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Letter | Show Some Respect For Jewish Institutions

Twice last week, The Forward published articles accusing American Jewish institutions of “betraying us” and “selling us out.” The authors of these articles accuse institutions — specifically the American Jewish Committee and Anti-Defamation League — of abdicating their responsibility to the American Jewish community by supporting right-wing, racist leaders in Brazil, America, and Israel instead of fighting white supremacy and promoting liberal values in the US.

At best, these arguments turn American Jewish institutions into straw men, and at worst they display an absolutism that prevents us from having productive conversations about our shared Jewish future.

The authors of these articles mischaracterize the purpose of American Jewish institutions while outright ignoring their accomplishments.

These institutions, like the AJC and ADL, primarily fight anti-Semitism, advocate for Israel, and promote social justice in America. They do this by developing long-term relationships with people in positions of power and building up significant political capital over time. They do not exist to raise the loudest possible alarm every time the President says or does something that people find abhorrent.

Sometimes this strategy requires institutions to adopt a tactic with which we may not agree. Institutions need to be in close relationships with people from diverse political backgrounds and beliefs so that the institution’s message can be widespread. This might mean than a Jewish institution will publicly thank the President for fighting anti-Semitism (regardless of how disingenuous one finds this claim). This also might mean an institution will congratulate a seemingly terrible person as the leader of a country like the Prime Minister of Brazil for supporting Israel, even as there are concerns that his rule may pose a direct risk to some of Brazil’s Jewish population.

To be charitable, we should think about this like the institutions do. This means zooming out and taking the long view. By maintaining bonds with people in power from all over the political spectrum, institutions have helped deliver real results that have protected Jews in the US and abroad. The State Department’s special envoy to fight anti-Semitism is one example.

This position was vacant for two years until President Trump appointed Elan Carr last week. We may be concerned by the two-year gap, and we may disagree with the President’s choice of Mr. Carr, but this appointment would not have happened at all, and this position would not exist at all, without organizations like ADL and AJC advocating for it.

I say all of this as a proud progressive and as a senior staff member of a Jewish institution. Is the US a markedly scarier place for my mixed-race, mixed-faith family now than it was three years ago? Yes, without a doubt. Does that mean that American Jewish institutions should completely abandon their traditional purpose and strategy? No.

Someone should always be watching for and protecting against existential threats to Jews in America, in Israel, and around the world, and the best way to do that is to make sure that we have deep relationships with many different types of political figures.

Yet reading these articles I was more concerned with their sense of absolutism than with their wanton mischaracterization of American Jewish institutions. This absolutist ideology can only prevent us from having productive conversations—together—about the dangers facing the Jewish people and how we should deploy our resources and political capital to address those dangers.

Newman writes that “Anyone who cares about Jews should have been sickened” by President Trump’s State of the Union, as though he alone knows the proper way to safeguard the Jewish future.

Ungar-Sargon says that “we deserve institutions that don’t betray the liberal values we hold dear for a perverted sense of what’s good for Israel,” suggesting that she knows better than the Israeli public and its elected officials what is best for them.

Newman and Ungar-Sargon may in fact be correct in their assessments, but that does not excuse their claims to be the only moral parties involved.

If you believe that white supremacy is the greatest threat facing Jews today then you should fight it. If you are concerned by the direction that Israel is taking then you have the ability to encourage change. I share some of your concerns and I hope you succeed, but that does not mean you have the only correct and moral strategy and you should not willfully ignore the historic accomplishments of these institutions.

Your belief that the institutions are misguided does not give you a monopoly over the truth or a superior understanding of what is best for the Jewish future. It can be right for you to call out the President and right for the institutions to thank him at the same time.

The situation is not perfect. Among other changes, our institutions need to be more responsive to a new generation of Jewish leaders and their diverse voices. But for the status quo to change everyone will need to approach the situation with humility and respect for each other’s perspective. The way to make progress is not to create, as these articles do, an us vs. them dynamic within the Jewish community.

Eli Cohn-Postell is the Director of Israel Engagement at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston.

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