American Jewish Progressives Declared Irrelevant

The Dangers of Ideological Boundaries

Ha’aretz is an Israeli newspaper and news outlet. It is considered to be the country’s most liberal paper and, at least in its English presentation, often reflects “liberal Zionist” sentiments, such as questioning Israeli settlement and occupation policies. Still, the paper can get things seriously wrong, because Zionism, Israel’s official ideology, can make objective interpretations of current events difficult—especially events taking place at a distance. It is simply the case that ideologies set boundaries to understanding. Facts can often be misjudged or simply ignored if they cannot be reconciled with established beliefs. For an observer standing outside of Zionism’s ideological turf, so to speak, such misreckonings can appear obvious. But for those within, few will notice when ideologically influenced interpretation is in fact misinterpretation.

Something like this recently occurred in the pages of Haaretz (English). On 2 October 2020 the paper’s “senior correspondent and columnist,” Anshel Pfeffer, published an opinion piece entitled “American Jewish Leftists Are Heading for Self-Righteous Irrelevance, Just Like Israel’s.” In it, he claimed that the American “leftist” Jews (he is actually referring to Jewish progressives and I will now use this more accurate descriptor) are single-issue oriented and therefore devoid of strategic thinking. He notes that a similar problem doomed their Israeli leftwing counterparts to political irrelevance some thirty years ago.

Pfeffer predicts that American Jewish progressives will go down the same “rabbit hole,” as he puts it, as did the Israeli Jewish left, and for the same reason. Is this an accurate assessment or an ideologically driven misinterpretation? To figure this out we need to learn how Pfeffer interprets the behavior of his own country’s Jewish left because it is his standard for judging American progressive Jews.

Pfeffer Explains

Here is what he says:

First: “The Jewish left in the Diaspora, especially in the United States … is repeating the same mistake of the Israeli left. That mistake is to focus their activism more and more on one issue.” And what is that single issue? It is the fate of the Palestinians and the issues of Israeli settlements and occupation.

Second: This same single-issue path is the one the Israeli left pursued in the mid-1990s only to be caught short by the outbreak of the Second Intifada. After this uprising was suppressed, “the left failed to come up with compelling reasons why Israel should continue to seek peace with the Palestinians—but it had no policies on other issues” important to Israeli Jews, and thus became politically irrelevant.

Third: Pfeffer admits that, in the long run, the Palestinian question represents “a critical issue,” but “like it or not, it isn’t high on anyone’s agenda right now, and is unlikely to be for the foreseeable future.” Of course, this may be the case in Israel, yet is it an objective assessment or an ideologically underwritten false-impression that brings him to project the same “agenda” onto the American Jewish scene? An answer to this question is suggested below in Part III.

Fourth: American Jewish progressives are allegedly focusing all their attention on “ending Israel’s control over the lives of millions of Palestinians.” For Pfeffer, this demonstrates a lack of strategic thinking because it precludes “finding allies within the community you’re hoping to influence”—such as so-called liberal Zionists and their organizations like Americans for Peace Now (APN).

Fifth: As an example of this alienating behavior he cites the pressure supposedly brought by American Jewish progressives on U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) to withdraw from an APN event honoring Yitzhak Rabin and the signing of the Oslo Accords.

Sixth: Pfeffer assumes that act of pressuring AOC will isolate  American Jewish progressives from the rest of the Jewish community and this will make them irrelevant. On the other hand, according to Pfeffer, “the real political story in the United States is happening elsewhere right now.” And where is that? It is with the policies of the Democratic candidates Biden and Harris who, shunning the Palestinian issue (“an interest of little importance to others”), remain major players in the American Jewish community.

Ideologically Driven Misinterpretation

Has Anshel Pfeffer got it right? Not really.

First: Was it, as he claims, the American Jewish progressives who pressured AOC to withdraw from the APN event? Not specifically. It was an array of supporters of the Palestinian cause, including Palestinian Americans and their organizations. So, Pfeffer is clearly exaggerating a point central to his argument.

