The New Frontiers of Community Relations
U.S. Jewry is generally considered a success story about a community rising from oppression to affluence and influence in many aspects of American life. The Jewish community relations field, operating through decentralized organizations and initiatives and orchestrated by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), has played and maintains a key role in uniting communities and creating coalitions to advance Jewish communal interests and values.
However, U.S. Jewish leadership more broadly is struggling with generational, denominational, and ideological divides that characterize the community today. In the turbulent background of a polarized society, decline in central institutions, and climate of political extremes, conventional modes of operation are being challenged and are eroding unique attributes of the Jewish community relations field which previously enabled its success. These dynamics rupture community relations’ capacity for broad engagement and undermine abilities to achieve internal consensus or operational coherence.
In particular, the growing rift between Israel and world Jewry serves as a strategic stumbling block – Recent Israeli government actions have widened this chasm, exposing a long-percolating crisis that has also significantly contributed to the erosion of Jewish communal cohesion and the increasing polarization of the Jewish community in the U.S. The rift undermines the political strength and efficacy of the Jewish community in the U.S. and increasingly jeopardizes Israel’s bi-partisan status. This, in turn, may gradually undermine the positioning and security of U.S. Jewish communities.
Anti-Israel movements take advantage of these developments to further drive a wedge between progressive communities and Israel, with the goal of sowing disunity within and among Jewish communities. Anti-Israel movements’ strategic successes target Israel by blurring the lines between criticism of Israeli policies and anti-Zionist ideology and demonizing the State of Israel as antithetical to progressive values.
These movements are now also targeting U.S Jews, and making anti-Zionism a litmus test item for their progressive legitimacy. As anti-Israel movements work to undermine the status of Jews on the left and at large, a noteworthy cohort of Jews are experiencing anti-Semitism from the left for the first time. Indeed, anti-Zionist ‘progressive’ groups have found a strategic niche within a mainstream ‘resistance’ movement – significantly, piggy-backing on intersectional ideologies – and are accumulating some influence within certain political spheres. This paper warns that if not contained, anti-Israel campaigns will eventually directly threaten the U.S. Jewish community.
This contemporary anti-Semitism is characterized by increasing prejudice and discrimination emanating from the progressive left. It combines classic anti-Semitic themes related to power and influence with a portrayal of Jews as responsible for the ‘original sin’ of Zionism unless willing to renounce or work against it. This new wave requires that Jews acknowledge their privilege and power status by renouncing claims of prejudice, discrimination, or insecurity experienced individually or collectively. It does not tolerate Israel or Jews that identify as Zionists or as a minority.
Mainstreaming anti-Semitism in the UK should serve as a warning sign to U.S. Jews. Today, it is clear that the British and European left have a comprehensive, deep, and pervasive anti-Semitism problem. Anti-Israel movements play a significant role in weakening cultural norms that previously protected against the normalization of these harmful trends.
However, U.S. Jewry increasingly frames threats to Israel’s legitimacy as exclusively an ‘Israel problem’ or as “fake news” propagated by Israel’s government to avoid criticism. Thus, more voices within U.S Jewry are challenging the notion that fighting anti-Israel movements should be a core issue within the community relations field and are calling upon Jewish communal organizations to focus solely on domestic issues. In fact, fighting anti-Israel sentiment is losing its place as a consensus mission of the Jewish community.
The Government of Israel seems to underestimate the role it plays in these developments, and their possible consequences. This lack of awareness could have serious ramifications for Israel. Broadly, it could contribute to undermining the raison d’être of Israel: to serve the Jewish people as the nation-state. There needs to be genuine ‘soul-searching’ on the part of the Israeli government about its contribution to the growing gap within world Jewry. Crucially, this starts by first acknowledging that criticism of Israel from within the Jewish community does not necessarily signify distance from Israel or ‘anti-Israel’ sentiment but can arise from feelings of belonging and responsibility.
At the same time, the ‘Israel factor’ has occasionally become a pretext for avoiding hard but necessary internal work to examine and reimagine fundamental values and priorities of the American Jewish community today. In order to continue to play an effective leadership role, U.S. Jewish leadership must harness Jewish communities’ brain power to create new and relevant narratives, visions, agendas, and subsequent projects.
Absent fundamental and systematic transformation in perspective, approach, and policy led by the Israeli government and U.S. Jewish leadership, the community relations field’s impact will remain constrained. Yet, bolstering the community relations field is the most potent response available to address the community’s challenges and is most effective platform within the pro-Israel network for combating contemporary anti-Semitism.
Further, the emergence of a common threat in the form of anti-Israel attitudes and anti-Semitism is also an opportunity for community relations organizations to reconnect across dividing lines within the Jewish community at a time when Israel’s place in U.S. politics faces significant vulnerability.