Why Jewish organizations are mostly playing it safe on issues like gun control and refugees

Participants in the National Walkout to protest gun violence marching toward the U.S. Capitol, April 20, 2018. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

NEW YORK (JTA) — As Senate Republicans worked to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act last summer, the American Jewish establishment sent an unequivocal message: Kill the bill.

“The Senate’s ‘Better Care Reconciliation Act’ would be devastating for millions of Americans and irreparably harmful to Jewish social service agencies that care for some of our community’s most vulnerable populations,” read a June alert from the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which acts as the umbrella political voice for dozens of local Jewish communities.

But two hours south of D.C., that group’s local branch stayed silent. The Richmond Jewish Community Relations Committee, which speaks for that Virginia city’s Jewish groups, did not put out a statement on the health bill roiling the country — and hasn’t since.

Doni Fogel, the group’s director, said that in the purple city of Richmond, seeking agreement on a divisive issue like health care is a complex process that can’t respond to legislation in real time.

“I need to spend my time in the realm of the possible,” Fogel told JTA. “We’re trying to widen the range of issues we’re talking about, and yes, it’s challenging.”

Is it possible for the Jewish community to speak in a unified voice on policy? More and more, say local activists, the answer is no.

Directors of the 125 Jewish community relations councils, or JCRCs, across the country are tasked with finding consensus across an increasingly divided Jewish community. Most are connected to or get all their funding from the local Jewish fundraising federations, where top donors often have significant impact on policy.

JCRCs do their work by consulting with local Jewish groups, circulating draft policies and settling on common language. And they say that work is getting harder.

“I think communities across the country are more divided because the country itself is more divided,” said Anita Zusman Eddy, executive director of the Dallas JCRC, who was at a conference for the groups this week in New York City. “There’s a general consensus among the JCRC directors and Jewish professionals that not only consensus but even civil discourse is harder to attain.”

The way Eddy and others have dealt with that is by narrowing the issues they speak out about. JCPA, the umbrella group, has a broad policy platform that covers issues from criminal justice reform to food insecurity to Israel to counterterrorism, and generally leans liberal. But in Dallas, where the Jewish community is more conservative, the scope is narrower: The JCRC focuses mostly on supporting Israel, opposing anti-Semitism and promoting education.

“We don’t consider immigration an issue that we work on, [or] gun control,” Eddy said. “We’re not motivated to provide a counterbalancing voice for the sake of it.”

Others avoid polarizing conversation by focusing on issues where the community already has a consensus position. In St. Louis, the JCRC has not opined on the ongoing debate over refugee policy, but is mobilizing local Jews to assist refugees who are already there.

“I don’t need consensus on who should be coming into this country or how the refugee process should be established or how many refugees should come in,” said Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, the St. Louis JCRC executive director. “We’re focused more on the work we can do to make a difference than on the debate around policy.”

But even issues that used to be uncontroversial are now a challenge, she said. The St. Louis JCRC, like all the others, strongly supports Israel, but the Israeli government’s stated goal of deporting African asylum seekers has made that an issue for some of the group’s allies in the black community.

“I got calls from partners in the African-American community like, ‘What’s going on with this deportation of African migrants? We want to work with you, we’re committed to working with you, but we have to defend this to our community and it looks like Israel is kicking out the black people,’” Picker Neiss said. “I was able to point to them that the American Jewish community isn’t in support of that. We don’t have control of the Israeli government.”

Increased polarization is also an issue nationally, said David Bernstein, the JCPA’s executive director, even on issues where there used to be consensus.

“In the wake of the presidential election, I made the case that we would be willing to engage with the administration, and received tremendous flak for that,” Bernstein said. “I’ve been challenged by the Jewish right on a recent gun violence statement in the wake of the Parkland shooting. When we speak out on established policy issues, we still risk creating a backlash.”

At its conference this week, the JCPA passed three resolutions: One rejected white supremacy and all forms of bigotry; one established a task force on racial justice and inclusion within the Jewish community; and one supported Israeli-Palestinian coexistence initiatives.

Some communities are still trying to find a common voice even on divisive topics. The Miami JCRC, not far from the shooting in Parkland, Florida, in February, succeeded in putting out a statement backing a few gun control measures.

“Is there potential for there to be polarization on gun violence?” asked Carol Brick-Turin, the Miami JCRC director. “Yes, but we were able as a JCRC to meet and look at those points on which there was consensus. We felt we couldn’t stay silent. We had to make our voices heard in Tallahassee.”

In other communities where the Jewish community is more politically homogeneous, the current political climate can still be challenging. Diane Fisher, director of the Silicon Valley JCRC in Northern California, is going to be a panelist at an event Friday on how to maintain emotional health amid today’s national conversation. Although her Jewish community is largely liberal, she said the JCRC tries to focus more on local issues — like the Bay Area housing crisis — in which it has a stake.

“If we are taking positions, it’s on a San Jose issue or a Santa Clara County issue, maybe a state of California bill or something like that,” Fisher said. “We are very much [about] what our community is impacted by.”