organizational reset

Rethinking the Jewish community relations proposition

In Short

The goals associated with constructing a community relations agenda involve building relationships, realizing that such coalitional politics can establish common ground around particular and shared concerns.

As we move well into the 21st century, American society, as has been documented, is rapidly changing, as has this nation’s politics. In response to these challenges, the Jewish community relations field is also shifting its focus. In December, Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) released a major policy statement in connection with its work, “The New Jewish Council for Public Affairs: A Changing Political Environment Brings a Strategic Reset.” The document has drawn minimal response, with only few publications reporting on this transformational change.

What is core to this significant recalibration? “The reset takes place against a backdrop of rising antisemitism, racism, bigotry and hate, and polarization, and continued threats to our democracy.” In this current context, national agencies and local community relations structures have been responding from the outside in, often pushing back against the statements and actions of organizations and political leaders who have been critical of Israel and at times hostile to American Jewish institutions and to core Jewish interests. This new framework will empower a nimble JCPA to develop national coalitions with an opt-in focus, to trend-spot emerging issues and demographic trends and provide to the community relations field opportunities for engagement around JCPA-focused issues.  

In part, this responsive model of organizing has its origins in an earlier iteration of Jewish community relations. The architects of this field including Walter Lurie, Earl Raab and Isiah Minkoff, understood the importance of calibrating Jewish political activism to the changing dimensions of American society, in order to preserve and strengthen democratic values and the Jewish community’s position as well as its political priorities.

The key organizing principle here will be the ability of JCPA to coalesce those Jewish organizations and leaders who have access to and credibility with progressive political voices as a means of building connections and in the process seek to shift the rhetoric and actions hostile to the Jewish community, while identifying and engaging around issues of shared concern. Framed around the political notion, that all politics is local, this return to grass-roots relationship building and coalitional politics may be the critical and most essential components to this model.

No doubt, this transformational institutional design has and will draw its critics. Failing to appreciate the core organizing element, opponents of this outreach are suggesting that  “JCPA is siding with forces that are driving left-wing antisemitism and Jew-hatred.” The opponents of this recalibration sadly fail to appreciate the community relations field, as their only measure of accountability is a lock-step alignment of Jewish institutions with a right of center political agenda.

In its newly released study, “Anti-Semitism Uncovered”, ADL reported that over three-quarters of Americans (85%) believe at least one anti-Jewish trope, as opposed to 61% found in 2019. Twenty percent of Americans believe six or more tropes, which is significantly more than the 11% that ADL found in 2019 and is the highest level measured in decades. The report noted that young adults hold significantly more anti-Israel sentiment than older adults, with 21% and 11% agreeing with five or more anti-Israel statements, respectively. In light of these findings and other such studies, there is an immense amount of work that requires such a reorganizing initiative.

The goals associated with constructing a community relations agenda involve building relationships, realizing that such coalitional politics can establish common ground around particular and shared concerns, even as we seek to broaden the understanding of our partners around issues of disagreement, items core to our community’s interests and of strategic importance to American society and this democracy. This form of political encounter involves multiple stages designed to promote trust and continuity.  One-off agreements do not establish long-term connections or produce productive outcomes!

This discipline has always understood the value-added of sustained engagement, even as divisive issues at times create barriers. The bottom-line here, if the Jewish community did not embark upon this model of organizing, we would lose an essential opportunity to build vital contacts with many of those who will be shaping political ideas and policies for this nation, further isolating and minimizing Jewish communal influence for decades to come.

Nor is this a new experiment. Let’s take the case of American labor. Jewish organizations and individual Jewish labor leaders have for decades worked on behalf of building a significant bond between labor organizations in the United States and Israel. These connections today are proving profoundly important and strategic as some labor unions adopted BDS resolutions and other anti-Israel actions. The value-added of having these deep Jewish roots within American labor movement has allowed pro-Israel advocates to effectively seek the rescinding of such motions and the prevention of others.

In recent years, Jewish organizers working within the LGBTQ community are regularly engaging Israeli critics by bringing such leaders to the Jewish state and engaging with them in on-going dialogue. Here we have seen, for example, successful Israeli and American journalistic efforts in sharing and reporting on issues of mutual interest to the LBTQ communities in both countries.  

Clergy missions to Israel involving religious leaders from an array of Christian denominations and other faith communities are producing representative voices who are more readily equipped to address the difficult questions and prepared to respond to anti-Semitic and anti-Israel expressions. Within the interreligious world, no better case example can be found in the efforts of Jewish community working with allies to successfully push back against a one state solution proposed by the Presbyterian church while opposing their BDS resolutions.

Other examples involve elected public officials of diverse backgrounds who have worked with Jewish organizations over time, traveled to Israel, and are now supporting initiatives designed to push back against anti-Semitism in their local city councils and state legislatures. Ongoing meetings and joint activities across the country involving key ethnic leaders, civic organizational representatives and educational leaders represent the blueprint of why and how such community-based and nationally-supported efforts will and must continue.

One of the distinctly exciting new realities is the presence of so many start-up and boutique Jewish advocacy and social justice organizations who under this new model will be core partners with JCPA and our local JCRC’s in extending this work. 

This bold endeavor and investment is designed to help ensure that there remains a significant and essential Jewish voice within the American political landscape, working with a range of progressive voices in advancing democracy while protecting and advancing Jewish interests. 

Steven Windmueller is an emeritus professor of Jewish communal studies and currently serves as the interim director of the Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles. His writings can be found on his website, www.thewindreport.com.