“I dwell among my people,” said the Shunamite woman, one of the most affecting incidental figures in the Bible, to Elisha. She had no need of any intervention on her behalf with the political or military powers, she told the prophet; the people with whom she lived, the group in which she was a member, was sufficient to her needs. (She was the mother of civil society.) I have always cherished the concreteness of her statement. It is a lucid and elemental affirmation not of an ideal community, but of an actually existing community. The objects of one’s allegiances should not be imaginary, or made unreal by fantasy or ideology. One may differ with, and even despise, aspects of one’s society, but solidarity is premised on a generosity of attitude, on a warm inclination to commonality. Every community has a boundary, but the boundary must not be so wide as to be hollow or so narrow as to be ugly. The search for perfection in love is a prescription for a loveless life. There are conservative American patriots whose contempt for the mores of their fellow Americans is so great that they may be accurately described as anti-American.
But it is not my country that provokes these reflections, it is my people. The body that purports to be the most representative institution of the American Jewish community has just done something disgraceful. The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella organization, has voted to deny admission to J Street. Exclusion is often an admission of infirmity. There is a hole in the umbrella. “Their positions are out of the mainstream of what could be considered acceptable within the Jewish community,” the president of the National Council of Young Israel, an alliance of Orthodox congregations, told The New York Times about J Street. The question of “what could be considered acceptable within the Jewish community” is a question of values, and has for decades been a matter of ferocious debate; but the mainstream is an empirical matter and it can be measured. No organization that claims the membership of merely 25,000 households, as the National Council of Young Israel does, can speak for the mainstream. Nor can, say, American Friends of Likud, a plainly partisan entity that enjoys a seat at the President’s Conference table. Most American Jews support a two-state solution and an exchange of land for peace, and most American Jews do not support the program of Israeli settlement in the West Bank, except perhaps in the ever-expanding environs of Jerusalem. These views may be right or wrong, but they are not marginal. The hawks in the Jewish community cannot be brave dissenters against a dovish consensus and the mainstream.
The American Jewish community is the sum of the identifying Jews who live in America. In one way or another, and simply for not surrendering or disappearing, they are all saving remnants. In this sense, sociology is identity. And the political and religious variety of the Jews of America is the most obvious fact about them—but it pains the nostalgists and the dogmatists, who see no glory in a plenitude of Jewish dispensations and regard diversity as a historical and ideological disappointment. They prefer to delude themselves with legends of a lost uniformity of opinion that never existed. Quarrel has always been a Jewish norm, and controversy a primary instrument for the development of Jewish culture and Jewish religion. But there are those, the heresy hunters and the truancy hunters, the real Jews, the true Jews, the last Jews, who refuse to accept the community as it empirically is, to engage with the cacophony and its causes, and instead they haughtily promulgate definitions of inclusion and exclusion, certifications of authenticity and inauthenticity. Most of their fellow Jews are, for them, for one reason or another, traif. What sort of expression of peoplehood is that? We are a people, not a sect. Like the pseudo-Sanhedrin in Jerusalem that calls itself the Chief Rabbinate, they know nothing about the wisdom of flexibility in an era of change. They seem to believe that certitude makes fairness superfluous. It was not surprising that J Street’s most energetic opponents at the President’s Conference came from the Orthodox, many (but not all) of whom are so busy congratulating themselves on their righteousness and their fertility rate that they are blind to their irrelevance to the fate of Jews who are not like themselves, which is to say, to the fate of the overwhelming majority of American Jewry.
It was the infamous ogre Abraham Foxman who got it magnificently right: “We will support the admission of J Street not because we agree with them ...”—a golden moment of tolerance in a community that is having, let us say, tolerance issues. I do agree with them, at least about some things. But I do not wish to idealize the American Jewish left. It cannot plead innocent to the conformity of opinion. Not long ago I heard someone from Jewish Voices for Peace, which supports the anti-Israel discrimination known as BDS, complain about the closed mind of American Jewry. I asked her when the last time was that her group invited someone from the settler movement to address it. What a festival of odiousness that would be! She had the decency to fall silent.
The orthodoxies and the bubbles and the closed loops and the echo chambers are everywhere. Every current of thought, right and left, cleaves to its own—and what dissidents we all are! But J Street, which unequivocally denounces BDS, is a pro-Israel organization, a Zionist organization, and an organic part of the American Jewish landscape. Brothers and sisters, get used to it. Whether or not we are perverse, we are polymorphous. The exclusion of an opinion is not a refutation of it. There is honor in the mainstream and there is honor in the margins, if a view is held with intellectual integrity and with a sentiment of belonging—which is not easy to do, since the reason of the mind and the rapture of the heart often compromise each other. Even the man who denies that I am his brother is my brother. That does not make me a fool. It makes me a Jew.
Leon Wieseltier is literary editor of The New Republic.