There’s nothing like an Israel-Hamas war to put a squabble at the Atlanta Jewish Community Center in perspective. Ever since The Crisis of Zionism came out half a year ago, I’ve twitched when people called me “brave.” Espousing political views that get you disinvited from a JCC isn’t brave. And that’s especially obvious when thousands of Israelis and Palestinians are hiding from rockets and mourning their dead.
But while my disinvitation last week from the Atlanta JCC may not have been especially important, it does highlight an often-ignored factor in American Jewish discourse over Israel: income inequality.
Let me explain. In the postwar decades, when American Jews were less assimilated, a higher percentage of them participated in Jewish organizations. And because the Jewish community, like America as a whole, was less economically stratified, those Jewish groups—whether they were synagogues, Federations, Jewish Community Centers or “defense” organizations like the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee and American Jewish Congress—enjoyed a large middle class base. But starting around the 1970s, two things changed. First, because of assimilation, Jewish groups began losing members. Second, because of income inequality, a small number of mega-rich funders filled the gap. By the dawn of the twentieth-century, notes the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Jack Wertheimer, “Jewish organizations had become ever more reliant on a small base of wealthy donors.”
This trend isn’t unique to Jews. As Theda Skocpol has argued, America has seen a general decline in mass-membership groups since the 1960s. And in the Jewish world, as in America more generally, this shift has had political effects. For one thing, it has led Jewish groups to downplay questions of economic justice. In the early twentieth century, the organized American Jewish community was led by men like Louis Brandeis and Stephen Wise, famed campaigners against unchecked corporate power. Today, by contrast, it’s rare for Jewish leaders to take high-profile positions on economic issues like taxes or health care.
Income inequality has also made American Jewish groups more hawkish on Israel. As Steven Cohen, Sam Abrams and Judith Veinstein have noted, the wealthiest American Jews are somewhat more conservative than their co-religionists in general. They’re also older, and as several studies detail, older American Jews are far less willing to criticize Israeli actions than are Jews in their twenties and thirties.
As a result, when it comes to Israel, Jewish professionals often live in fear of alienating a few hawkish donors. I’ve lost count of the number of rabbis who have told me that they’d like to be more publicly critical of Israeli policies, but fear the impact on their already-struggling synagogues. At first, I didn’t quite grasp the point. If some members leave because you criticize settlement policy, I’d say, might not others come? Yes, they’d reply, but the people who leave will be the ones who give the money.
Without betraying confidences, I think something similar happened in Atlanta. I wasn’t disinvited because of the number of Atlanta Jews who opposed letting me speak. I was disinvited because among that number were a very few whose wealth could not be ignored.
The core point is this: The inability of American Jewish groups to foster a more open Israel conversation is bound up with their inability to get people in the door. If you’re offering a spiritual or cultural experience so compelling that your halls are full, you can sustain yourselves even if some big donors defect. If you’re not, you almost instinctively become cautious because you can’t put pressure on an already rickety business model. Maybe it’s no surprise that Breira, the first American Jewish group to back the two state solution, came out of the Chavurah movement, which tried to reinvigorate Jewish religious life. It’s a lot easier to foster a compelling conversation about Israel if you’ve managed to foster a compelling conversation about Judaism first.