Election 2016: agenda for the day after
Hillary Clinton is the only sensible choice to be our next president. Long before the Access Hollywood videotape highlighting Donald Trump’s sexual predation emerged, that judgment was not difficult for me. However, I do think it is worth considering the implications of a substantial portion of the American electorate supporting a man the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bret Stephens described as “manifestly unqualified to be president in any way, shape, or form.”
A certain percentage of Trump’s supporters align with his crude ethnic stereotyping, xenophobia, and misogyny. Others are among the Republican Party faithful, who, frankly, don’t pay any attention to their candidate’s identity or policy positions. (The same can be said for Democrat Party loyalists as well.) But it would be a serious mistake to assume this represents the sum total of his base.
A significant segment of the American public is hurting. Globalism and technology have eliminated manufacturing jobs. The income gap has grown larger. Health care and higher education for many have become unaffordable. There is fear of rising violence at home and abroad. While the American dream seems desperately beyond reach, a dysfunctional federal government, rooted in mindless hyper-partisanship, appears incapable of coming up with answers, and the resulting anger at the political “establishment” is palpable. This situation reminds me of Peter Finch’s character Howard Beale in the movie Network, when he exhorts his viewers to get up out of their seats, stick their heads out of the windows, and scream: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
Our Jewish community, nationally and here in New Jersey, has an obligation to respond. Not alone, of course, but in coalition with other civil society groups that want to end this toxic polarization that is preventing Democrats and Republicans from crossing the aisle to reach pragmatic solutions. We are called upon by our traditional values to be sensitive to the needs of all people, not only those of our own community. Tikun olam (repairing the world) should be not merely a slogan, but rather an integral part of the community’s life.
Moreover, this activism would be in our enlightened self-interest. We know all too well from direct experience that periods of economic dislocation and social unrest can lead to extremism and anti-Semitism. In addition, the relationships we form with non-Jewish coalition partners often are critically important when looking for allies on distinctive Jewish issues, such as support for Israel.
There are a number of institutional vehicles through which the organized Jewish community involves itself in a multi-issue agenda through coalitional activity with other civil society groups. One of the central bodies at the national level is the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which coordinates the activity of over 100 local CRCs (community relations committees). In all but a handful of instances, these committees are embedded in Jewish federations.
Over the years, these CRCs have accomplished some amazing things in their communities. For example, the CRC of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ was instrumental in establishing the New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking, a wide alliance of interfaith and intergroup partners committed to ending human trafficking in the state, country, and world through education, advocacy, and assistance to survivors.
Regrettably, however, the number of professionals working in this arena has diminished significantly. One longtime colleague, whose knowledge of the statewide NJ scene goes back at least several decades, described the community relations system here as a “shadow of its former self.” This erosion in coalitional activity has taken place around the country. JCPA’s new president/CEO, David Bernstein, acknowledged this trend in his recent op-ed “Four Reasons to Re-Engage in the Civil Rights Movement” (The Jewish Week, Oct. 6). “Notwithstanding our self-image as modern-day activists walking in the footsteps of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the community has been largely absent from today’s civil rights tables.”
Where then have Jewish energy and dollars primarily been flowing? To organizations and initiatives geared toward advancing Israel advocacy and fighting anti-Semitism. Given the many challenges we face in the community and on campuses, this focus is understandable. Indeed, I helped shape the Israel Action Network, an initiative of the Jewish Federations of North America and JCPA to counter the assault on Israel’s legitimacy.
But this need not be a zero-sum game. Our community has the potential to properly address “our” interests, while at the same time increasing involvement with concerns relating to society as a whole. My recent conversations with colleagues, both nationally and in New Jersey, suggest that leadership in the mainstream Jewish community is starting to understand the importance of a more comprehensive public affairs agenda. Let’s hope that if there’s one thing we’ve learned from this topsy-turvy election, it’s that once it’s finally over, we have much work to do.