Since the Jewish community in the United States represents less than 2 percent of the total population, it is imperative that we seek out partners in the wider society if we are to advance our public policy objectives. But not all public affairs activists and groups share our community’s fundamental values, among them support for Israel and respect for the dignity of all people.
How do we determine which ones are acceptable partners? What should our response be to a partner who makes common cause with those we deem as beyond the pale? And should we refuse to participate in a coalition that includes one or more unacceptable partners? Answers to these questions often are difficult to formulate, and, at times, they reflect sharp differences of opinion.
This topic came to mind because of some recent developments:
• The controversy surrounding Linda Sarsour — the Palestinian-American activist from New York who was one of the leaders of last January’s Women’s March in Washington, DC, and commencement speaker at CUNY.
• Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), which for years has been a Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS)-supporting nemesis on college campuses, has increased its involvement in general community affairs.
• The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) joined with a broad coalition of organizations in a letter calling on mayors to repudiate anti-Sharia marches led by ACT for America, described in the letter as “America’s largest anti-Muslim hate group.” Subsequently, ADL’s national director, Jonathan Greenblatt, said he was “deeply upset” and “troubled” when he discovered that JVP and other groups deemed hostile to Israel had also signed on. He said ADL would “exercise greater caution” before adding its name in the future to a statement with multiple signatories.
• And on a trip earlier this month to a southern Jewish community, I heard concerns expressed about a prominent pro-Israel, local evangelical church working with Operation Save America (OSA) on a national program. In a March 2011 memo, the ADL accused the OSA of being an organization with a “three-pronged mission to demonize abortion, homosexuality, and Islam.”
Before Jewish communal leaders take any action, our first step must be to determine who is an acceptable partner. With respect to JVP, the Jewish establishment’s response, across the board, is negative. JVP robustly supports the BDS movement and refrains from endorsing Israel’s legitimacy, placing JVP beyond the pale. However, Marty Levine, a J Street volunteer leader from Maplewood, said his organization takes a somewhat more nuanced view with respect to JVP. Of course, there are sharp differences — J Street is for two states and against BDS — but “it’s always better to talk than not to talk,” Levine said. “J Street often finds itself on the stage with people whose views we do not share.”
Linda Sarsour, who helped raise $160,000 to restore a vandalized St. Louis Jewish cemetery, poses a more complex challenge. Anything but a Zionist, and at minimum, a passive supporter of the BDS movement, Sarsour is generally considered an antagonist by many of the establishment Jewish groups. But there are exceptions. Nancy Kaufman, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, worked closely with Sarsour in the lead-up to January’s Women’s March. “NCJW signed on as a co-sponsor only after we were given assurances by Linda that the march would not be a platform for BDS and/or Israel bashing of any kind. And, that promise was kept,” she told me.
Although there remains a division with Sarsour on the BDS issue, Kaufman asserted that, “just as we work with other coalition partners with whom we have strong disagreements, we will work with Linda Sarsour and the Muslim community she represents on areas of common concern, including Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, immigration policy, and civic engagement.”
I think Kaufman has identified an important difference. JVP’s prime focus is to support the BDS movement and Israel’s delegitimization, while most of Sarsour’s efforts relate to domestic matters that also are of concern to the mainstream Jewish community. Thus, to view JVP and Sarsour as equally objectionable seems unfair and unwise.
Let’s shift focus to the extreme right side of the political spectrum. The ADL specializes in monitoring and assessing groups on both the political left and right. This is one of its organizational strengths. Therefore, if ADL regards the OSA and Act for America as extremist, anti-Muslim hate groups, it is a judgment worthy of respect.
So, what should the response be to the evangelical church that is working closely with the OSA? This issue reminded me of the dilemma the Jewish community faced in the 1990s when outspoken, anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan was increasingly accepted by mainstream and important African-American groups like the NAACP and Congressional Black Caucus. The ADL prepared a backgrounder for its governing body laying out two choices: 1) a “hard-line” approach, namely, that it “cannot be business as usual” with anyone who legitimizes Farrakhan, or 2) a pragmatic approach, which is that after expressing concerns about Farrakhan’s bigotry, ADL must continue to work with responsible African-American groups on issues of shared interest. The pragmatic approach, which enabled ADL to maintain its relationships with mainstream African-American leadership, won the day.
I discussed the evangelical church-OSA problem with one of my seasoned Jewish community relations colleagues, who wished to be quoted without attribution because he is actively engaged in interfaith relations. “While not excusing OSA,” he observed, “our community has some double standards at play here. Operation Rescue [earlier version of OSA] worked hand-in-glove with the Catholic Church. I don’t remember any Jewish groups saying they wouldn’t work with the Catholics on immigration or poverty because Operation Rescue was meeting in their function rooms.”
Not participating in a broad, civil society coalition for a good cause just because we may object to the views of some of its members, in my opinion, makes very little sense. When I was at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), our agency not only fully participated, but played a leadership role in the Save Darfur Coalition, comprised of dozens of organizations that were seeking to bring an end to the first genocide of the 21st century. There were a small number of coalition members that our Jewish establishment found objectionable, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations. But the thought of not joining or leaving the coalition never entered our minds. We would not allow them to dictate where, how, and when the JCPA would get involved on issues of concern to the Jewish community.
Ken Jacobson, ADL’s deputy national director, takes a cautious approach to coalition building. “We decide whether to participate based on two factors: how broad the coalition is — the broader it is, the more likely we’d consider signing on, and how central the issue is to ADL concerns — on something like hate crimes, where ADL is the leader, we are less likely to exclude ourselves if a troubling group is included,” Jacobson said. “We decide on a case-by-case basis within these parameters.”
Hillel’s role on campus is particularly challenging. On the one hand, it is understandable — per Hillel’s guidelines — that hosting or cosponsoring events with a group like JVP would violate a core value: support for Israel. On the other hand, Hillel also is committed to promoting an environment in which students feel comfortable expressing non-establishment perspectives and raising provocative questions. There’s no simple solution to that contradiction.
Last word: I understand this desire to draw boundaries, to identify those with whom we can comfortably work in the public affairs arena, and those we cannot. Yet, I regret that so much time and energy are consumed in this pursuit; the result is less attention devoted to the public affairs priorities themselves.