Communities in Question
By A.D. Freudenheim

14 October 2001

A couple of weeks ago, in writing about my mood during the recent Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I identified myself as feeling removed from and troubled by the predominant political views of the American Jewish community, and in the process, leveled a number of broad accusations at that community about its "blindly pro-Israel" positions. Putting aside for now the larger issues of why I have trouble with Israel, it seems to me that what I failed to do adequately was attempt to define the community I was criticizing. This is a complicated situation, since the notion that there is one singular American Jewish community is a myth (and not one that I wish to support), and since defining other people into a community can create its own problems.

Most of us belong to a community of some kind, if not several communities, whether we know it or not. There are communities based on geography, religion, language, values, or combinations of these attributes, and there are communities founded on common business or academic interests; there are even (to a certain extent) communities built around those who have seemingly rebelled against what most of us think as social norms, such as prisons. Communities usually operate by self-identification - we choose to associate ourselves with a particular group, for whatever reason - but there are certainly instances where others seek to define our associations for us. In cases like this, such as the recent incidents of Sikh men wearing turbans being misidentified as (presumably anti-American) Muslims, we do a disservice to ourselves as much as to others. Through our ignorance, in forcibly alienating people who may actually share many of the same values, desires, and goals for their lives as we do, we help no one.

In my specific case, I made two mistakes. The first was in using a phrase that means different things to different people, and without being sufficiently clear about the distinctions. As I said, I do not believe that there is one, singular, monolithic American Jewish community. Rather, the people to whom I was referring are a select group of Jews whose visibility and prominence is most pronounced in America. These are the directors, board presidents, chairmen, and others who administer a broad range of organizations - from theological seminaries to social service agencies, from synagogues to political action committees. More visibly, these are also the people who show up on television or are quoted in the newspapers at moments of crisis, commenting on issues that they think should be important to the "Jewish community" in America, providing their particular, organizational perspective. They attempt to evaluate the impact of some event on American Jews and on Jewish life in the United States.

Perhaps because of the celebrity of their organizations (e.g. the Anti-Defamation League), or more personal attributes such as wealth (e.g. Ronald Lauder), these particular Jews are offered the opportunity to represent a broad spectrum of other American Jews, under the claim that they comprise a larger, national community. Some of these organizational directors have even created a sub-group with its own representative body - the aptly named "Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations". However, in taking the opportunity to represent American Jews, many of these figures typically do so from a perspective with which I disagree strongly. Specific to the issue I wrote about for the Jewish holidays, I find it disappointing that so few opposing voices have been able to receive as much consistent notoriety or prominence - professionals for peace, who see Israel as far from blameless in the current cycle of violence, and who see America's unbending support of Israel as a further complicating factor. There are some, but they are quiet by comparison.

My second mistake was in not taking a stronger position of ownership and activity for my own community. Since I identify as an American Jew - but not with the American Jewish organizational heads I mentioned above - where does that leave me? Not at all community-less. Instead, I find myself living within, and connected to, people of broader political and religious beliefs than those who receive media recognition. I have friends and family who express a breadth of ideas and values about Judaism and Jewish issues - but who do not attempt to ignore me because of our disagreements. We do not necessarily fit into identifiable patterns of religious observance or political perspective, but whatever our differences, we are nonetheless a community. That we cannot be easily categorized does not trouble me.

I do not automatically reject the people, or the organizations, that operate as part of the broad, interlocking set of American Jewish communities existing across the United States. There are plenty of both doing beneficial work, helping to educate, feed, house, and nurture Americans (Jewish and non-Jewish alike) with the best of intentions. What I object to are the claims that are sometimes made on my behalf by those who refuse to acknowledge other points of view, religious or political, and who assume that because I am Jewish, and American, they can claim me as one of theirs. It is true that I am Jewish, and an American, but the communities in which I want to live must, by necessity, be broader than the assumptions that often carry with those two identifying words.

Copyright 2001, by A.D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! Contact A. D. Freudenheim for further information.
This page is part of: The Truth As I See It.