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The community-relations trap: An exchange

The head of the JCPA and the editor of JNS debate whether and when Jews should engage in dialogue with anti-Semites and questionable groups.

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

Last week, I wrote a piece on a subject that I called “The community-relations trap” as Jews struggle with the question of how or when to engage with anti-Semites and their enablers. The following is an exchange on the issue with David Bernstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the national umbrella group for Jewish community-relations councils.

DB: Jonathan, I read your column with great interest. You argued that attempts on the part of American Jewish organizations to engage and rehabilitate anti-Semites don’t work. You cited several recent anti-Semitic comments coming from black celebrities and athletes, such as actor Nick Cannon. I think you are wrong, and I am happy to have a discussion with you about it.

You argued that “the problem is not one that can be solved by attempting to win the hearts and minds of his sympathizers (Louis Farrakhan) one at a time.”

Let’s start by acknowledging that the problem cannot be solved (a conservative notion, no?). There’s no silver bullet for ending anti-Semitism. The oldest hatred has proven quite resilient through the millennium. Neither my engagement posture nor your ideological aloofness will make anti-Semitism go away. The question is: What’s the best way to reduce it and strengthen the place of American Jews in this country?

Nick Cannon, the celebrity who made ugly anti-Semitic comments, has 4.8 million Twitter followers and a radio show. He’s about as far from “one at a time” as you can get. Cannon used that platform to spread hate towards Jews. If engaging him in discussion and turning him around so that very same platform can be used to repudiate his previous remarks and influence those same followers not to hate Jews, I’m all for it.

You say it’s not dignified? You take dignity, and I’ll take effectiveness.

JT: David, you are right that the problem can’t be definitively solved. As scholar Ruth Wisse has noted, anti-Semitism continues to succeed because it has proved capable of attaching itself to a variety of religious and political ideologies. That’s why Jewish organizations must not merely be realistic about their expectations but also understand that dialogue with bad actors can have unintended consequences that can cause harm as well as spreading understanding.

David Bernstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. Credit: Courtesy.

Can persuading Nick Cannon to quote Bari Weiss, rather than spreading Farrakhan-style hate to his Twitter followers, be helpful? Of course, it can. But what’s at stake in deciding when and where to engage in dialogue is the question of what sort of dialogue are we engaging in, and what kinds of outcomes do we seek. The goal isn’t so much dignity as it is an effective defense of Jewish rights and alliances that are not conditional on Jews abandoning their interests.

Jewish overtures can often result in exchanges that are more focused on demonstrating empathy for partners than in communicating principles. For example, if dialogue about Israel or even anti-Semitism consists of others complaining about alleged Israeli sins and, as has sometimes been the case, Jews responding by expressing sympathy with those positions, that may be dialogue but it isn’t something worth pursuing.

What is troubling is the institutional bias that many Jewish organizations have towards dialogue even when it may be futile. What I advocate is not an end to all dialogue, but a greater recognition that dialogue for its own sake can be counter-productive.

DB: Jonathan, that’s a misapprehension of today’s community-relations work. Dialogue for the sake of dialogue is so very 1990s. These days, most community relations involve identifying policy  issues, such as immigration or criminal justice reform, and seeking important partners with whom to do that work.

You know the old saying, “The only way to have a friend is to be one.” We look for synergy between the universal and the particular such as criminal justice reform and engagement of black leaders or immigration reform and engagement of Latino leaders. Such work, done well, sensitizes our partners about Jews and Israel over time, and, of course, allows them to influence us.

Does this strategy work all of the time? No. Nothing does. Does it work some of the time? Absolutely.

Engagement is, in most cases, a much more effective approach to combating anti-Semitism than standing on principle in splendid isolation. For many years, Jewish organizations practiced what I call “condemn and marginalize.” Whenever anti-Semitism reared its ugly head, we condemned it and asked others to do the same. But as anti-Semitism morphed into anti-Zionism, it became less recognizable to the average person and, hence, harder to combat. Many do not view opposition to Israel’s existence as anti-Semitism, no matter how many times we insist that it is.

So we also need a strategy of “Engage and Influence” in the causes and movements most susceptible to this form of anti-Semitism. That does not mean engaging the hard-core anti-Semites and anti-Zionists, but rather, people active in progressive movements who might eventually be influenced by them. If mainstream Jewish groups stay away from uncomfortable progressive spaces for fear of selling out the Jewish community or being censured by other Jews, Jewish and non-Jewish groups that we don’t like will gladly fill the vacuum.

