The brand-new president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs warned local community relations officials about the dangers of “intersectionality,” in which members of progressive political organizations make common cause with the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement.
Such “intersectionality,” said David Bernstein, “is going to become our biggest community relations challenge of all times.”
Bernstein succeeded Rabbi Steve Gutow as head of the community relations umbrella organization on Jan. 1. He spoke Jan. 21 to 30 members of the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ at the Aidekman campus in Whippany.
It was his first meeting with a grassroots community relations organization since he took office, and part of what he called a “listening tour” of some of the 125 CRCs in the United States affiliated with the federation system and approximately 60 Jewish communal organizations that make up the JCPA membership.
As an example of intersectionality, Bernstein noted that after the police shooting of an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, some protesters carried signs reading “From Ferguson to Palestine.”
“What does police brutality in Ferguson have to do with the complicated Arab-Israel conflict? What possible parallels can we draw?” he asked. “And yet we have seen this over and over again.”
Bernstein, a Maryland resident, previously headed the David Project, which promotes pro-Israel advocacy on campus, where attacks on Israel by progressive groups are increasingly common.
“That paradigm has begun to dominate the discourse on campus,” he said. “People are beginning to connect the dots, and what starts on campus doesn’t necessarily stay on campus.”
He urged CRC members to form relationships “with groups that are most vulnerable to this. We don’t have the power to stop intersectionality, but we do have the power to build bridges to people who don’t buy into intersectionality.”
Bernstein called on CRC members to “be proactive on Israel and active in the domestic theater. We cannot just do Israel advocacy because we have got to have a domestic agenda. We must be able to do both of those things and do them well.”
That domestic agenda, he said, includes poverty, hunger, and civil rights. “My bias is we can’t do it all. We have to decide where we can lead,” he said. “Where can we be in the forefront of an issue, not just in the background?”
Bernstein noted that “the JCPA has a reputation, right or wrong, that it is pretty far on the Left. I don’t think in a bipartisan age it serves any of us well. We need to be able to talk to both Democrats and Republicans and have credibility. If we are viewed as being too partisan, we will not be effective in two parties. That is something we are going to be paying a lot of attention to.”
After the meeting, Melanie Roth Gorelick, director of the Greater MetroWest CRC, spoke with NJ Jewish News in a phone interview. “David comes to the job with a lot of enthusiasm and an important vision for JCPA’s future,” she said. “It is one of the most important organizations for Jewish federations around the country, and it is where we form public policy positions for the issues of the day.”
Roth Gorelick said a key to uncoupling the bonds between the BDS movement and other social causes is “building relationships. The Jewish community as a whole needs to retain its ties with progressive causes. As they get to know people in the mainstream Jewish community, they are more likely to support Israel.”
As an example, she noted CRC activities at Montclair State University, where there is an active pro-Palestinian movement.
The Students for Justice in Palestine at the school has reached out to other groups, she said, “but we are working with the Jewish groups on campus to do the same thing….”
Also, Roth Gorelick said, at MSU “Jewish students and Muslim students do some things together,” and her CRC is “also getting more involved in coexistence projects on campuses.”
“David Bernstein is a creative, out-of-the-box thinker with a proven record in advocating for Israel in an effective, strategic manner,” wrote GMW CRC president Elliot Mathias in a Jan. 25 e-mail to NJJN.
“This year at the CRC we are focusing much of our efforts on building relationships with community leaders outside of the Jewish community, namely African-American leaders and Christian clergy,” Mathias said. “David’s thoughtful analysis certainly enhanced our ability to be successful in these efforts.”