By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.
At a time of increased social tension within our society and with a documented rise in anti-Semitic behavior, our national agencies and local JCRC’s will be challenged to represent the interests of our community. Elsewhere, I have written about the principles that undergird this field and now must be in the forefront of community relations planning.
- Revisiting the Past:
We are reminded that the first principle of Jewish community relations involved a commitment to Jewish security. In the early decades of its work, the CR field centered its activities on “prejudice reduction.” In order to achieve such an outcome in the 1930s, a series of educational initiatives were introduced targeting churches, schools, civic organizations, and business and labor groups in fostering intergroup understanding.
In keeping with its core mandate, the field focused its attention to “changing attitudes, images and beliefs” about Jews and Judaism. During this period of widespread anti-Jewish sentiment, it was essential to address all of the different manifestations of hate and prejudice. The Jewish community organized itself around five operational principles:
Isolate the Hater(s): “Containment” served as a prime strategy. Part of this work was associated with creating roadblocks designed to prevent hate groups and their representatives from having access to the media and public spaces. The goal was always to “isolate” such expressions, treating hate as a virus, managing its symptoms as if it were a disease.
Create Social Sanctions: Using political elites to help frame messages that place hate speech outside the boundaries of acceptable behavior.
Educate to Change Attitudes and Behaviors: The introduction of “prejudice reduction” programs in schools, businesses, churches, and civic organizations, as a way to educate non-Jewish audiences about Jews and Judaism.
Build Coalitions: As part of the strategy for isolating hate messaging and groups, involve religious organizations, the labor movement, business and civic leaders, and educational institutions in fostering joint statements and common action.
Anticipate Other Threats: One of the keys to the work of the early JCRC’s was their ability to infiltrate and monitor hate organizations, as a way of anticipating hostile actions by these groups.
In his 1982 volume, Strategies for Survival, Walter Lurie outlined basic community relations principles of best practices. Lurie laid out some 60 operational elements, among them:
The American Creed: Reaffirming the values of democracy and equal rights
Democratic Pluralism: “…the greatness of the United States…is its success in bringing together people of many origins, religions, and groups on the basis of equality.”
Interdependence: “When one group acts to uphold the American Creed, it advances the interests of all groups in the country.”
Coalition: “For the Jewish community, or any other group, to pursue its interests effectively in the public arena, common effort with others is essential.”
Mutual Respect: “The community relations field seeks to dispel misinformation and prejudice and foster intergroup relations by creating a framework for increased dialogue.”
2. The Political Landscape: 1945-2020
Following the Second World War, the community relations field experienced a series of policy shifts. Over these past 75 years, four distinctive timeframes would define the Jewish public policy arena:
Civil Rights Era: The 1950’s and 1960’s would see a heightened attention to the civil rights agenda and a focus on intergroup relations. This would represent a period devoted to institutional cooperation and shared action.
Ethnic Politics: In response to the Six Day War and in reaction to the evolution of the ethnic pride campaigns, the community relations field refocused its attention to defending Israel, advocating for Soviet Jewry, and memorializing the Holocaust, all these and other initiatives were seen as part of creating and celebrating a Jewish ethnic response.
Jewish Defense: During the last decade of the 20th Century and the first ten years of the current century, as Israel faced new political challenges involving external military and terrorist threats, the rise of the BDS movement, and the growth of anti-Israel activism, the field was committed to countering these initiatives.
Politics of Division: In the second decade of the 21st Century, support for a shared American Jewish political agenda became increasingly more difficult, with the absence of consensus. Correspondingly, this would be a time period in which the community would see the growth of the BDS movement and other manifestations of anti-Israel organizing and the evolution of the alt-Right and other extreme right expressions of anti-Semitism, along with battles over “intersectionality” and the debate around “Jewish whiteness.” Where previously there had been a more general agreement within the Jewish community around Israel and the community’s domestic agenda, this would not be the case today. Two political camps appear to define the community’s divided political landscape, Jewish Globalists vs. Jewish Nationalists.
3. The 21st Century: The Changing Political Realities
Today, the political culture of our society has radically changed. Among the more significant factors are the following three trends:
Challenges Left and Right: For the first time, America’s Jews are facing anti-Semitism generated from both political extremes, as Israel has become a renewed focal point.
Impact of Social Media: Haters now have a new tool, access to social media, which provides them with a direct connection to millions of potential supporters. Social media empowers the individual to create his/her own bully pulpit. For the first time, “truth” has become a negotiable item!
