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For Jewish Federations, is there such a thing as a Jewish priority?

After a policy document focused on supporting Israel and communal security, liberals howled—and gun control, gay rights and partisan voting laws were reinserted as American Jewry’s top issues.

Community Security Service volunteers stand guard outside an urban synagogue. Credit: Community Security Service.
Community Security Service volunteers stand guard outside an urban synagogue. Credit: Community Security Service.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

The question of which issues the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) designate as their “Public Priorities” is not something that anyone outside of the alphabet soup world of organized American Jewry would pay attention to, let alone generate significant news coverage.

Nevertheless, the JFNA—the umbrella group that represents all the local philanthropic groups that raise money for local and international Jewish needs—has some clout. The document they send out annually to their constituents about what’s considered their most important tasks as they advocate on behalf of the Jewish community in Washington is a bellwether of a sort in that it signals to the non-Jewish world which issues Jews supposedly care about.

So when the JNFA sent out a list that focused primarily on two items that are genuine Jewish priorities rather than a laundry list of liberal/left-wing political causes, it seemed like a rare outbreak of common sense.

The issues highlighted in the document they sent out to their constituents were support for Israel and communal security in an era of rising anti-Semitism, when synagogues and other Jewish institutions have found themselves under attack. Those are subjects that fall under the responsibility of federations to speak up about, as opposed to other topics that, while interesting or important to many Jews, are not specific to the Jewish community or intrinsic to Jewish life and survival.

The decision seemed to be motivated by the reality of Jewish life in 2022.

The upsurge in anti-Semitic attacks after the fighting between Israel and Hamas in Gaza last May was a wake-up call to many in the organized Jewish world. The spectacle of anti-Semitic rhetoric delegitimizing Israel and its supporters uttered on the floor of the House of Representatives by members of the Democratic Party’s left-wing “Squad” was a shock to the system. The same was true of the outbreak of assaults on Jews in the streets of American cities, which could be directly linked to the rhetoric heard on Capitol Hill and in left-wing forums where intersectional myths and toxic critical race theory ideas grant a permission slip to Jew-hatred.

If opposition to the mainstreaming of anti-Semitism under the guise of anti-Zionism isn’t the No. 1 Jewish priority, then the term has no meaning.

That was a point that was emphasized last month by the hostage-taking crisis in a Texas synagogue by an allegedly deranged person who was demanding the release of a notorious anti-Semitic and Islamist terrorist from federal prison. While Jews are divided on a host of political issues just like everyone else in a polarized America, putting the weight of the federations and other major organizations lobbying and advocacy on behalf of efforts to support better security and to push back against opposition to the right of the one Jewish state on the planet to exist was a no-brainer.

That didn’t mean that the majority of Jews who identify as political liberals and supporters of the Democratic Party don’t have a lot of other things they care about. And it wouldn’t have precluded Jewish groups from expending time, energy and money on advocacy on behalf of those other issues. Rather, it was a recognition that a group like the JFNA, which claims to speak for the entire Jewish community—religious and secular, liberal and conservative, Reform, Conservative or Orthodox—ought to prioritize those concerns that are specifically Jewish.

But anyone who believed this entirely reasonable decision would not generate furious opposition knows nothing about the way most of the organized Jewish world operates and thinks. So when the Jewish Telegraphic Agency highlighted the new priority list and helpfully pointed out the issues that the JFNA had listed in past years, but which were omitted in the 2022 document—gun control, LGBTQ rights and support for partisan Democratic Party voting bills—Jewish liberals weren’t going to take it lying down.

After only a few days of furious complaints and behind-the-scenes drama, the JFNA folded like an accordion and tamely released a new document declaring that the aforementioned left-wing talking points were back at the top of the list, right alongside anti-Semitism, communal security and support for Israel.

To decry this change is not to dispute that those issues may well have more support in much of the community than backing Israel or worrying about anti-Semitic violence.

Sadly, attacks on Jewish institutions only seem to generate genuine alarm in the community when the terrorists are identified as right-wing lunatics like the shooter in the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue attack. The crazed Islamist that took hostages in Colleyville, Texas, is more easily ignored by the majority of American Jews who like their villains to be people they can link to political opponents on the right, not those who take seriously the advocacy of extremist Muslim groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

As for the other priorities, it’s a mixed bag.

The vast majority of Americans support equal rights for gays with the only caveat being that this shouldn’t mean that the government will now support discrimination against those religious believers who disagree—something that can potentially affect portions of the Orthodox community as well as conservative Christians.

Gun control is the sort of topic that has an anodyne ring to it since no one supports gun violence. However, restrictions on the right to own guns—something that, like it or not, is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution—is inevitably a political hot potato even if the “common sense” laws supported by liberals would do nothing to stop mass shootings or the epidemic of murders in American cities. But no matter what side you come down on in that debate—and far more Jews favor more restrictive laws than worry about preserving the Second Amendment—it is impossible to claim that it is a Jewish priority as opposed to a secular political one.

As for prioritizing voting rights, that’s nothing but a shameless bow to Democratic Party priorities, not Jewish ones. The idea that laws that seek to ensure the integrity of the vote, including voter ID that is supported by the overwhelming majority of Americans, is racism or “voter suppression” is nothing but a partisan talking point that amounts to gaslighting. That Jews who support the Democrats would take up this cause is understandable. But the idea that it should somehow be a cause officially embraced by the organized Jewish community is outrageous.

The controversy boils down to is this: What is the responsibility of those who purport to speak for the Jews? If it’s simply to mimic the partisan biases of the majority of Jews, then the JFNA should simply dedicate itself to shameless advocacy for whatever it is that President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats are interested in doing.

Indeed, many Jews genuinely believe that the liberal/left agenda—whether it goes under the rubric of “social justice” or the stock cliché about tikkun olam, or “repairing the world” (a Hebrew phrase that in traditional Jewish liturgy refers to the world accepting the will of the Creator and the Torah, but has now become a catch-all term for treating political issues as if they were religious imperatives) is interchangeable with the tenets of Judaism.

But the fact that many people think that way doesn’t make it so.

Communal groups need to put aside partisan politics and focus on those issues that are integral to the survival of American Jewry. Support for the right of Israel to exist is one. And highlighting the need to oppose anti-Semitism and prioritize communal security is another. By changing its mind and reinstating the liberal laundry list, the JNFA is not so much being sensitive to its supporters as it is discarding any reason to take it seriously as a defender of the Jewish community.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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