Visions of Jewish Advocacy
(Published in the September 2020 Issue of “The Reflector”)
As the High Holidays approach, we embrace a time of year that is about seeing things for what they are and identifying paths for making things better. It is a time when we use that reality check to say - if we put the work in, we can change direction. T’shuvah is the term for this change - and we hope that in each one of us taking these steps, and making this change, we can bring T’shuvah to the world as well.
This concept resonates with an ongoing debate within the Jewish community about the nature of Jewish Advocacy - where we ask if our efforts should be rooted in seeing the reality or the hope; the here and now or the potential future. Recently, Jonathan Tobin, editor of JNS (Jewish News Service) and David Bernstein, President and CEO of the JCPA (Jewish Council for Public Affairs) engaged in a print and zoom debate on this issued titled “Competing Visions of Jewish Advocacy.” One of the topics they discussed seemed to frame their positions well - “Should the Jewish Community Forgive Anti-Semites?”
The way the question was posed seemed to make something that is quite complex very one dimensional. According to Tobin, current advocacy practices are to forgive anti-Semitism for the sake of “partnership” or the new negative buzzword “intersectionality.” When interests intersect, as the idea asserts, we hold the ideals of relationship higher than defending the Jewish community. According to Bernstein, being in relationship is actually the best way to counter anti-Semitism and confront any pre-conceived notions people may hold.
By implication, this topic was referencing recent anti-Semitic statements made by celebrities and leaders in the Black community, and even more specifically about leaders and platforms in the national “Movement for Black Lives” organization.
But by phrasing the question the idea of not challenging anti-Semitism, Tobin missed the mark and the better response. That our work is not an either/or, but a yes/and. Maybe the better question should have been how does the Jewish community combat anti-Semitism AND forge the necessary relationships that strengthen our place in a multi-ethnic society. Maybe it is not really about “Competing” visions of Jewish Advocacy but how modern Jewish advocacy operates on multiple planes and adapts where and when it needs to.
For example, in Philadelphia, local NAACP leader Rodney Mohamad tweeted a classic anti-Semitic trope, essentially amplifying Louis Farrakhan. In answer to Mr. Tobin, Louis Farrakhan is routinely condemned and clearly thought of as an extremist. He is not someone any Jewish community organization would partner with. Rodney Mohamad does work for an organization we often partner with and so was confronted about his bigotry. When the response was insufficient, the ADL made clear they would not work with him. One could ask – where is anti-Semitism being forgiven?
We also consider that the celebrities who amplified Farrakhan either did so out of ignorance or malicious intent. In today’s world, even athletes have to be politicians and they may just not be well versed in the stereotypes of communities they rarely come into contact with. Or maybe they are very aware of what they are doing. I believe Mr. Bernstein would say it is up to us to engage, find out the answer to that question, and see if change is possible - to see if education is possible. The Philadelphia ADL discovered that it was not in Rodney Mohamad’s case and cut ties with the local NAACP. Isn’t that the way Mr. Tobin wants it? Isn’t that appropriate?
Jewish Advocacy needs to be self-aware, and ready to pivot – just like we try to do during the high holidays. Jewish Advocacy also needs to know where it operates – because frankly, things are different everywhere. This is another shortcoming of the “intersectionality is bad” argument. Maybe city X has a problem with their NAACP leader – like in Philly. Maybe city y has a problem with their Black Lives Matter chapter. But you have to ask, where are you in relation to the problem or the solution?
We are in Richmond. In our community we are in the process of strengthening ties with all of the communities around us, most notably the Black community. If we were to balk, or pre-suppose beliefs another community has, that would be a bit hypocritical wouldn’t it? So, what are we left to do? We engage. We lean in. We question. We listen. We try to be part of the solution. And yes, if here in Richmond we heard things from leaders that made us cringe, we would say something. But saying something while you are IN relationship is much better than saying it when you are NOT in relationship.
In Richmond we have been having open and honest conversations with our community partners for many years and we do not sacrifice the interests of the Jewish community in any way as we maintain these relationships and make them stronger. In fact, by having these conversations we are educating our partners about things they are largely unfamiliar with. We are also getting educated about things we are largely unfamiliar with. And then you realize that leaders here, made more aware of the problem in other places – like with a national Black organization’s platform, are our best allies in making that national change we are looking for.
Last month, when responding to the horrible desecration of cemeteries in the Black and Jewish communities, we did so together - in relationship. We were reminded once again that there is more that unites us than divides us. And that commonality was not the shared history of racism aimed against us. It was the shared values of racial and social justice. It was the shared ideal of partnership and community. It was the shared humanity of people that just wanted to live in relationship and not fear.