A Re-examination of the Jewish Community Relations Enterprise: Its Changing Players, Principles and Practices

By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

Influenced by the ideas of American progressivism and reflective of historic Jewish political practice, the discipline of community relations was established around the following principle:

To protect the welfare and safety of Jews residing in the United States and elsewhere; and to advance those causes that contributes to the general enrichment and well being of American society.

The “field” of Jewish community relations established a set of best practices focusing on the collective interests of the society and specific Jewish concerns. The goals, outlined below, defined a segment of the public policy agenda:

  1. Building the pro-Israel agenda and insuring peace for Israel with its neighbors
  2. Advocating for Jewish and human rights across the globe
  3. Advancing civil rights initiatives and social justice imperatives
  4. Promoting intergroup and interfaith relationships
  5. Articulating public policy concerns covering a broad spectrum of social and economic concerns

Its earliest practitioners focused on developing access to key business, political, and religious elites and civic institutions in the society, whom they understood could shape attitudes and promote policies that affirmed Jewish interests and American democratic principles. Coalitional politics enabled the Jewish community to build sustaining partnerships with other ethnic and racial groups, religious communities, labor unions, and the business sector. In building these connections the community relations enterprise established a set of organizing tools:

  1. Employing diplomatic interventions and political pressure
  2. Promoting both local and national programs of education and action
  3. Developing public marketing campaigns
  4. Providing governments, media and other institutions with key background information, and
  5. Offering programs and resources designed to carry out national and communal priorities.

The underlying focus of this work placed specific emphasis on promoting an engaged, educated and informed polity. Defusing racism, anti-Semitism and other expressions of social and political discontent could only take place if citizens were collectively committed to democratic values, respecting the ideas of pluralism and appreciating the multi-cultural character of this nation. A commitment to shared democratic values, it would be argued, defused hatred and dissonance. This doctrine of community practice was first constructed in the 1940’s:

The best way to guard against anti-Semitism is to work for the principles of freedom and equality on which America rests. This means fighting for civil rights and civil liberties, for equal opportunities for everyone, for the free institutions and free processes that make up our democracy. Only as a true equalitarian society is approached will anti-Semitism in all of its forms diminish.”

Other operational elements were core to this model of political practice. The principle of consensus, for example, served to establish the framework by which community relations agencies arrived at collective and shared action. A commitment to embracing a particularistic Jewish agenda, while at the same time addressing public policy concerns that dealt with such diverse issues as health care, the environment, economic justice, and human rights, served to give balance and integrity to the community relations platform. During the golden age of Jewish advocacy (1967-1985), the collective interests of the Jewish community helped to define and shape the broader political discourse. This emphasis on the common good has been replaced in more recent times by a focus on selective interests and individualized institutional political goals, thereby weakening the shared agenda that historically shaped this enterprise.

The model of collective organizing that anchored community practice in the 20th Century involved the creation of a system of convening organizations, including the National (Jewish) Community Relations Advisory Council. Today, while these types umbrella structures continue to exist, employing different institutional titles (i.e. Jewish Council for Public Affairs) and with a somewhat more limited operational focus, a wide array of independent organizations has entered the communal marketplace of ideas.

Emerging Changes, Opportunities and Threats:

Just as a new generation of American Jews with distinctively different social patterns of affiliation, giving, and identity is fundamentally reshaping the Jewish polity, a number of new political opportunities and challenges is contributing to the reformulation of the community relations agenda, its players and its focus:

  1. New potential political partners: Asian-Americans, Hispanics, Muslims
  2. New adversaries that are committed to marginalizing or weakening the political imprint of the Jewish community: the rise of the alt-right and the presence of the BDS movement
  3. A changing political environment with the rise of global anti-Semitism and the politics of anti-Israelism
  4. The social media revolution: its deployment for political and social organizing

Just as the issues above serve to challenge the Jewish martplace, internal social and political changes are redefining Jewish advocacy:

  1. The presence of new Jewish community actors, including the impact of the “boutique” Jewish marketplace and the presence of an alternative or “emergent” Jewish narrative
  2. A growing political divide among American Jewry over Israel and other core interests of the community

Undergirding these changing realities, one finds a new level of angst among Jews reflecting their concerns about the changing and unsettling political landscape. The present reality includes a different type of American politics with its current focus on marginalizing opponents while promoting a new brand of nationalist populism.

Driven in part by generational influences and a reaction to the existing political climate, younger Jewish audiences are focusing on single-issue priorities. “Boutique politics” has emerged to compete with the more traditional community relations model. What has resulted in the process involves the jettisoning, or at best, the marginalization of some of the core “CR” principles and practices, and in its place a new Jewish politics appears to be emerging.

The centralization of policy and practice that once defined how the Jewish institutional system has given way in part to a new and different communal social order. As with much of society, access to choice seems to have entered the Jewish public policy arena, and in the process has led to an informal and diffused political model. Social media is contributing as well to this change in communal practice, transforming the task of building sustained personal relationships that once defined community relations practice. Today, instant “connections” and “immediate” action may best define a new generation of political activists.

Over the past quarter century, numerous Jewish special interest organizations have emerged reflecting a broad array of domestic and international concerns ranging from the environment to human rights. Where once the major national community relations agencies sought to represent the range of Jewish public policy interests, today multiple institutions and websites compete to address particular themes, while appealing to the selective interests of its Millennial consumers.