JT: David, “splendid isolation” is not the objective. But Jewish groups should be mindful of the fact that trying and failing is not always better than not trying at all. The act of engaging with groups that sometimes enable or downplay the anti-Semitism of members of their communities can undermine our objective of isolating those whose statements and actions concern us.

That doesn’t prevent Jews from seeking to make friends where it makes sense to do so or to try to help potential allies understand our concerns. But the default instincts of much of the organized Jewish world to follow the lead of progressives—regardless of the interests of the Jewish community or what is arguably in the country’s best interests—often leads to exactly the kind of “90s’ thinking” that you say is a thing of the past.

For example, the eagerness of much of the organized Jewish world to jump on the Black Lives Matter bandwagon is troubling. Leaving aside the dismissal of concerns about Israel, I’m even more worried about the lack of caution about the impact of the culture war this movement is waging on American institutions with regard to free speech and the impact of the demonization of police. This demonstrates that the institutional bias for dialogue for its own sake is far from dead.

It also remains to be seen if major Jewish groups will be able to adequately respond to the way an old ally like the NAACP seems to have allowed a Nation of Islam minister (Rodney Muhammad) who spreads hate become a major player in their ranks.

While dialogue is important, under the current circumstances, it’s vital for those tasked with representing Jewish interests to remind themselves again of the pitfalls involved in following would-be allies down a progressive rabbit hole. 

DB: Jonathan, the crux of our disagreement is the contention that if we avoid the offenders, we can successfully isolate them.

Of course, there are such situations when engaging a group or individual would extend them legitimacy. I’m not going to engage the Nation of Islam (Farrakhan’s organization), the Ku Klux Klan or Hamas.

But more often litmus tests fail to isolate an offender, especially those whose anti-Semitism is disputed, and they remain legitimate in the eyes of many. Such prohibitions just prevent the Jewish community from engaging people in the offender’s proximity who can be brought along. The Jewish community has a lot at stake here. Notwithstanding your views of these progressive movements, they are growing in influence. Again, if we are not at the progressive table, someone else will be—and neither of us will like the results.

Should we strongly encourage the NAACP to sanction a local elected NAACP representative who engaged in anti-Semitism? We should and we have. Should we cut ties to the national organization if their internal processes prevent them from doing so? Of course, not. The NAACP CEO just addressed us in a webinar and spoke compellingly against anti-Semitism.

During the controversy over the Women’s March, in which two of the March organizers made anti-Semitic remarks or colluded with anti-Semites, there were Jewish groups who condemned the March organizers and called for boycotting the March, and there were those who engaged the Women’s March from within in the hopes of influencing the movement. My read is that this combination of approaches, however seemingly contradictory, prevented the March from ever making Israel a central focus (thanks to the insiders) and ultimately led to the ouster of the problematic individuals.

Maybe, just maybe, our disparate approaches actually work well together, and that we shouldn’t wish away our diversity.

JT: David, using both the carrot of diplomacy, and the potential stick of isolation and sanctions, is a good formula for a nation to achieve its foreign-policy goals. But there is no comparing the influence of the leading national Jewish organizations and the stray voices of dissent urging a stronger approach coming from journalists and smaller organizations. When the community-relations establishment goes all-in on diplomacy that is often the only voice that potential dialogue partners hear.

Engagement with organizations—like the NAACP—is necessary for them to understand our pain and anger about influential anti-Semites in their ranks. But unless the leading groups are ready to walk away when all they get, as appears to be the case there, is lip service, then the value of the dialogue is negligible. The same is true when advocates of dialogue sit at the table with progressive groups and coalitions whose goals are antithetical to the interests of the Jewish and pro-Israel community. Potential partners must know that Jews are never going to accept the normalization of Jew-hatred.

That said, I think it is extremely important that Jews who may not agree with JCPA’s approach not walk away from their table. At a time of rising anti-Semitism and during a culture war in which Jewish values and support for Israel are under siege, it is more vital than ever for Jews of all political stripes unite against anti-Zionists and do their best to work together. I’m less concerned about Jews not engaging with hostile groups than the increasing frequency of them not being able or even willing to work with each other. Putting partisan divisions aside to forge a consensus to stand up for Jewish rights and against anti-Semitism should be our priority.

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

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