Second: Do the American Jewish progressives really concentrate, as Pfeffer asserts, exclusively on “pro-Palestinian activism” to the exclusion of “a vision of Jewish identity and a viable communal and cultural life in the Diaspora in the post-COVID 21st century”? Here the answer is a definitive no, and Pfeffer knows it. He admits that “there are certainly Jewish progressive voices articulating serious thoughts on a wide range of issues.” Yet he dismisses these because, he says, “the political-activist muscle doesn’t seem to be there yet.”

Third: Belying Pfeffer’s assumptions, most Jews who are progressive activists stay clear of the struggle of Israel and the Palestinians. They concentrate on domestic issues of fairness, tolerance, and social and racial justice. Here they remain remarkably active and their relevance is increasing, both within Jewish and non-Jewish communities, rather than diminishing.

Fourth: Here is Anshel Pfeffer’s problem: as an Israeli liberal Zionist, he seems to assume that all Jews behave like Israeli Jews—or in any case, should do so. This is an ideologically underwritten trick of the Zionist mind, and it has led him to mistake some American Jewish activists for the entire subgroup of Jewish progressives. Thus, there is a very vocal progressive Jewish organization, Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), that does emphasize the problem of Israeli oppression of the Palestinians. However, Pfeffer’s apparent belief that this group stands in for all of “the Jewish left” is just wrong.

Fifth: Nonetheless, it should be noted that in taking their position, JVP stays true to traditional American Jewish values of fairness, tolerance and justice: “Jewish Voice for Peace members are serious about making change. We work with diverse communities across the U.S. to achieve a lasting peace for Palestinians and Israelis based on equality, human rights, and freedom.” Their work connects these universal, as well as American Jewish values, not only to the fight for justice for the Palestinians, but also to ongoing struggles among many minority groups in the U.S.

Sixth: The inclusion of the Palestinians into a struggle supported by American Jewish values brings to light Israeli betrayal of those same values.

Zionist Israel’s Values

Unlike those of progressive American Jews, the values of Zionist Israel are prima facie racist. That does not mean that all Israelis are inherently racist, but it does mean that all but the independent-minded among them are drawn by education and culture to support a racism that automatically flows from the establishment of an exclusive community amidst a large number of forcibly displaced “others.” Thus, in this case, one specifically defined group is advantaged by virtue of religion and biblical mythology read as history.

The Israeli Jews will often rationalize their nationalist racism in the name of self-defense, or the supposed right of the Jewish people to have their own country. But, again, standing outside of Zionist ideological turf, such rationalizations are no longer convincing—unless you are politically committed to a Zionist lobby. Certainly, they do not stand up to reasonable moral and ethical challenges.

Finally, taking a stand based on the traditional American Jewish values of fairness, tolerance and justice is not likely to send even the Jewish progressives of JVP down a “rabbit-hole” of irrelevance. This is so especially when the oppression of Palestinians find resonance with millions of minority citizens in the U.S.A. That is why, contrary to Anshel Pfeffer’s prediction of impending irrelevance, JVP is growing among American Jewry at a healthy rate. JVP presentlyhas “over 18,000 members and a network of over 70 chapters” in the U.S.


At one point in his commentary Pfeffer writes of the American Jewish progressives, “even if you’re convinced that you have the ultimate solution to a century-old problem 6,000 miles away from you, other Jews living right near you have more burning problems right now.” It is an odd choice of words because this is exactly the sort of entitlement Pfeffer reserves for himself. He seems convinced that, although he is 6,000 miles away and casting judgment on a branch of Jewish culture and values steeped in two hundred years of American history, he knows where it has gone wrong and what direction it should be moving in. Fortunately, U.S. Jews are not Israelis, and those who are activist Zionists, even if presently in charge of well-funded yet unrepresentative organizations, are the ones out of touch and risking future irrelevance.

The progressive efforts of American Jews will go on and the cause of the Palestinians will continue to be compatible with that work. The positions taken by politicians and community leaders blindly devoted to the support of Zionist Israel is not compatible. Theirs is an alien racist cause, and this may well be the last generation of American Jewish “leaders” to play such a role.

Lawrence Davidson is a retired professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.