The Conspiracy

Jewish pluralism — and its limits

Donald Trump speaks at an August 2015 town hall in New Hampshire. | Supplied by Michael Vadon [CC-4.0]

The Jewish community has always been in the project of negotiating itself — what people are part of the Jewish community, what opinions are acceptable, and what are not.

We also have a tradition of ideological pluralism which dates back centuries — indeed, to some of the earliest rabbinic literature. Throughout all that tradition, some views were always seen as too far outside the pale, too radical for the rest of the Jewish community. Today, we still have these limits — one need only look to today’s discussions of Israel and BDS (especially on campus) to find that the Jewish community still sees some opinions as too radical.

When the Pew Research Center released a study of Israeli society last week, they found an Israeli community that is almost as fractured as its American counterpart. Indeed, one of the more alarming results of the survey was that almost half of Israeli Jews favor the mass transfer of Arabs out of the country.

When viewed alongside many of the comments made by Donald Trump about the mass deportation of immigrants and Arab refugees out of the United States, the report out of Israel only becomes more frightening. Even more frightening still is the fact that there are Jews in the United States today who support Donald Trump, even though he does things like play up his daughter as his campaign’s token Jew and use deeply anti-Semitic tropes to garner laughs and support. And this is the same candidate who was just invited to AIPAC’s national policy conference next week.

These two deeply troubling developments have started a conversation about the ideological openness that we in the Jewish community should have going forward when it comes to the deeply troubling opinions that many of our coreligionists have. This conversation, started by Forward editor-in-chief Jane Eisner, but must continue going forward.

In her editorial last week, Eisner artfully, and with deep care, argued that we still need to learn how to incorporate those with views we find deeply troubling into our communal conversation. True pluralism, she writes, demands that we must still be proud of the fact that there is wide diversity of opinion within the Jewish community.

But at the same time, I think we must also begin to ask: What are the limits of this diversity of opinions? Should we continue to allow the serious entertainment of some ideologies and opinions, uncomfortable and even horrid though we might find them? Many of my more politically conservative friends have already drawn these lines by excluding organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace and Jews who support BDS from the communal conversation. Has the time come for us on the more politically liberal side of the spectrum to do the same?

Eisner might still answer no. Pluralism, particularly in ideology, is one of the strengths of the Jewish community today. Inviting those who have traditionally fallen outside of the tent is a value that many still hold to be important, some might even say obligatory.

At the same time, the Jewish community today — particularly in the United States, but also, we are beginning to see, in Israel as well — is not unified by its pluralism, but rather increasingly divided by it. We talk about pluralism a great deal, but still have yet to actually achieve any sort of ideological pluralism which accurately reflects the diversity of opinion within the Jewish community.

So perhaps we need to begin setting limits on the diversity of opinion within the Jewish community today. This is already done in so many parts of the Jewish community (again, look at the limits to what is an acceptable opinion about Israel). If we want to be truly pluralistic, then we must either make the decision to be actively pluralistic and make sure that everyone’s voices are heard, or we should begin to demarcate the limits of those views that are acceptable within the mainstream of the Jewish community.

At the same time, I fear that as the Jewish community becomes both more practically and ideologically divided, the already lofty goal of true ideological pluralism becomes harder and harder to achieve. As it stands, many of us with left-of-center views on politics (especially Israeli politics) have already begun to realize that our views are unwelcome in many Jewish institutions. When they’re heard, they’re harshly scrutinized and held to a double standard for being unpopular. At some point, we are going to have to draw new lines in the sand about our responsibility as American Jews to Israel, and as American Jews to other American Jews who support Donald Trump.

Ideological pluralism should be not used as an excuse for condoning overt racism within the Jewish community, nor should it be an alternative to interrogating whether or not racism, xenophobia, and misogyny should be accepted as legitimate points of departure for conversation. These are conversations that need to go beyond just talking about Trump to other instances of bigotry within the Jewish community.

If ideological pluralism is a value, then we as a Jewish community must decide what the underlying roots of that value are. To what end is our ideological pluralism? There is much to be gained by pluralism, but there is also much to be lost as well. Conversations, dialogue, and engagement with whom we disagree are all important, but as many things we simply disregarded before come now to the fore — like the sheer possibility of a Donald Trump nomination — we must also begin to question how far our ideological pluralism can realistically extend.


Amram Altzman is a student at List College.

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