Friday, February 18, 2022

Who's Afraid of Jewish Priorities?

The JTA reported yesterday that the Jewish Federations of North America, the umbrella organization of local Jewish Federations, had removed several prominent issues -- such as gun control, LGBTQ rights, and voting rights -- from its list of "policy priorities". The relevant document now speaks in far vaguer generalities about "policies that ensure justice and equity" and promoting "resources to combat abuse and harassment." Many suspected the change came at the behest of conservative elements in the Jewish community annoyed that our umbrella organizations were tackling issues they view as politically controversial or contested. The document does continue to specifically list "support for Israel" as an ongoing policy priority.

For their part, JFNA officials claimed that the change was meant to permit local federations to be more "nimble" in their approach, and contended that it was "misleading" to suggest it constituted a backtracking on prior commitments to at least LGBTQ and gun control issues. It's decision to speak in terms of more "theme-based priorities" should not be seen as a denigration of the importance of specific issues like guns or gay rights (I actually have not seen, in any of the subsequent commentaries and apologies from JFNA spokespersons, an express mention of voting rights as a continued priority area).

I seem to recall a branch of Jewish public discourse that was positively furious anytime, say, "antisemitism" was left unnamed or held to be subsumed under some generic commitment to "equality". They would call that move "all lives matter-ing" the issue; perhaps we could refer to the JFNA's new approach as one of "all issues matter"? In any event, it seems quite evident that the move away from explicitly naming these issues as priorities is an attempt to decenter them, and that in turn is yet another example of mainstream Jewish organizations kowtowing to right-wing pressure even in the face of an obvious Jewish consensus.

For example, polls indicate that on the matter of guns, Jews have a perfectly robust consensus: 70% favoring a pro-gun control position versus 25% opposed. That 25% figure, incidentally, is about the same as the percentage of Jews who stake out anti-Israel positions that sharply deviate from what JFNA and like organizations would no doubt consider "support for Israel". To be clear, I don't have any objection to the JFNA representing the huge majority of Jews who do care a lot about "support for Israel" over the comparatively small minority that takes the dissident view. But the point is that the "consensus" around the two issues is identical, yet it's no accident which one the JFNA feels comfortable cutting loose. It is part of a long pattern and practice of Jewish communal organizations taking liberal Jews -- the Jewish majority! -- for granted, and thumbing us in the eye as expendable. Our issues can be thrown out, even if they carry huge majority support, based on mewling complaints from the right flank -- a privilege never accorded to liberal Jews objecting to more conservative priority areas.

The issues that JFNA decided they now want to soft-pedal for fear of upsetting delicate conservative feelings are policy arenas which are reaching a crisis point in 2022. After Colleyville and Louisville, can we really say gun violence is no longer a critical area? We're seeing a veritable torrent of state legislative action targeting queer and especially trans youth for ostracism and discrimination, a pattern that has only accelerated over the last year. And of course, on the question of voting rights, following 1/6 and the Supreme Court's laser-like determination to gut the Voting Rights Act, the basic precepts of American democracy may never have been under more direct threat in my lifetime. To deprioritize them now represents an appalling abdication of duty.

The broad point is this: when the JFNA decides to decenter and soft play issues like gun control and voting rights, they are not acting to promote "Jewish priorities". They are afraid of "Jewish priorities". They think "Jewish priorities" are too partisan, too controversial -- frankly, too liberal -- to fit within their comfort level. And so they make the decision to jettison them. That's them selling out the very people they purport to represent. It's outrageous, and they deserve every bit of blowback they've gotten over this.

I wrote a somewhat ... pointed ... email to my contacts at the Portland JFed making these points, and both urging that the local organization continue to be clear it will work in these policy arenas and communicating to the national office that it cannot keep selling out the liberal Jewish majority like this. I received a perfectly nice note back confirming that our local JCRC has and will continue to advocate in all of these areas (though demurring on calling out the national body). But it is important to keep the heat on (and I think it's notable that the JFNA clearly did feel some heat and responded somewhat defensively). These organizations have to come to understand that "Jewish consensus" is not "when the right agrees with the center".

UPDATE: The JFNA has released a new document which adds back in many of these priorities. One can still quibble with the details, and be annoyed at their initial skittishness, but it is a good thing they both felt and were responsive to community pressure on this axis.

1 comment:

Ben said...

I'm glad that there was rightful outrage and productive action regarding these priority listings--but I also have a feeling that there's an underlying element here that occurred to me when I re-read the post: the bad-and-getting-worse relationship (and in some cases, non-existent relationship) between Jewish organizations that are not avowedly liberal or Left of that and the larger "progressive" movements in the world. At some point, there's going to be a reckoning where Jewish orgs are simply going to stop trying to make any common cause with those movements and invite them to solve problems using their own wits with the combined wisdom of Hezbollah, Jacobin, BLM and of course Human Rights Watch. That would be a catastrophe, but if I was a betting man I'd wager on it playing out exactly that way.