The Changing Role of Political Elites: Where once high profile officials served as role models in denouncing racism and anti-Semitism, today fewer such elites carry the same levels of credibility and influence to offset misstatements and hostile actions.
4. Planning Ahead: What to Expect and Why? Introduced below are four specific policy challenges that our community will need to address:
Security of the Jewish Community: There has been a significant increase in acts of harassment, assault and vandalism on individual Jews and Jewish institutions. One ought not to dismiss either Pittsburgh or Poway as one-offs. Local community relations agencies ought to be developing with local public officials security plans designed to insure the safety of community members, especially as we approach the high holy days.
Managing the Assaults on Israel: This will be a very challenging year for the pro-Israel community, as we are likely to see new political and economic initiatives by Israel’s enemies, especially targeting the university communities and civic associations. Among certain American audiences, the case for Israel will become a more challenging conversation.
Creating Information Campaigns: One of the core functions of the community relations discipline has been its commitment to educate the general public on issues of importance to Jews. In more recent times, much of this focus has been around Israel. In light of recent studies pointing to the minimal knowledge that most Americans have about religious communities in this nation, it may be important for the field to consider reintroducing an educational campaign about Jews and Judaism, similar to the work done by our agencies in the 1940s and beyond.
Handling the Deterioration in Civil Discourse and Behavior: The introduction of civility codes and communal guidelines for managing “difficult conversations” may be of help in reducing inappropriate comments and actions in public settings.
Planning for 2020: In acknowledging the deep political divisions that define our politics, the possibility of civil unrest designed to disrupt political discourse and the federal election process over the coming year is most certainly possible. The Jewish community must join other civic groups, public officials and security organizations in being proactive to prevent such violence or threats to the democratic process.
Rebuilding Coalitional Partnerships and Policy Relationships: The Jewish community will need to solidify ties with its allies as well as build relationships with groups assuming new roles of influence. Jews have understood throughout their history the value of working with a wide array of religious, ethnic, and civic groups as a way to advance Jewish interests as well as promote the broader concerns of the society. With or without communal census, the CR field will need to reintroduce conversations around such essential themes as immigration, education, guns and safety, and freedom of speech and the Internet.
5. Framing the Questions:
Four abiding operational principles undergird community relations practice:
- Is the issue in alignment with American Constitutional and legislative/ legal principles?
- Does this policy align with past practices and policies of the community relations field?
- Are Jewish religious values and/or Jewish political interests being expressed through this policy or program?
- Will such actions advance political, economic, and social justice?
What are the measures that ought be introduced to evaluate policy and establish programmatic practice? Five questions are presented here:
- Does it promote or threaten Jews, Judaism and Jewish security?
- Will it enhance the State of Israel, its security, image and wellbeing?
- Can it benefit the welfare of the United States and its citizens?
- Consonant with the promotion of equal opportunity and rights for all, what policies and actions affirm and support the status of women and minorities?
- Do these actions elevate the civil liberties of Americans, i.e. freedom of expression, association, and assembly, and are these policies and programs designed to enhance religious freedom, advance intergroup relations, and promote education?
This maybe among the most critical moments in modern Jewish history, and as such, we require a pro-active community relations agenda. Elsewhere on these pages I have had occasion to write about the “reinvention” of this field.
- A well-funded local and national community relations initiative to move the interests of the Jewish community forward.
- At other moments in the American Jewish experience, our communal institutions would come together to map out a joint action plan, marshaling the collective skills and resources of both the national agencies and local community relations entities. That is what is required now!
- In those past settings, Jews learned to set aside policy and political differences to articulate a shared communal message designed to reflect the core values of our nation and the interests of the Jewish community. Can we create a framework for joint action?
- At this moment, each of our communities needs to have in place a strong and effective public policy/community relations apparatus to best represent the interests of Jewish Americans. The leadership portfolio here is particularly significant and essential, as we will require thoughtful and creative representatives, both lay and professional, who are able to effectively organize, articulate, manage and promote the community relations process.
Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. From 1985-1995, Dr. Windmueller served as the JCRC director in Los Angeles. In 2004 he produced a community relations handbook, You Shall Not Stand Idly By, published by the American Jewish Committee. Currently, he is writing a history of the Los Angeles CRC. His writings can be found on his website: www.thewindreport.com