The current Jewish civic culture is seeking to join together two essential ingredients, identity and activism. On the one hand younger Jews are curious about what it will mean to be a 21st Jewish American, yet on the other, their engagement with Judaism must be understood as a part of their overall activist orientation. Their religious inquiry is directly aligned with their political passions. Millennials perceive the need for coherence between their religious and ethical belief systems and their personal commitment to action.

The emphasis, for example, on the common good, which in many ways historically defined key elements of the community relations enterprise, is being addressed today on two fronts: (1) the rediscovery of community organizing and (2) a particularistic focus on social justice concerns. The creation of such grass-roots initiatives as Reform California, nurtured by the Reform Movement and its Religious Action Center, represents one such expression of political organizing. The arrival of such organizations as American Jewish World Service, Bend the Arc, Repair the World, Hazon among others offer us insights into the changing character of Jewish activism around social justice with its specific appeal to Millennials and its unique focus on single-issue concerns. The formation of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable adds another dimension to this changing constellation of community practice, where both legacy institutions and the more recently established organizations have come together to advance the Tikkun Olam imperative.

If Millennials are reinventing the existing system, then the ascendency of America’s Orthodox Jews, the emergence within this nation of Israeli, Russian and Persian Jews, and more generally, the rise of Jewish Republicans are in some measure reframing the old model. If “traditional” community relations practice was focused on the common good, these “emergent” constituencies are committed to a more parochial political narrative. “Is it good for the Jews?” serves as this sector’s existential consideration. These political actors are constructing their political messaging around the self-interests of the community, Israel and anti-Semitism reflect their priority considerations. In turn, they would jettison the broader overlay of public policy concerns and intergroup relations activities, as not essential to their communal focus.

Israel becomes in both real and symbolic terms the central divide between these two evolving political camps. If some Millennials are uncomfortable exploring the “Israel card” as a piece of their social activism, struggling in turn with Israel’s policy and politics, contrastingly the emergent communities would embrace the Jewish State as primary to their politics. Indeed, in one form or another, both constituencies are engaging with Israel, the left through efforts to alter and change Israeli policy and practice from the outside, while the right is seeking to reframe the existing Israel story before Jewish and American audiences.

The arrival of the “boutique model” with its attention to social justice considerations and the growing presence of “emergent constituencies,” who embrace a politics of self-interests, represents a fundamental challenge to the Jewish public policy sector. How best can community relations practitioners navigate between these competing sets of Jewish challengers? Pressures abound from both the “left” and the “right” in seeking to influence and shape mainstream Jewish political practice. This divide is not only centered on the Israel agenda but rather on the broader mandate questions of “what constitutes a Jewish issue?” and “who is considered acceptable within the ranks of legitimate dissent?

How then ought the community to manage its political divide? Indeed, historical experience may be instructive here. The Jewish community has experienced such policy and philosophical divides in prior settings. The 1930’s would generate a great debate on how to handle the rise of Hitler on the one hand and the presence within the United States of virulent anti-Semitism on the other. The community would be torn apart again around the formation of the State of Israel in 1947-48, as Jewish Americans expressed concern over the issue of “dual loyalty.” Similarly, Jews disagreed over the role the community ought to play during the civil rights struggle of the 1960’s, just as they disagreed over whether the community could oppose the Vietnam War and yet expect support in the early 1970’s from Washington on behalf of Israel’s tenuous military situation.

Closing Reflections:

Does this current political divide mark the end of the community relations enterprise? Or more likely, does it call for modifications in how communal institutions manage these generational and ideological realities?

There are in fact some significant benefits to this new scenario, as one finds new players engaged in Jewish political activism, as each of these expressions has opened doors of opportunity to educate and involve individuals. In some measure this heighten level of engagement is likely to impact other avenues of Jewish institutional life. These new participants will re-energize the art of Jewish politics as they bring their insights, skills and experiences to the communal table.

How then does the community relations world embrace these differing perspectives on the public affairs agenda?

This moment in time affords American Jewry with an opportunity to bring the dissenting and challenging voices together, by creating “open tents” inviting these groups to share their ideas. Drawing upon the tools that the community relations field has successfully fostered, the task ahead will be to find points of connection that bind up the interests and concerns of these competing factions. Just as the CR discipline has employed its resources to establish points of compromise and reduce tensions with competing groups, external to the Jewish community, this moment offers an opportunity for JCRC’s and their national agency partners to introduce these ideas internally, as a way of creating constructive dialogue and advancing civility within the communal sector.

The community relations infrastructure has built networks of partnerships that can be beneficial to each of these constituencies. Exposing these groups to the best practices and core principles of “community relations” will contribute to their understanding of the complexities associated with building a political movement.

We are reminded that “all politics is local,” and if Jews are to seen as credible political players, securing allies and supporters becomes essential. The principle of localism has relevance for both political camps, as they seek to broaden their appeal to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences within their home communities.

One Further Note: The issues introduced here hopefully will stimulate a broader conversation within our communities over how Jews see themselves in this new age, and what these significant policy divides will mean for the welfare of Jewish political priorities and America itself.

Steven Windmueller Ph. D. on behalf of the Wind Group, Consulting for the Jewish Future. Dr. Windmueller’s collection of articles can be found on his website: www.thewindreport.com.