Washington, D.C. — When Jeremy Burton, now executive director of Boston’s Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), attended his first Jewish Council on Public Affairs (JCPA) convention a generation ago, the outlook for the community relations field wasn’t promising. With anti-Semitism on the decline and the prospect of a peace deal in the Middle East on the horizon, the need for community relations councils seemed to be waning.
Fast forward 26 years and the picture has altered drastically. With anti-Semitism on the rise, Israel under attack, and coalition building made increasingly treacherous in an era of intersectionality, JCPA, the umbrella organization for JCRCs across the country, is trying to reassert the importance of community relations in an era of political turmoil.
As if on cue, as JCPA was holding its annual conference in the nation’s capital, the controversy swirled around freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar, one of only two Muslims in Congress, for her perceived anti-Semitic tweet about Jews and money. The firestorm seemed likely to complicate the work of JCRCs everywhere when it comes to Jewish-Muslim relations, which have strengthened markedly in the Trump era, especially around the issue of immigration.
As JCPA marks its 75th anniversary this year, it unveiled a strategic plan to expand its relationship-building efforts across the country by increasing the number of JCRC professionals working on the local and national levels. But the excitement around increasing personnel and budgets was tempered by the challenges facing JCRCs in building broad coalitions in the face of increasing polarization.
“People are moving toward more extreme, more fractured, more oppositional spaces, and it’s creating a really complicated place for the kinds of organizations like JCRCs,” said Burton. “Our work is around finding [common] ground … that has become much harder.”
“We talk a lot about building consensus — I’m not sure that’s doable anymore,” said David Bernstein, president and CEO of JCPA, at a panel of past JCPA leaders. “But I think we need to be able to disagree agreeably.”
At a time when intersectionality and coalition politics are of growing concern to the organized Jewish community, as evidenced by the recent controversy around the Women’s March and the ever-present controversies around BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions), JCRCs would seem to be the natural fit to lead the Jewish community’s political advocacy. With a model based in local coalition building, JCRC professionals tend to have decades-long relationships with religious, ethnic, and political leaders on the local level across the country.
But in a crowded field of organizations seeking to speak for the American-Jewish community, JCRC has long been a more modest behind-the-scenes player while national (and better funded) organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and AJC have taken more prominent positions in the community.
Of course, Israel complicates the work of coalition building for JCRCs, which include defending Israel against delegitimization in their core mission. Last month, the Boston JCRC passed a resolution stating that working with anti-Zionist Jewish groups could be grounds for removal of member organizations. The move led to a tense showdown with the historically socialist Workmen’s Circle, a Jewish cultural group that recently cosigned a statement by the BDS-supporting and anti-Israel group, Jewish Voice for Peace.
As seen in the JCRC controversy in Boston, opposing Zionism or the Jewish people’s right to a Jewish state was a red line that came up repeatedly at the conference. “We at JCRC strive to reach from a much broader part of the world. It’s not just the center; it’s the broad spectrum of the mainstream,” said Burton. “But that has to have some boundaries.”
The central aim of the strategic plan announced at the conference — strengthening community relations across the country — is an attempt to answer these challenges. The plan is the result of a joint task force led by JCPA and the Jewish Federations of North America, as well as a report on community relations by the Reut Group, an Israeli strategy consulting firm. It “calls upon the Jewish community to make a strategic investment in the sum of $1.6 million per year (in addition to the existing $1.8 million budget), which will go toward capacity-building of the JCPA and revitalizing the infrastructure of community relations across the USA,” according to a summary of the reports.
JCRC budgets and staff have been shrinking in recent years, leaving some communities without any JCRC and others with just one staff member attached to the local federation. The additional personnel would require a corresponding budget increase to be raised by the local JCRCs.
“In every case of success in the fight against delegitimization, a personal relationship was deployed … and those relationships were cultivated from long before,” said Gidi Grinstein, founder and president of Reut and an author of the report on community relations. Still, the impact of community relations, which is difficult to measure, can be a difficult sell to donors. “Community relations is not sexy.”
“We have left a lot of vacuums in coalitions that we used to be in,” said Melanie Gorelick, senior vice president of JCPA. Previously Gorelick was the director of the Community Relations Committee of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, where she was on staff from 2006–2016, interim chief marketing officer for seven months, and interim allocations officer for one year.
“We need to get out in front of this; we need to create those relationships today to be able to call on people tomorrow, because we don’t know what’s coming around the corner,” said David Brown, co-chair of the JCPA-JFNA taskforce.
Criminal justice reform is one issue the conference organizers believe will be an opportunity for Jewish communities to work productively with non-Jewish allies. The conference featured several panels on the topic and introduced a criminal justice initiative with resources for JCRCs across the country to increase their work in that area. The initiative includes programmatic resources for JCRCs to utilize as well as a network of Jewish criminal justice experts.
“Criminal justice is the civil rights issue of our time,” said Bernstein.
As progressive politics become increasingly intertwined with groups that are critical of Israel or explicitly reject Zionism, the work of coalition building becomes more challenging for a Zionist organization like JCPA and JCRCs. The social justice initiative, which is a domestic issue, is an opportunity to build trust with non-Jewish partners.
“We’re dealing with a network challenge that requires a network approach,” said Grinstein of the BDS movement and broader efforts to delegitimize Israel.
“There’s a tendency to invest in another good program,” said Grinstein of such campaigns. “The only way to be able to contain what we’re talking about here is a network of local organizations that have the capacities, the talent, the methodology, and the technology — all these things together, captured in local organizations.”
The topic of Zionism and intersectionality came up in several sessions throughout the conference, most of which were off the record. A panel on the Women’s March included April Baskin, who most recently served as vice president at the Union for Reform Judaism coordinating diversity efforts, and transgender right activist Abby Stein, two of the Jewish women appointed to the Women’s March steering committee in the wake of allegations of anti-Semitism among some of the original leaders of the organization. Other sessions discussed issues such as municipal BDS, anti-Zionism on college campuses, and engaging in intersectional dialogue.
The tension between engaging in dialogue and issuing condemnations of political opponents carried through every session. “I think more often than not, the ‘engage and influence’ model is the right approach for the progressive left, and I think the ‘condemn and marginalize’ [approach], because anti-Semitism tends to be so explicit on the right, tends to be the right model and methodology for opposing anti-Semitism on the right,” said Bernstein.
“We want to have as few litmus tests as possible, but understand that there is a role for some litmus tests to define who we are as a community of meaning and values,” said Bernstein.
In response to a question about the impact of incidents like Omar’s tweet on threats to liberal democracy during a Tuesday panel (Omar apologized after an outcry from Democrats and Republicans), Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said, “This is a very difficult conversation; I don’t think we can run away from it.”
But Gupta found reason for optimism. “I think we have to be honest and acknowledge these issues,” she said, “but I think there is a lot more that is bringing our organizations together at this time.”
Shira Hanau is a staff writer for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.