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Replace American Jewish Communal Leadership

Look around at the disarray and the betrayal of Jews by alleged friends and allies, and you’ll see a bitter truth: Our leadership has gone bad

Alana Newhouse
November 08, 2023
ADL national director and CEO Jonathan Greenblatt

Gage Skidmore/Wikipedia

ADL national director and CEO Jonathan Greenblatt

Gage Skidmore/Wikipedia

This article is part of What Now?.
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Years ago, I read a 1923 short story by Dovid Bergelson that has haunted me ever since. Titled “Among the Refugees,” it revolves around a tormented Jew originally from a region called Volhynia, who has moved to a squalid boarding house in Berlin. One day, into the room across the hall from him moves the notorious pogromist from his hometown, the person responsible for, among many other horrors, his grandfather’s death. The villain isn’t hiding or obscuring his identity; in fact, he’s brazenly using his own name.

The distressed young man realizes the opportunity that has come to him: He must kill this devil. But he does not have a weapon, and has no family or friends to turn to for help. One day, he bumps into a man he knows from Volhynia, a man named Beryl, who has connections to the respected leaders of the Jewish community in town: “He’s always involved with Jewish groups here. He associated with them, and they associate with him … Who should I turn to if not him?” he thinks. He asks Beryl to beseech the elders to get him a gun so that he can rid the world of this murderous enemy of the Jews.

The next day, he meets Beryl, who ushers him off to the planned secret rendezvous. There, he is taken into a room with the Jewish leaders, who have brought not a weapon to be used on the enemy but a psychiatrist—to be used on him. In their eyes, this young Jewish man’s instinct for personal and collective self-defense is not heroism; it’s hysteria.

That the story takes place—and was written—between the wars, before the horror of the Holocaust, adds to our terror as modern readers—turning it from a story ostensibly about a revenge killing into one about Jewish communal self-defense. How on earth could those so-called leaders be so blind, so dismissive of the concerns of someone so close to the ground, so outrageously entitled?

How indeed.

Now that pogromists are parading in the streets, smashing windows and noses, and cheering on Jewish genocide, it’s easy for Jewish leaders to wave the biggest blue-and-white flag they can find and vow to take “immediate and concrete action,” whatever that is. But look around at the disarray and the chaos and the betrayal of Jews by alleged friends and allies, and you’ll see a bitter truth: Our communal leadership has gone bad.

Bad leadership failed us on college campuses, pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into “advocacy” while sucking up to university administrations and leaders turning once-illustrious institutions into festering swamps of antisemitism.

Bad leadership failed us on the international scene, complicit in the single greatest blow America has ever dealt to Israeli security, the Obama administration’s Iran deal, while mumbling stupidly about bipartisanship. They swaggered about D.C. declaiming their political clout and influence, yet they were unwilling, when the hour of need arose, to withdraw their support for those intent on giving a genocidal, Holocaust-denying regime hundreds of billions of dollars, regional legitimacy, and the power and motivation to resume exporting death and destruction against its enemies, the Jews first and foremost.

Bad leadership failed us on the political front, rushing to embrace obvious Jew-haters. Like New York’s Jewish Community Relations Council, for example, which was eager to engage Alexandria “the U.S. tested chemical weapons in Vieques as a dress rehearsal for Israeli war crimes in Gaza” Ocasio-Cortez in a fawning dialogue while simultaneously hosting seminars on “white supremacy” and cracking down on Orthodox communities that dared to defy the state’s draconian COVID restrictions.

Bad leadership failed us by failing to prioritize our own, very real needs, abandoning its core mission—to serve and protect Jews—in order to imagine itself instead as yet another tile in the mosaic of the Democratic Party’s contemporary coalition of grievances. Earlier this year, when a Tablet staffer asked a senior executive at a very large American Jewish organization what their group’s top priority was for the year, this person replied, without missing a beat: “Ukraine.” What?

In every precinct and every channel, these leaders not only failed to see what was coming down the pike; they also did their best to sideline and even demonize those who did—snidely dismissing our clear-eyed observers, like Bari and Liel, who’ve grown hoarse from sounding the alarm about intersectionality and antisemitism in left-wing spaces, or Lee, Tony, and Mike, righteous gentiles who’ve spent years warning about the insane and irreversible dangers—to the U.S., to Israel, and to American Jews—of playing footsie with Iran.

Some of these misguided communal leaders have been chastened by recent events.

Andres Spokoiny, of the Jewish Funders Network, spent years using social media platforms to argue that these concerns, particularly about antisemitism in liberal circles, were overwrought. Two weeks ago, in a public forum, Liel asked him point-blank about the large philanthropies he had engaged turning sharply against Israel when it mattered most, like the Ford Foundation—whose CEO, months after appearing as a featured speaker at JFN’s conference, issued a stunningly terrible statement in the wake of the Hamas attacks. Spokoiny answered briefly, clearly, and convincingly. He said he had been wrong, that he had learned his lesson, and that he would not be fooled again.

Others, though, are more sure of themselves than ever. Appearing on Eli Lake’s podcast, the ADL’s Jonathan Greenblatt was asked why the organization under his leadership dedicated itself to decrying right-wing antisemitism and running cover for a censorship and surveillance effort that undermines the First Amendment, not to mention the centurylong Jewish commitment to it?

What did Greenblatt—whose ADL published a guide to America’s leading antisemites that did not include Rashida Tlaib or Ilhan Omar but only a handful of meaningless right-wing bloggers; who stood shoulder to shoulder with Al Sharpton, America’s most prominent living pogromist, to demand that social media outlets censor speech, including of a president elected by 60 million Americans; and who repeatedly championed the Black Lives Matter movement even when it was abundantly clear that it was both financially corrupt as well as deeply anti-Israel—have to say in response?

“We definitely do not play this left-right game,” Greenblatt replied, before going on to blame the media for making up lies.

Of course, it’s not hard to know why. Greenblatt can’t give up on this intersectional racket, since it’s responsible for nearly doubling the ADL’s coffers under his reign. But that’s business, not communal leadership—and we, the community, must finally accept that.

Two weeks ago, a friend was on multiple calls with other Jewish communal professionals where people were trying to square our new reality with the mixed-up ideas they had come to believe were our communal priorities. “We need to hold space in the Jewish community for Jews who are struggling in this moment because they don’t support Israel.” Do we? It seems to me this is an opportunity to bring clarity to what has been obscured, by answering charges like this one as directly as possible: “It is very important that we not misrepresent ourselves, because then these people will ultimately—rightly—feel gaslit. We are Zionists, and we believe that Zionism is central to our work. If this makes our spaces not right for certain people, we need—for their sakes and ours—for them to know it now.”

If we want more morally focused leaders, we need to start being more active followers. Stop reflexively writing checks to legacy organizations whose real work you don’t actually understand. Start demanding to see charters and mission statements, and demanding that they be changed immediately if somewhere along the way they lost the thread of concern for Jews, Israel, and America. And if the leaders at these organizations themselves seem unclear about or uncommitted to the priorities you believe should be paramount right now, fire them or jump ship. Empower new people and new organizations with the smarts and strength and vision to truly lead.

Now is not the time to forgive and forget, because we have no way of knowing if the worst is behind us or not. And I, for one, will not end up on some shrink’s couch, wishing for the gun that never came.

Alana Newhouse is the editor-in-chief of Tablet Magazine.