A Response to “Jewish Community: Zero?”

by Elan Burman

It was with great interest that I read the thought-provoking article by Shannon Sarna and Ruthie Warshenbrot. Simply, the results of the Jewish Community Heroes competition are startling.

There can be no argument that the role of women in shaping every facet of today’s Jewish tapestry is both monumental and profound. Similarly, it is self-evident that women who have chosen to make the Jewish community their professional arena have not been immune to the glass ceilings and inequitable pay scales that have plagued society as a whole. Too many of our community’s brightest minds have languished in junior roles, simply because of their gender. I am truly sensitive to the massive hurdles encountered by many who have worked so tirelessly to further the ends of our communal infrastructure and the varied expressions of Jewish life.

At the same time though, I find myself at a loss on how to tackle this inequality without perpetuating the very distinctions and injustices on which it is based.

I am reminded of the arguments made by Professor David Benatar, of the University of Cape Town, in his article, “Affirmative Action Not the Way to Tackle Injustice.” In his assessment of whether affirmative action is an appropriate mechanism to address the injustices of Apartheid, Benatar writes, “Official state classification or a standard objective classificatory norm would be far too reminiscent of apartheid.”

The question thus begs asking – were JFNA to have exercised any hand in ensuring women numbered amongst the finalists, would they not be pandering to the very distinction that proponents of equality wish to obliterate?

I am not denying that something is amiss here and there is a lot to investigate. Why did the community vote disproportionately for men? Were the majority of nominees men? Were females generally less aggressive in marketing themselves than their male counterparts? Do men continue to benefit unjustly from greater prominence in their respective communities?

That being said, I believe any suggestion whether overt or implied that JFNA should have intervened in the voting is misguided. In order to demolish the gender divide we have to stop appealing to entities to favour any one party based on a factor arbitrary to the specific situation, like gender.

The results are peculiar and simultaneously fascinating, but a remedy that is both ethical and in the long term interest of justice is illusive.

Elan Burman completed his MA in Jewish Communal Service at Brandeis University. He currently resides in Cape Town, South Africa where he raises funds for Jewish institutions.