06/01/2012 11:20 EDT | Updated 08/01/2012 05:12 EDT

We Are All Part of the Jewish Establishment

If you aren't sure whether you are part of the "Jewish establishment," I submit to you: Do you belong to a synagogue? Do you send your kids to Jewish camp? Jewish school? Do you work out at the JCC? Do you donate to the Jewish Federation?


Remember the old Lenny Bruce routine where he declares some objects "Jewish" and others "goyish"? Count Basie, Hadassah, pumpernickel, and black cherry soda: Jewish. Eddie Cantor, B'nai Brith, Drake's cakes, and lime Jello, on the other hand, clearly goyish. The sketch was funny, of course, because it contained a thin streak of cultural insight cloaked in the absurdity of being so arbitrary.

I'm reminded of Bruce's routine in the ongoing debate, highlighted again by last week's heinous Tel Aviv riots, as to who and what constitutes the overworked term the "Jewish Establishment."

Since the May 23 looting and attacks on African foreigners in Tel Aviv, many Jewish organizations have spoken out, and others continue to. But in the immediate days following, Peter Beinart called out some organizations for not being quick enough to publicly condemn the riots.

The problem is, Beinart seems to be confining his criticism to the amorphous concept of the "Jewish Establishment." I'm increasingly coming to think that the term is a catch-all for everything a liberal Jew doesn't like when it comes to Jewish organizational attitudes, particularly around Israel.

I have a new formulation for my fellow North American Jews, and anyone else who associates with us in our shuls, schools, community centers, organizations, and federations: We are all the American Jewish establishment. (Well, almost all of us.) And I'll tell you why it matters.

Shortly after Beinart's piece came out, Jill Jacobs, executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights, tweeted him: "Hey, did you see the RHR-NA Statement?" Minutes later, Americans For Peace Now's Lara Friedman added, "Please correct your piece -- APN wasn't silent." Journalist Ron Kampeas chimed in, "As you would have known had you read the JTA piece thoroughly: APN wasn't silent." Beinart's response on Twitter? "I don't consider APN (a group I admire) part of the American Jewish establishment."

Would we agree that the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations is part of the American Jewish establishment? Well, Americans for Peace Now has a seat on that esteemed body. So does Ameinu, an organization billing itself as promoting "liberal values" and a "progressive Israel," and on whose board of directors I currently sit. (I guess I'm part of the Jewish establishment too.)

The JCCA, The Jewish Federations of North America, The Rabbinical Assembly, the Rabbinical Council of America, Union for Reform Judaism and Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America are all represented there too. Organizations need to be only five years old to apply for membership; we may very well soon see J Street join the Conference of Presidents.

Ameinu's response wasn't as immediate as statements issued by some others, but when it appeared in its newsletter this week, it was principled and to the point: " angry mob of Israelis, incited by right-wing demagogic politicians who called the Africans a 'cancer' on Israel, went on a rampage and attacked African-owned businesses and property. The attack was nothing short of a pogrom, albeit one perpetrated by Jews against a weaker minority group. Ameinu deplores this senseless violence and implores the State of Israel to seek a humane and just resolution to this humanitarian crisis."

If you aren't sure whether you are part of the "Jewish establishment," I submit to you: Do you belong to a synagogue? Do you send your kids to Jewish camp? Jewish school? Do you work out at the JCC? Do you donate to the Jewish Federation?

And if you still don't think you are part of the establishment, maybe it's time to take the establishment back. These are not smoky back rooms with secret membership lists.

In response to every rabbi's sermon there is a chance to engage that spiritual leader. Or write your own blog. Or post a Facebook status update. Or tweet back. There are countless boards in need of trustees, adult education committees in need of programming suggestions. Lectures require audiences, including listeners ready to ask tough questions. Jewish papers need readers, and editors need letters to print.

I sympathize with Beinart's frustration. His 2010 essay "The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment" took important aim at some sacred cows when it comes to how Jewish institutions engage with the subject of Israel.

But Beinart knows as well as anyone that even smaller, more nimble and more liberal organizations sometimes need to camp out under the very tent erected by those who promote a more myopic vision of Israel. Yes, through the Conference of Presidents, both Ameinu and Americans for Peace Now are granted seats on AIPAC's National Council. Beinart himself reported on Ameinu's brave efforts to bring attention to the issue of "illegal settlement outposts" during this year's AIPAC conference.

So if you do believe you're part of the Jewish establishment, let's keep the conversation healthy, fulsome and robust. If you still think you're not part of it, I urge you to comb through your drawers: I bet there's an old membership card waiting to be dusted off, an invitation to a panel awaiting reply, or some unspoken thoughts awaiting your voice.

A version of this blog appeared in Haaretz