We’re waiting for Jews to assert themselves

The New York Times magazine published an essay yesterday by Zev Chafets on Obama’s Rabbi:

Rabbi Capers Funnye celebrated Martin Luther King Day this year in New York City at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, a mainstream Reform congregation, in the company of about 700 fellow Jews — many of them black. The organizers of the event had reached out to four of New York’s Black Jewish synagogues in the hope of promoting Jewish diversity, and they weren’t disappointed. African-American Jews, largely from Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens, many of whom had never been in a predominantly white synagogue, made up about a quarter of the audience. Most of the visiting women wore traditional African garb; the men stood out because, though it was a secular occasion, most kept their heads covered. But even with your eyes closed you could tell who was who: the black Jews and the white Jews clapped to the music on different beats.

Funnye, the chief rabbi of the Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago, one of the largest black synagogues in America, was a featured speaker that night. The overflowing audience came out in a snowstorm to hear his thoughts about two men: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama. King is Funnye’s hero. Obama, whose inauguration was to take place the following day in Washington, is family — the man who married Funnye’s cousin Michelle.

Later in the story, this section is interesting and almost obligatory in the American mainstream; Jews have to be persuaded that people are sufficiently “pro-Israel”:

During the Democratic primaries, as he came under repeated attack for being insufficiently pro-Israel, Obama reached out to Funnye, by way of Mary’s brother Frank White, the Obama fund-raiser. White told me that Obama encouraged him to “tell Capers to get the word out that I’ve got a rabbi in my family.” Funnye acknowledges getting the message. Before long, The Forward, the Jewish weekly, ran an article on Obama’s rabbi, and the news spread like low-fat cream cheese from Boca Raton to Brooklyn. Funnye’s association with Obama probably didn’t reassure fervent Zionists — the rabbi is considerably to the left of Obama on Middle East policy — but it didn’t seem to hurt either. The connection to Obama certainly didn’t hurt Funnye. “I got no blowback from the Orthodox at all,” he said. “In fact, I started getting phone calls from a couple Hasidic rabbis in Israel who want to get together.”

Chafets peppers his article with words like “shul” and “nudnik“, shameless expressions of Jewish familiarity. Surely many Times readers won’t have a clue what he’s talking about. Why does the paper allow it? Would it accept equivalent Muslim terms? Of course not.

And here’s the problem. Chafets, like so many leading Jewish writers, are happy writing about “Jewish” issues, expressing strongly Zionist politics – his background is comprehensively examined here – but refuse to engage in the major political issues of the day. The role of Jewish power in the US. The position of the Zionist lobby. The communal effects of the neo-cons on the Jewish community. Jewish support for West Bank settlements, the Gaza war etc. It’s safe and easy to write about Obama and Judaism in the context of religious figures.

This kind of tribalism – everybody reinforcing each other’s beliefs, Zionist Judaism etc – is tired. It’s time to challenge these myths and find writers who will do the hard yards. Sadly, most of them don’t currently work at the New York Times. American Jews are increasingly divided on the Middle East and there are countless stories waiting to be written about it.

Thus far, with notable exceptions, the mainstream media is studiously avoiding engaging them.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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