The Answer to Our Troubles Is Courageous Leadership, But Courageous Leadership Is Under Threat From Our Troubles

Photo credit: Jehyun Sung on Unsplash

By Yehuda Kurtzer

In 1897, at the first Zionist Congress, Ahad Ha’am prophetically warned the gathering delegates that “the secret of our people’s persistence is that… at a very early period the Prophets taught it to respect only spiritual power, not material power.” Ha’am suspected – and was right – that as the Jewish people were on the verging of transforming its politics to meet the challenges of the 19th and 20th century, they would lose the plot.

Today, a century and change later, and true to the prediction, Jewish politics are eviscerating Jewish leaders. Moral courage and open discourse in Jewish institutions are under threat, with ramifications for the immediate health of those institutions, for the future leadership of North American Jews and for the success of the community as a whole. We in the organized Jewish community have the talent, agency, resources, and responsibility to address these threats; and it is time for us to take on this challenge.

Read or download the Courageous Leadership White Paper here.

The signs of these threats are everywhere. Jewish communal leaders are pushed, as part of a rising partisan divide, to constantly take stands on contentious political issues even beyond the scope of their missions. And then they are punished by one side, or other or both as their statements emerge into an impossible political and media climate.

Jewish institutions are caught in a constant cycle of public response to the news cycle yet are still frequently “called out” for failure to take the “right” stand in a clear and timely way.

Purity tests are becoming more stringent and inimical to effective, inclusive communal leadership, while marginal activists carry out deliberate smear campaigns of personal delegitimization, using social media, press releases, and other cheap means of publicity. 

Our famous capacity for healthy disagreement is failing. The range of ideas and ideologies that form contemporary Jewish public discourse is narrowing, and the incentives for the types of courageous leadership that will generate a creative, diverse Jewish future, have been replaced with incentives for risk-avoidance.

As a result of this social climate, some rabbis and other communal leaders are frequently choosing to censor themselves or to speak with less conviction. This takes its toll on collective, thoughtful public leadership on crucial issues.

For those who choose not to diminish their voice, the constant demands to “take a moral stand” muddy the waters for those moments that actually require moral clarity.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, given these vicissitudes, there is growing anecdotal evidence that fewer and fewer qualified and capable leaders are seeking particular leadership roles, in the belief that the work involved in these roles is too political, unrewarding, and dangerous. Until now, consequences to individual leaders have been widely heard, but of even greater importance are the silent effects already damaging the entire Jewish community.

There are some clear causes behind all of this. Internal Jewish stances about Israel and Zionism have been divisive for several decades. In the past few years American partisan rancor is catching up as an equally powerful destabilizing principle in Jewish communal life. This political climate is forcing Jewish institutions into a constant defensive position, resulting in a lack of communal focus on constructing a vibrant Jewish life.

Internal changes in the Jewish communal ecosystem are also contributing factors. The landscape of power and influence is changing rapidly, and the map of institutions looks dramatically different today than just a few decades ago. American Jewish identity and affiliation has been transformed by unprecedented social mobility and an accessible free marketplace of ideas. This changing context has prompted organizations to look for new directions and leaders to look for new constituencies. These transitions – undertaken during a rapid pace of change – sometimes have unfortunate consequences.

Some organizations look for entrepreneurial saviors when they might be better served by institution builders. Some leaders, in turn, have become political activists in ways that are unsustainable and potentially dangerous, as they search for new constituencies on social media. Both of these trends lead to the “personalization” of institutional Jewish leadership – the identification of organizations with their chief officers – which social media in particular tends to incentivize, exposes leaders to a suite of risks; and jeopardizes good governance in institutional leadership.

In other cases, individuals, organizations or initiatives sometimes seek to “punch above their weight” by working through social media to shape the conversation, or through aggressive tactics such as “bird dogging,” call-outs, or public shaming. These tactics put Jewish professionals on the constant defensive, and often manipulate the public conversation to reflect a set of interests or values that are not actually representative of widely held beliefs or interests.

In this context of increasing global partisanship, rancorous political discourse and the sudden, permanent incivility of social media, it may feel like the situation is helpless. Certainly geopolitics and tech platforms are beyond the ability of any local organization to change. But we disagree that there is nothing to be done, and we believe that the Jewish community is capable of identifying the ways that external forces are corroding our community, and of protecting against them. Knowledge of a problem bears responsibility to address it, and agency brings with it a sense of obligation.

Our institution is responding differently from usual to the gravity of this situation. Normally we do not offer prescriptions, rather we educate leaders about ideas and insights, giving the right leaders the right tools to face the right challenges in their fields. In this case, where the scope exceeds any single field and where we have particular expertise, we not only offer analysis and perspective but also specific ideas for a community-wide response.

Over 18 months we have convened a variety of communal leaders to share our hypotheses about this problem, to enrich our own learning, and to begin the process of building a diverse coalition that is rooted in sober awareness. As a culmination of this stage of our research, we have written a White Paper to outline the Shalom Hartman Institute’s research into this issue; offer an analysis of the forces that are creating this problem; and then provide concrete recommendations.

We believe that, as a community we must take material responsibility for building a more ethical Jewish public square, in which bad behavior is implicitly and explicitly delegitimized, and where our community lives its professed values.

For better or worse, the primary theater of Jewish life in the 21st century is political. We have much to be grateful for, as a people, to have evolved so significantly since the days of Ahad Ha’am. But his warnings remain dire: The Jewish people are about something more than the instruments and tools of Jewish politics will make us into; following Arendt, we must never conflate ends and means. The great project before us to elevate our politics; and to do so, we must take care of the people in whom we have entrusted them.

[The White Paper, Courageous Leadership: The Challenges Facing Jewish Leadership in a Partisan Age is available for download.]

Yehuda Kurtzer is President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.

What Can We Do To Improve Our Communal Leadership? eJP welcomes responses to the Courageous Leadership White Paper.