By David Bernstein
With growing challenges to Israel’s legitimacy and American pluralism, we need now, more than ever, a strong and focused Jewish community relations movement. In the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, much of the Jewish community viewed the community relations agenda – public advocacy and relationship-building on behalf of the Jewish community – as central to Jewish security and wellbeing.
During this golden age of community relations, according to Steven Windmueller, a scholar and former practitioner, the Jewish community widely embraced a notion of the common good. In this view, Jewish wellbeing depended upon American pluralism. If society treated all minority groups well, it would treat Jews well too. Jewish community relations organizations thus fought for the rights of all people not just out of a commitment to social justice but as a means to protect Jews from intolerance.
Beginning in the 1990s, things began to change. Philanthropic priorities shifted and Jewish civic life fragmented. American Jews felt safer than ever before. Many abandoned the notion of the common good in favor of a narrower view of Jewish self-interest focused on combating assaults on Israel’s legitimacy and threats to Jewish communities abroad.
Windmueller explains that the Jewish community relations field split into “red state” interests concerned primarily with Israel and anti-Semitism, and “blue state” interests still devoted to the common good. Red staters founded “boutique” operations outside the traditional community relations establishment. Many were highly critical of blue state groups for diluting their agendas, while blue state groups were equally critical of red staters for parochializing theirs.
But there are merits and shortcomings in both schools of thought. It’s time that the Jewish community relations movement reconcile these seemingly contradictory approaches and adopt a “Purple State Strategy.”
Red staters often accuse blue staters of being more concerned about the wellbeing of other minority groups and issues than they are about Jews and Jewish issues. They argue that supporting, for example, a liberal immigration policy, reducing social inequality, or upholding religious freedom, will do little to advance Jewish interests. At the very least, they say, these activities ought to be given lower priority than supporting Israel or opposing anti-Semitism.
There is, of course, a kernel of truth to this critique. Traditional Jewish community relations has frequently taken on more causes than it can possibly handle, paying short shrift to the ones on which community relations organizations can truly make an impact.
But red staters get it wrong as well.
By 2043, America will be majority non-white. There are now 54 million Latinos in this country. In order for the Jewish community to advance its core agenda, we must engage in good-old-fashion community relations. We must reach out to, speak with, get to know, and partner with these emerging demographic segments if, for no other reasons (and there are other good reasons), than to impart a more positive view of Israel.
Far from low priority work, traditional community relations is as imperative as it has ever been. And it is arguably the most effective form of Israel advocacy.
While they may agree in theory that it’s important to build ties to Latinos and other key segments, red staters often fail to grasp that such work cannot be done without a domestic agenda aligned with the interests of the groups we want to win over. Latino leaders, for example, will only care what we have to say about Israel if we, in turn, care about causes important to them (and us!), such as immigration.
In other words, effective Israel advocacy is difficult if not impossible, as blue staters are fond of pointing out, without engaging in a broader community agenda. And effective community relations is difficult if not impossible, as red staters are fond of pointing out, if groups take on too many issues and thereby crowd out their ability to advocate on their most compelling concerns and interests. When we try to do everything, we don’t do anything very well.
A “Purple State Strategy” for community relations would think more carefully and clearly about which issues truly comport with our highest ideals and values and thus deserve priority status, and which ones, difficult though it may be to acknowledge, could be handled by someone else. We need a much longer not-to-do list.
Such a strategy would also choose priorities based, in part, on the interests and values of our major external partners. So if we seek a closer relationship with the growing Latino community, then we should prioritize advocating for a generous immigration policy.
By narrowing our domestic agenda to those issues that reflect our highest ideals and bring the most value to the Jewish enterprise, we will enhance our ability to affect our core interests, such as Israel, and stay true, as well, to our historic commitment to the common good.
David Bernstein is the President and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the representative voice of the Jewish community relations movement. Follow him on Twitter @DavidLBernstein