The second problem with partisanship for American Jews is that it reduces Jewish power. People don’t like talking about Jewish power out loud because, despite good intentions, it either sounds anti-Semitic itself or gives fodder for anti-Semites. But Jewish power in America has been essential to Jewish thriving in America, and it has required instruments of solidarity — and specifically, the technique of presenting to the rest of the world an image, even if a facade, of communal unity.
The theory was that Jews succeeded in America in part by preserving a culture of not “airing our dirty laundry in public” — which is to say, still fighting politically with one another in community and in the ballot box but preserving some modicum of internal communal coherence. This theory tells of a time when American Jews were far more vulnerable, when Jewish collective belonging was obvious, and when Jews were much less likely to be politicians themselves and therefore needed to traffic in influence more than in actual power. This lost past — largely imagined, mostly undesirable — cannot be reclaimed.
Moreover, as my colleague Tal Becker likes to say, not wanting to air one’s dirty laundry in public should not be an excuse for — as it often becomes — not wanting to do the laundry. The dirty laundry metaphor too often becomes an instrument for silencing dissent and silencing activism to correct moral flaws.
Yet even so, the consequence of this loss of collective consciousness is real and must be acknowledged. Jews have traded the security for the collective that comes with consolidated power for the promise of power that can be attained by individual Jews even if it comes at the cost of the collective.
Individual Jews can achieve unprecedented positions of power as Jews in 2018 America, but whether or not the Jewish community can wield collective power anymore is an open question, especially since there are now politically powerful Jews warring against each other on both sides of the aisle.
Here again, Jews are simply Americans: The consensus politics of the mid-20th century in America were a postwar necessity, and so in similar ways — as Noam Pianko argues — American Jews gravitated to the terminology of “peoplehood” as a matter of political convenience. This term helped American Jews hold on to some language of ethnicity, and strengthened their capacity to fight existential threats, while shedding their “otherness” and integrating as Americans. The language of peoplehood helped to establish American Jewish group identity and to form the basis for American Jewish political power.
And while I am not always a fan of the hegemonic power of the term “peoplehood” and the way that some of its users deploy it to suppress individualism and attitudes that they understand to be disloyal, I fear that the foundations of Jewish power in America, which in turn allow individuals to thrive in American politics, depend more heavily on this group identity than its critics like to admit.
It’s not often that people write publicly about Jewish power.