On the construction of the Jewish 'mainstream'

Concentrated power underpins the construction of a monolithic position for Jewish people collectively. Sometimes, what presents itself as democratic representation is anything but.

In an important piece published by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Prof. Lila Corwin Berman highlights how and why a few organizations and their positions are made to stand in for all Jewish people: What makes them appear central and lends them legitimacy is minority wealth, not democratic majorities.

“As a historian who has written about many of these groups, I can tell you that every claim to be the united front, the central address, the singular American Jewish organization has rested on the surety that most American Jews believed no such thing. Indeed, words that posture such a “mainstream” are best read as indicators of dissent, debate and fracture.”

Berman writes about the United States specifically, but the effects of this process in America are felt worldwide. And the same process or a parallel one takes place in other countries, too. Here in Germany, we also have a constructed monolithic Jewish position framed as being above controversy. But there is a difference: the power legitimizing this “mainstream” is political rather than economic; the Geman state sanctions and promotes an official representation of German Jews. But here too, this representation is not democratically legitimized: while the Central Council of Jews in Germany is rooted in Jewish communities of faith, its leadership is not democratically or transparently elected.

What is also strange in Germany — though perhaps not entirely different from the US — is how many non-Jewish Germans are passionately dedicated to upholding a constructed Jewish consensus, claiming and perhaps feeling concern for “the Jews” but incidentally serving self-interest.

Majority and democracy

Criticism like Berman's or my my own often meets a very reasonable and fair objection: “but most Jews do support these positions!” However, this is somewhat besides the point, for three reasons.

First, “mainstream” Jewish organizations do not promote these positions as a result of a deliberative democratic process; they are not formally representative.

Second, the same organization are actively involved in shaping Jewish majority opinion. They organize endless events with Zionist and largely conservative speakers while deplatforming dissenting Jewish opinions and even excluding dissenting Jews from participation in community spaces. If the same organizations then run a poll and find their efforts have borne fruit and a majority agrees with the position they have been aggressively promoting, this cannot seriously be taken to mean the position they promoted was the true position of all Jewish people to begin with.

And finally, simply put, “majority opinion” is not the same as “the opinion of all Jews”. Most≠all. But this is precisely the equation being made: Opinions which are (supposedly) held by a majority are presented as being the opinion of “the Jews” or even of “world Jewry”. Again, this is materially different from actual democratic process, in which a group deliberates and forms a collective position by a collectively agreed procedure.

However, illegitimate power structures always produce resistance. Dissent among Jewish people is growing and becoming better organized. The powerful may back the Zionist consensus to the hilt, but those of us excluded by their representation are not going anywhere, and we will not be silent! ✊🏻