The Need for Jewish Unity

By Howard M. Rieger, PhD

On the one-year anniversary of the Shabbat massacre of 11 Pittsburghers at Tree of Life Congregation, Isaac Herzog, chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), exhorted Jews worldwide to stand united against the shared threat we face from rising anti-Semitism.

Writing about standing united is simple. Making it happen is quite another thing.

Case in point. A few days after the attack in Pittsburgh, grassroots Jewish and non-Jewish groups worked to promote a march that brought out a diverse crowd of thousands to stand with the community in its grief. The event began with a pronouncement requesting President Trump to not come to Pittsburgh until he denounced white nationalism. He came anyway. And what transpired from that point forward during the three-hour march through Squirrel Hill became the strongest, most unequivocal statement against antisemitism by non-Jewish groups that I have ever witnessed. Unfortunately, mainstream Jewish organizations elected to not promote the march, thus missing the opportunity to have added thousands more to the turnout and a chance to build bridges with a segment of the Jewish community they don’t always reach, around an issue that is crucial to all of us.

In the Jewish community today, too often we institute a litmus test to determine a group’s suitability for admission to our putatively inclusive tent. If groups are in agreement with the entire mainstream agenda, they can stand with us. If they fail to pass the test as did the march’s main organizer, Bend the Arc Pittsburgh, by asking the President to denounce white nationalism, we push them away along with their constituencies.

Jewish unity can never be achieved if we define unity as limited to lock-step agreement on all particulars. Had we imposed that test in 1987, the March on Washington for Soviet Jewry might not have drawn over a quarter of a million participants, and that multi-year effort to gain political support may not have been successful.

The movement to free Soviet Jewry began in the early 1960s, but many of the organizations that were created to take on that struggle were seen as too radical for Jewish federations to partner with. Ironically, years later the federations took on advocacy for Soviet Jews as a major ongoing agenda. Without the outsiders there might not have been a movement at all. Without the federations their reach might have been limited and their impact diminished. That should stand as a lesson for us today.

Speaking of lessons, JAFI, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and other Jewish organizations have over the years received tens of millions of dollars of support from evangelical Christians. Those dollars have been accepted knowing that those movements espouse some political and religious views inconsistent with – and, in some cases, antithetical to – our own. We compromise because their support of Israel in the halls of the US Congress and the money they provide to Israel makes a difference.

Why when it comes to the Jewish community are we adopting an all or nothing posture? When we build walls that separate us, we inevitably weaken ourselves.

The often-fragmented global Jewish community must stand united in the face of the shared threat that we face worldwide. Bridging our differences in the service of that goal would be a great first step toward creating a more unified community, one where in the spirit of democracy we can agree to disagree, yet still work together for the betterment of all.

Howard M. Rieger, PhD served as President/CEO Jewish Federations of North America 2004-2009 and as President/CEO Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh 1981-2004.