By David Bernstein and Abby Porth
Since the Presidential election, there has been unceasing demand on Jewish organizations to issue public statements condemning or condoning this or that policy, nominee, comment made by a public official, and – remarkably – even this or that other Jewish organization for their accomplishment or failure to do one of the above.
The zeal for public statements cuts across the liberal-conservative divide. In recent months, we have been lobbied by opposing sides to speak out on the ambassador designate to Israel, the prospective move of the US embassy to Jerusalem, a candidate to head the DNC, the President’s statements on anti-Semitism, a Hanukkah party at a certain hotel, the White House travel ban, and a whole slew of American and Israeli actions, bills and laws.
Neither of us is against issuing public statements. Indeed, our organizations have issued them and we recognize the merits in sometimes doing so. The Jewish experience during the Holocaust tells us that silence gives permission for persecution. We cite Martin Niemöller’s famous words that “first they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out. Because I was not a Socialist.” Speaking out can save lives. The civil rights movement demonstrated how speaking out against publicly-expressed bigotry is a tool for social change that drives bigotry to its rightful place: at the margins of society. In addition, public statements can help build consensus and clarify values. In the wake of the executive order on refugees, for example, Jewish organizations spanning the ideological and religious spectrum issued statements opposing the ban. That unity communicated a powerful message both internally and externally.
But we are becoming more skeptical of the impact of these public relations statements, and surmise that the American Jewish community should not be so quick to churn them out. Here are nine reasons we should slow down, if not cut back:
1. They don’t always make an impact
Too often we expend enormous energy in issuing a statement that few see or hear about. Before issuing a statement, we should ask ourselves: Who is the target audience to read this? How will the statement reach this audience? How do we want to inform, move, or engage this audience? Is a public relations statement the most effective way to achieve those goals?
2. They’re a huge time suck
Issuing a public statement is not just a matter of writing a few paragraphs. Done well, where the benefits outweigh the blow-back, it is a cumbersome process involving multiple stakeholders, prolonged debate, and back and forth editing. In our current hyped up political environment, we could do little else than write and issue statements. Is this what our organizations were founded to do? Is writing and issuing statements why our constituents invest in us? Does issuing a statement achieve the actual outcomes our donors want our organizations to achieve? These reasons lead us to #3:
3. Statements can be a substitute for action and effectively moving the needle
There are many ways of advancing the issues our organizations care about. On championing immigration reform, ensuring the separation of church and state, eliminating anti-Semitism, etc., we must ask: Will issuing a statement move the needle? Or, would we more likely affect the change we’d like to see by meeting with public officials, mobilizing our community to do e-advocacy, putting a call into a member of Congress, or developing a briefing paper for decision makers? Put simply, has issuing statements become our proxy for the more difficult, but more effective, work of real action?
4. They can preclude behind the scenes action
When we constantly speak out against political actions or policies, we make it more difficult to be engaged with public officials. Effective community relations work is done when one has a seat at the table and is engaged with decision makers. It may be a reasonable choice for some national organizations to stay outside of decision making rooms. But if every Jewish organization is constantly condemning, who is going to help educate decision makers?
5. They might breathe oxygen into that which we oppose
We like to think that when we speak out publicly against something we make it go away. But sometimes we inadvertently popularize the very thing we oppose. Sunlight can disinfect, to paraphrase Louis Brandeis, but it can also nourish.
6. We can drown ourselves out with them
Some proponents of public statements worry that by not speaking out, we allow the dysfunctional or diabolic to become normal. Another failing, however, is to speak out so much that people become inured to our objections and stop paying attention.
7. They create a cascade of demands
When we speak out on one matter, people ask us to speak out on another. “You spoke out when a conservative did X, why don’t you speak out when a liberal did Y?” The more that we issue public statements the greater the demand that we do so. This causes #3 and #4 above.
8. They can damage organizations
Organizations such as ours were set up to be a convening, consensus building, and then public voices. But too many Jewish organizations with different missions needlessly become embroiled in polarizing conflicts over taking a public stance. When this happens on issues outside of the core mission of the organization, their constituents with a viewpoint different from that reflected in the statement feel alienated. Is it worth it to go outside of mission? Sometimes it is. Often it isn’t.
9. Statements can be a form of “virtue signaling”
Rather than a genuine attempt to influence discourse, issuing a public statement can be an exercise in signaling to like-minded people that we are one of them. Those demanding a public statement often want the target organization to prove its ideologically purity, to demonstrate that the organization is just like them. Is that a good enough reason to issue a statement? It depends on what club we feel we need be part of, and the cost of alienating people from other clubs.
For our part, we’re going to be of the club that focuses on our organizations’ histories, missions, and the hard work to effectively advance our core principles. Public statements have their time and place. Let’s keep them in check.
David Bernstein is President and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @DavidLBernstein. Abby Porth is the Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of San Francisco.