Seeking Unity in the Face of National Divisions

unityBy Ron Halber

In a time of unprecedented demographic change and fragmentation of American society, the Jewish community has not been immune from the partisan divide that has poisoned our political discourse.

Seeds of discontent are growing in this country, and we are witness to a horrifying outpouring of racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, homophobia and misogyny. The consequence: Our nation and our community are more fractured now than at any time in memory.

That is why we need institutional models that are forces of unity – even when we can’t achieve unanimity – and can encourage respect for divergent opinions without casting aspersions on personal motivations.

Take the Iran nuclear deal, for instance. The fissures in the American Jewish community were so great that some Jews said they dreaded going to synagogue or unrelated Jewish organizational meetings, lest those gatherings turn into nasty fights about the agreement.

Each side painted the other as extremist: to the deal’s supporters, opponents were ruthless hawks eager for war; to the accord’s opponents, proponents were naive leftists with no compassion for the plight or fate of Israel.

Voices of moderation are crucial. Nonpartisan community bodies, particularly ones that span the Jewish community from left to right politically and religiously, are especially qualified to represent both our parochial and universal interests, as well as our values in these challenging times.

Organizations such as Jewish community relations councils can facilitate dialogue that leads to greater empathy and understanding; reveal ways opposing factions of our community share aspirations even when we differ on our approach; build social cohesion; and build networks and relationships that ameliorate crises when they erupt.

Such groups also can promote a sense of unity to our future leaders. In Greater Washington, for example, the JCRC sponsors an Israel Education Fellowship program with our Federation to train high schoolers to become future college Israel advocacy leaders, emphasizing that it is permissible to have a wide range of opinions on the Jewish state and still be fairly labeled as “pro-Israel.”

We serve as a reliable resource because over the years local synagogues and Jewish organizations have come to trust us – even if they disagree with us on a particular issue.

That trust goes beyond the Jewish world.

We’ve worked hard to build relationships with public officials and other faith and ethnic groups, ensuring that when we disagree, we’ll do so respectfully and be there for each other whenever possible. When local Presbyterian ministers were concerned about the discussion of the national Presbyterian Church’s policies regarding Israel we were able to connect them to resources to address these issues within their own community. The ministers knew us, and trusted that we would provide them with fair and accurate information.

With the United States en route to becoming a minority-majority nation, building relationships and creating coalitions will be critical; by the year 2060 the minority population is expected to rise to 56 percent of the population, a dramatic increase from the 38 percent in 2014.

The percentage of Jews, already less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, will be even tinier, making it more important than ever that we magnify our voices through coalitions.

But coalitions don’t simply form themselves. They have to be created and nurtured on a regular basis.

If there’s a spate of anti-Semitism in a community, we can’t assume that local ministers and priests will join the Jewish community in denouncing it. If a local public school district schedules a significant event on a Jewish holiday, we can’t expect local groups and office holders to automatically stand with the Jewish community to condemn and help us reverse the decision. In the event of an Israel crisis, we can’t assume other community leaders automatically will agree with our call to support the Jewish state; we must build necessary relationships in advance to ensure this critical support at challenging times.

Groups such as JCRCs nurture these relationships. We know the local ministers and imams; we know the Latino and African-American activists. We’ve stood with them in times of crisis and are confident they will stand with us.

Community relations is a little bit like insurance: You often don’t see a reason for it until you need it. But just as we pay dutifully for our health, homeowners and car insurance so it’s there when we need it, we also should be building and establishing local connections regularly so that they are there when other crises erupt. A wise mentor once summed up community relations succinctly and poignantly as “it’s best to have a friend before you need one.”

With more organizational structures that facilitate dialogue and community development, we can sort through these times without losing our Jewish identity and being a central part of the collective American family.

While several certain communities like Youngstown, Ohio, Virginia Beach, and Southern New Jersey have invested more resources in their JCRCs the majority are not adequately funded to fulfill their declared missions. The Jewish community would be wise to beef up the capacity of such bodies around the country. It’s an investment now that will pay numerous dividends in the future.

Ron Halber is Executive Director at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.