Providing Cover for Institutional Cowardice

By Richard Wexler

Recently, two senior professionals, one, that of the national JCPA, the other, of a local JCRC, issued their own prescription for institutional silence in a piece here on eJewishPhilanthropy.

While the co-authors speak to “reasons” for “fewer public statements,” what they are really calling for is none. And it’s easy for them to offer their prescription for almost, if not total, silence given that the onerous requirements for public positions within the Community Relations system – locally and, even more so, nationally – in today’s fractious environment assures their self-censorship. So, given that, why not offer advice to all other organizations? “We can’t issue statements on anything, so you shouldn’t either.”

Here are the headlines for the 9 “reasons” stated by the authors for “issuing fewer public statements:”

  1. They don’t always make an impact
  2. They are a huge time suck (the authors’ words, remember)
  3. Statements can be a substitute for action and effectively moving the needle
  4. They can preclude behind the scenes action
  5. They might breathe oxygen into that which we oppose
  6. We can drown ourselves out with them
  7. They create a cascade of demands
  8. They can damage organizations
  9. Statements can be a form of “virtue signaling” (OMG!!)

Much as I appreciate these leaders stepping forward with this statement, with all due respect, I consider these reasons for “making fewer organizational statements” to be (a) specious and (b) really articulate a false argument for issuing not fewer but no public statements whatsoever. And that saddens me; but it doesn’t surprise me.

It’s very clear that the argument the article’s authors make is just what JFNA’S leaders had been hoping for: cover for their own aversion to public statements of any kind (other than the ones they themselves make, of course). The co-authors missed the two arguments made by Sandler/Silverman: (a) that statements, even on matters of communal values, are not part of the organization’s mission (as the two of them subjectively define “mission;”) and (b) that they are a distraction no matter their subject.

One piece of evidence that JFNA’s leaders embrace the “cover” offered by the two CRC pros: in a rare reference to anything appearing in eJewishPhilanthropy, this article “merited” citation in the JFNA daily fish-wrapping FedWorld. To their credit, the co-authors of “9 Reasons…” cite the communal statements with regard to the expression of our values in embracing refugees as at least one statement they find appropriate; that same expression that JFNA has refused to make.

Forget for a moment the co-authors’ of the original piece false premise – no one I know of who has expressed themselves on the subject has urged serial “organizational statements,” only that there are circumstances that cry out to be confronted publicly – something that these authors endorse almost as a quiet sidebar. It strikes that the system would have been better served by these two esteemed leaders offering their insights and direction as to how best to organize for and frame the communal responses under unique circumstances. All of us can speculate as to why they chose the path they took.

What the two exemplars of all that is the community relations field wholly fail to articulate is this: sometimes the true risk to our communal values and our Jewish values is to say nothing.

Richard Wexler is a Past Chair of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, the United Jewish Appeal and the United Israel Appeal and Co-Chaired the merger that created what is now JFNA. He is the author of the blog, “UJThee and Me.”