First” curriculum even if it didn’t directly malign Jews, we should not do so with the radical pronouncements coming from the other side.
4. Prioritize partnerships with groups that support democratic values. This is a significant change. Today, our most important work is with groups in the center, with whom we agree on fundamental democratic values. Our new allies do not buy into social-justice dogma on the Left, just as they do not buy into replacement theory on the Right. They are patriotic but not nativist, and they know the difference between an imperfect democracy, whether it’s Israel or America, and a truly oppressive regime, whether it’s in Tehran or Gaza. The point is to wed ourselves to a common democratic vision of American society, rather than to a particular point on the political spectrum.
5. Isolate the extremists. In the aftermath of the October 7 massacre, numerous leftists immediately shared ghastly memes on social media praising the Palestinian “resistance” and calling for “the liberation” of Palestine. Where the old Jewish community-relations strategy was to identify and influence the fence-sitters and “complicate” their understanding of Israel, the new October 8th strategy must be to keep leftist ideologues out of mainstream institutions — or kick them out. Jewish community relations have a golden opportunity to isolate the hang-glider crowd and demand that school officials and elected leaders keep hate out of our schools and politics. In this respect, name-and-shame is the name of the game.
6. Be the insurgent. In the decades since the Six-Day War, American Jewish organizations have become political insiders, boasting an array of high-level relationships. It’s quite an achievement. In becoming incumbents, however, we have also become hesitant to appear combative, to the point where we are failing to act even when it serves our interests. Radical anti-Israel progressives have gained the upper hand in universities, the entertainment industry, and the news media. These hostile forces rely on the Jewish community’s reluctance to use our power and fight back hard.
In the ethnic studies case discussed above, for instance, the Jewish community in Orange County, California chose to object to the proposed curriculum by sending a few people to give well-rehearsed testimony at a Santa Ana school-board meeting, rather than coming out in large numbers in a visible display of opposition. Indeed, they specifically asked people to stay at home and not demonstrate. Meanwhile, the anti-Israel groups did come out in full force, carrying placards and chanting in support of keeping the anti-Israel elements in the curriculum. It’s okay for us Jews to come out in numbers and express our outrage. It no longer serves us to be so buttoned-up, because American society is so much less buttoned-up.
7. Don’t dodge the conversation. For too long, Jewish organizations, fearful of alienating internal stakeholders or progressive allies, have shunned discussion about the ideological roots of left-wing antisemitism. The 31 student groups at Harvard that publicly blamed Israel for the Hamas massacre didn’t come from nowhere. It was decades in the making. Ideologues see systems of oppression everywhere and insist this schema is the only way to understand the world’s disparities. Our universities have conditioned large swaths of society to see Israel in these terms, too.
October 8 offers us the opportunity to rethink what we do and how we do it. We cannot fail to seize the moment for change.