Dear Colorado Jewish Community Relations Council,
I want to thank you for having had such a rigorous conversation about what kind of statement to make in light of the post-election (and not just!) increase in anti-Semitic activity and other forms of violence around the country. It’s disturbing and upsetting. I understand how hard a big tent approach to Jewish communal operations can be to maintain. Big tent presumes compromises at both ends of a spectrum in order to maintain the tent, and I know your task of doing that has not been easy. Therefore, I sadly need to write that the two statements the JCRC has made recently, neither of which mentioned Stephen Bannon’s appointment to Trump’s cabinet, have left me realizing that your big tent no longer includes me.
To those of you who know me, this should come as a big surprise. I am progressive politically on Middle Eastern/Israel politics, and I voted for Hillary Clinton passionately, as I trust many of you did too. I also worked with many of you to establish a chair in Israel/Palestine Studies, to build a robust Jewish Studies program at the university that in turn built great relationships with the regional Jewish community, and I know many of you personally. I worked with the Boulder JCC to set up a CU at the J series and the Program in Jewish Studies has interns working in Jewish communal organizations. For the past 18 months I have not been running a Jewish Studies program, which has given me the freedom to ask myself what I, David Shneer, want from my Jewish community.
My Jewish community must be playing a leadership role in the broader political sphere if it is to remain relevant in the 21st century. In choosing tacit support of Bannon’s appointment by maintaining silence the JCRC has chosen quietude over leadership and brings it closer to irrelevance. The JCRC’s statements put forth a reactive rather than proactive, response to anti-Semitic violence. While I appreciate local Jewish institution’s diverse responses to local incidents—such as programs on how to speak to your children about anti-Semitism or establishing a No Place for Hate campaign, these are responses to incidents that have already taken place. They are training our communities that it is our responsibility to learn how to better deal with anti-Semitism (an important skill to be sure, especially given the increase in anti-Semitic activity) rather than to be proactive and prevent a climate in which anti-Semitism is allowed to flourish. As Elie Wiesel z”l said, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.”
Trump’s appointment of Stephen Bannon, the editor of Breitbart News as chief strategist of his new cabinet, legitimizes the views of a whole wing of ideas that are anathema to me and have created a climate that allows the flourishing not just of hate speech but of criminal activity—painting swastikas is not only an act of intimidation but it is vandalism and against the law—that should also be anathema to any Jew in the country, let alone our Jewish communities which should be leading the conversation not responding to it. Whether Bannon or Trump are themselves anti-Semitic is beside the point. Bannon’s presence in the White House gives tacit political consent for the kind of speech over which Bannon has had editorial control. This is unacceptable, and I am disappointed that you chose silence on this issue. Such a statement would have been a speech act that let’s both its own community and the nation more broadly know that Trump’s appointment of Bannon is not a partisan issue but is an issue fundamental to the maintenance of American civil society as we have come to know it.
From this point forward, I’m sad to say that I will only be giving my scarcest resource, time, to those organizations and groups, whose values, statements, and actions align with my own, whether Jewish or not. And by donating, I mean both that I won’t be giving my time to those who do not speak proactively, but that I will also be donating my time (i.e. speaking for free) to any organization willing to be proactive in this time of increased violence not just against Jews of course but against so many groups who have in the past looked to the Jewish community for leadership but are no longer able to do so, as the institutional Jewish community becomes irrelevant.
I have also communicated with the leadership of several Federations around the country that have been proactive about this issue to let them know that I’m happy to come to their communities to speak about whatever topic they might find of interest for free. This includes Nancy Greer in Seattle and Willie Recht in Sacramento. Thank you both for the work you’re doing and the leadership you have inspired. You need to know that although your statements represent your localities of Seattle and Sacramento, this email should show you that they have reverberated nationally. If Colorado’s decision to remain silent was anything like yours, it was not easy to come to the hard decision you each made.