What are the priorities of Jewish advocacy groups?

What are the priorities of Jewish advocacy groups?

One raging debate in constitutional law is over Originalism — interpreting the Constitution as written — and regarding it as a living Constitution subject to adaptation.

I play out such a debate in my mind when it comes to Jewish organizations: Have they gone beyond their original missions and, if so, have the original missions been diluted? Taking a fresh look at these groups’ aims and projects can serve as a proxy assessment of what is important to American Jews, at least to those who are engaged in the community.

I visited the websites of three Jewish organizations of general membership, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the American Jewish Committee (AJC), and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA); I disregarded the various religious denominations because I felt there would be inherent bias based on each one’s tenets.

The ADL is one of the oldest organizations and, arguably, the one with the highest profile advocating for the rights of Jews and fighting discrimination against them.

ADL was founded with the mission “to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all….” This statement raises the question as to whether “securing justice and fair treatment to all” is at the same mission level as stopping defamation of Jews. 

The ADL site breaks down the organization’s work decade by decade. The first real mention of working beyond the Jewish community occurs in the 1960s, with ADL’s helping to mobilize support for the civil rights movement and voting rights legislation. 

The site’s “What We Do” section describes five areas of work: Fight Anti-Semitism, Combat Hate & Protect Communities, Confront Discrimination & Secure Justice, Stand Up for Israel, and Promote Respectful Schools & Communities. Of the 22 specific project areas, only five involve anti-Semitism and Israel; the rest are broader in scope.

Older than ADL, AJC is a global Jewish advocacy organization whose mission is to enhance the well-being of the Jewish people and to advance human rights and democratic values for all. Thus, like ADL, it has a two-part mission.

It divides its work into four activities: Global Diplomacy, Legislative Advocacy, Interreligious and Intergroup Coalition Building, and Communications.

Under “What We Do,” AJC lists the following: Israel Advocacy, Iran Threat, Anti-Semitism, Interreligious & Intergroup, Contemporary Life, Human Rights, Energy Security, National Policy, and Immigration Reform. Of these nine areas, three are specifically related to Jews and Israel, with apparent overlap between National Policy and the other areas.

JCPA is the body that coordinates strategies for the organized Jewish community. As such, it identifies issues, formulates policy, and develops plans and programs with the aim of creating a united Jewish communal voice. It has a network of 16 national and 125 local member agencies.

JCPA divides its policy priorities into the international and domestic arenas. Under Israel and International Issues are: Preventing a Nuclear Iran, Ensuring a Robust International Affairs Budget Including Foreign Aid to Israel, Supporting U.S. Engagement in the Peace Process, Addressing the Issue of Syrian Refugees and Other International Humanitarian Crises, Countering International Terrorism and States that Support Terror, and Global Anti-Semitism. If the list is, as I take it, in priority order, I am bothered that Global Anti-Semitism ranks below Syrian Refugees and even U.S. Engagement in the Peace Process.

Among the list of domestic priorities is Confronting Poverty, Fostering Economic Growth, Strengthening America’s Education System, Defending Religious Liberty, Crafting a Fairer Criminal Justice System, and more; none of the issues has a distinct relationship with the Jewish community. 

While it is not possible to use project lists to measure allocation of resources, there is a lingering question, given the nature of the lists, as to whether the organizations’ concerns with Jews and Israel are now secondary to a broader social justice agenda.

In comparison, the website of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) says its mission is “to enhance understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding.” There is no equivalent of securing justice and fair treatment to all. CAIR says it “seeks to empower the American Muslim community,” stating, “Through media relations, government relations, education and advocacy, CAIR puts forth an Islamic perspective to ensure the Muslim voice is represented.” 

The CAIR mission statement makes clear that its efforts are focused on “issues related to Islam and Muslims.” No politically correct “We are all one” statements. CAIR advocates for one group only: the American Muslim community. 

For their part, Jewish groups seem overly concerned about appearing too Judeo-centric. Thus, they tend to forget or minimize the core constituency on whose behalf they are supposedly advocating.

These Jewish groups do good work but their project lists indicate that by taking on so many causes, they are diverting scarce resources from issues that in a time of rising anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism have a direct impact on Jews and Israel.

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