Communal governance during a time of change

A new generation of Jews must learn to confront the new outbreak of anti-Semitism
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For decades, Jewish communal goals in America, established in a mostly “peacetime” environment, have focused on issues of continuity and welfare: Jewish education, care for the elderly and basic support for Israel. As long as there was a consensus around these primary aims, other differences could be mostly smoothed over. But that was in “peacetime.”

From the first “intifada” in December 1987, when the media, campuses and liberal churches began their heavy tilt toward the Palestinian cause, and Jews began to divide more sharply on issues concerning Israel, Jewish community leaders were faced with a challenging problem: How could they respond effectively to dangerous ideological assaults on Israel and yet hold together constituencies with increasingly divergent views about the Middle East? Cities with large Jewish populations are represented by Jewish Federations that raise and distribute funds mostly for the non-controversial basics of Jewish communal life listed above.

Under most Federations, and normally funded by them, are Jewish Community Relations Councils (CRCs) that function as the Jewish community’s outreach arm to politicians, other ethnic and religious organizations, and now “gender-identity” groups.

The Federations and CRCs are accepted – both by most Jews and by the wider public – as more or less the official representatives of the Jewish community.

In terms of Jewish communal governance, one could say that the Federations are the Jews’ “Health and Human Services Departments” (HHS) and the CRCs are our local diplomatic services. The classic Jewish “Department of Defense” – comprised of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the American Jewish Committee (AJC) – was historically tasked to deal with familiar enemies: Christian anti-Semites, Nazis, neo-Nazis, and emerging racist anti-Semites such as Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam.

The situation of world Jewry took a sharp turn in the late 1980s with the emergence of what scholars and writers call a “new anti-Semitism” – defined as hostility toward Israel, found in the media, universities and mainline liberal churches, combined with an anti-Jewish/anti-Israel animus surging in the Muslim world.

Jews in America were unprepared, flustered even, by these new threats.

At this critical juncture, both ADL and AJC chose not to alter their missions and foci; they declined to become either the chief strategists or the prime responders to these new threats. The ADL came to define itself more and more as a universalist human rights group, fighting against all bias – and even general human misconduct. (ADL now campaigns against “Islamophobia,” and it spends significant Jewish resources against school bullying.) Neither did the AJC – which clung to its roles in “Jewish diplomacy” and international relations – come onto the campuses or take on the media in any concerted manner.

To fill the gap, smaller, specialized and more grassroots groups (with budgets of $2 million to $5m., as opposed to ADL/AJC budgets of $35m. to $60m.) arose – CAMERA (founded in 1982) to deal with media bias; Stand With Us, The David Project and Hasbara Fellows (all founded in 2001-02) to fight for Israel on the campuses and sometimes to take on the anti-Israelism of liberal churches.

Significantly, no specifically Jewish organization arose in America to take on the growing danger of Islamist anti-Semitism, which scholars and experts identify as the greatest threat to Jewish life. Jews concerned about this threat supported The Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT), which tackled radical Islam in America; ACT for America, which educates groups across America about radical Islam; Americans for Peace and Tolerance (APT), which specializes in exposing local Islamic radicals (in Boston, Nashville and Buffalo); The Middle East Forum, which provides scholarly analysis of the Islamic world; and the two Israel-based groups, MEMRI and Palestinian Media Watch, which translate Islamic and Palestinian hate speech into English.

At the national level, there was always AIPAC, which builds the American/Israeli relationship with Congress; and the ZOA which does that and in addition, defends Jewish interests on all fronts.

Jewish opinion about Israeli policies was always divided, roughly mirroring the Labor/Likud split in Israel. The new anti-Semitism puts significant stress not only on Israel, but also on the dynamics of communal consensus.

The hostile focus on the Jewish state exacerbated the Left/Right Jewish split; much of the Left either blamed Israel or at least wanted Israel to make concessions “for peace,” while the Center/Right mostly did neither.

When the Palestinians used Gaza as a launching pad for war, most Israelis lost hope in “land for peace.” Most liberal American Jews, however, have not. Similarly, Israeli hopes for peaceful accommodation with the Muslim world were deeply shaken when the Arab Spring revealed the enormous pull of radical Islam, suggesting that the issue with Palestinian Muslims was not borders, but Islam’s religious mandate against non-Muslims having self-rule in the Arab “waqf.”

But many more American Jews continue to have faith that inter-religious dialogue can abate Muslim Judeophobia.

American Jewry shifted even further leftward of Israeli opinion as the growth of the “new anti-Semitism” here produced a more aggressive and well-funded Jewish “progressive” Left, hyper-critical of Israel, which is now broadly adopted and promoted by many Reform rabbis, and is threatening to gain traction inside the Jewish mainstream.

One commiserates with today’s Jewish communal leaders, who once could depend on their politically divided constituencies to converge on the peacetime goals of continuity, education and welfare, and could – without objection – place most everyone inside the “big (fundraising) tent.” Now they increasingly face a constituency more deeply and emotionally divided than ever on the questions of Israel and Islamism.

Many Jews are no longer willing to subordinate what they see as existential concerns to the peacetime definitions of Jewish welfare.

One can sympathize with community leaders who now must attempt to unite under “the tent” Center/ Right Zionists who believe that Israeli concessions can lead to war and death, liberal/Left Zionists who think concessions can lead to peace, Jews who do not put Israel near the top of their concerns (according to one Pew poll, that number is quite large), and the unaffiliated who need to be brought into the fold.

In light of these changed circumstances, Jewish thinkers and funders need to ask themselves if the peacetime model can be continued. Is it fair or realistic to expect those who truly are impressive leaders when it comes to health, education and welfare to possess the desire, ability, temperament or skill-sets to lead us in confronting the waves of animus coming our way? Federation heads cannot be expected to publicly lead us into confrontations with biased media and professors, or to expose Islamic radicals in our midst, when they are tasked with “big tent” fundraising which requires them not to step on the ideological sensibilities of liberal/Left donors, or merely to disturb the oh-so-many conflict-averse in our tribe. A new generation of Jews must learn to confront the new outbreak of anti-Semitism.

Is it not illogical to expect even the best of our communal fundraisers, our social workers, to lead the “Department of Defense”? (Surely the task should not be left to those who fought purveyors of the older prejudice but refuse to take on today’s Islamist anti-Semites and leftist anti-Israelists.) Anti-Semitism, in the form of anti-Israelism, now results in physical assaults on Jews in Europe and significant Jewish emigration from France.

In the Muslim realm, Jew-hatred threatens to destroy half our people with nuclear weapons. Jews are coming to understand how the deterioration of the Jewish situation in Europe might be duplicated here in America.

What indeed should we be doing? It’s time for a serious rethink.

The writer was named one of America’s top 50 Jewish leaders by The Forward. He is the president of Americans for Peace and Tolerance in Boston and is widely known for having helped emancipate African slaves in Sudan.

Communal governance during a time of change

A new generation of Jews must learn to confront the new outbreak of anti-Semitism
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