I am a product of Jewish communal organizations and a proud Zionist. I have always felt represented by mainstream Jewish organizations, including federations, Hillel and Jewish summer camps. But that has changed in the wake of the U.S. election.
From my standpoint, many Jewish organizations have failed to stand up and raise their voices in the face of the rise of the alt-right, a movement aligned in some instances with neo-Nazis. Moreover, some mainstream Jewish organizations have been cautious about responding to the appointment of Stephen Bannon, formerly of the right-wing Breitbart News, as president-elect Donald Trump’s chief strategist and senior counsellor.
While a few organizations have condemned Bannon’s alleged anti-Semitism, including a rare joint statement by the organizations of the Conservative Movement, other groups, like the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), have been silent on the matter. (JFNA has a policy of not commenting on U.S. administration appointments.) The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), meanwhile, invited Bannon to its annual gala.
That is why I stepped outside the mainstream Jewish organizational world last week to join with IfNotNow, the self-described “movement to end the American Jewish community’s support for the occupation” – an organization that I normally have little in common with – to protest the ZOA’s invitation to Bannon. Through his work at Breitbart, I believe Bannon has stoked the flames of xenophobia, nativism, bigotry and hatred and provided a platform for anti-Semitism, the exact opposite of what my community preaches.
Where are the Jewish organizations that I thought represented me?
Where are the organizations that proudly taught me that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.? Where are the teachers and religious leaders who remind me every year at Passover that we were once strangers in a strange land, that we overcame slavery to become free? Where are the leaders who bravely send teenagers on March of the Living? Who told me that the Nazis conquered Poland in a day, but that Jewish resistance was so strong that it took weeks to resist the Warsaw Ghetto uprising?
I don’t regret attending the IfNotNow protest against Bannon’s attendance at the ZOA gala, but I certainly would have preferred if the protest had been organized by the larger community and with support from mainstream Jewish organizations.
I have attended countless rallies to support Israel during its wars, the Mavi Marmara incident, and to commemorate Yom Hazikaron. One of the earliest photos of me as a baby was taken at a Free Soviet Jewry rally in San Francisco. This is what we do as a community: we organize. But lately, it seems as though we are more interested in attending galas and fundraising events than fighting for unions, caring for refugees and saving our environment. We no longer stand up when the going gets tough; we would rather write long Facebook posts, or just remain silent for fear of saying the wrong thing.
My experience as an observant Jew has always been that the Jewish community comes together during times of crisis and celebration. Our organizations successfully unite for Israel Day parades, overfill pews for the High Holidays, and send teenagers, college students and young adults to Israel to learn their history. And yet, when the Jewish community and communities of colour around the U.S. are being attacked, our voice has become silent.
If we cannot organize ourselves now as a community against the vehement hatred that is vociferously spreading throughout the Western world, then when will we stand up? We should take action now, follow our prior success in mobilizing our community, and take the baton from our leaders who truly stood up against racism and bigotry. This is not a wait-and-see moment.
Ezra Moses is a master’s student at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service and the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies. He was raised in Montreal.