Author: Jeremy Burton

75 years of civic engagement

Seventy-five years ago today, on June 14, 1944, leaders of sixteen local Jewish organizations gathered in Boston. These groups formed what has since come to be thought of as the “organized Jewish community,” by founding an umbrella institution “for the purpose of acting in unity in matters relating to civic protection” for the community — the Jewish Community Council, now known as JCRC.

This act of unity emerged from a climate of fear and urgency. Fear — of rising antisemitism and attacks on Jews in the streets of Boston. Urgency — in the face of the coming wave of refugees expected after World War II (this occurring just a week after D-Day), the overwhelming needs of a broken sister community in Europe after the Shoah, and very soon thereafter, a Jewish community in the Palestine Mandate on their journey to statehood in need of support.

This organized community, this JCRC, quickly came to understand that “civic protection” required civic engagement. That the strongest defense against antisemitism included standing up for civil rights, against hatreds and bigotries of all forms, for a democratic and pluralistic American society.

I suspect that, when we celebrated our fiftieth anniversary in 1994 – shortly after the end of the Cold War, amidst the hopes after Oslo, and with rapidly increasing Jewish leadership at the highest levels of government – few imagined that in 25 years we’d be struggling anew with rising antisemitism in America, with increasing demonization of Israel, and with existential concern over the future of American liberal democracy and our leadership in the world.

Over the last nine months, as part of a strategic planning process, JCRC conducted interviews, focus groups and surveys with 91 people from across the community.

When we asked our stakeholders to describe a single moment affirming the unique value of our Council, they had no difficulty naming it; it was our communal response after the horror of Pittsburgh last fall. That powerful day, when we gathered at the Boston Common bandstand to mourn the unthinkable loss to our People, tells a paradoxical story of the enduring truths that connect us to our moment of founding, and acknowledging how far we’ve come since then.

Back in 1944, the still-unorganized Jewish community leaders were scrambling in the face of impunity for violent attackers of Jewish kids in our streets, and the reality of a community too weak to compel action. They didn’t have the relationships – with local government, media, and other faith communities – to demand and secure action.  Compare this with the scene on the Common last fall, when we were surrounded by federal, state, and local officials, law enforcement, and the leadership of virtually every major Christian and Muslim institution, all there to demonstrate their solidarity and support.

What we heard from our stakeholders is that what we do is just as vital now as it was 75 years ago – organizing Jewish leadership, building deep interfaith connections to protect and defend our community’s interests. Much has changed in these years, including the fact that now these relationships enable us to work toward a more ambitious agenda, on a broader scale throughout Greater Boston; recognizing that the health and vibrancy of the broader community serves our interests as well. Through our network of agencies and organizations, today we are a community with the capacity and commitment to embody the teaching of Hillel:

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

Community relations and engagement in the public square are as powerful in meeting the challenges of 2019 as they were in 1944.  The times call on us to ensure our ability to represent the organized Jewish community in all its breadth, and to develop and support the deep bench of leaders across our network who are our best resources as a community for engaging in the work of public affairs. When so many in our community and nation are promoting ideological divides and pushing institutions and leaders toward fringe positions, JCRC is here to honor and amplify the vast and broad center of our community and our civic space. When our civic norms are being so profoundly challenged, we heed the call to lead boldly, to build upon our proud history, and to pursue new, ever more audacious goals.

Last night, representatives from our 42 current members and from the community at-large gathered for our annual meeting to elect JCRC’s leadership for the coming year. And our board unanimously approved a strategic plan that articulates a vision for our work and our value to the community in the years ahead.

Today, JCRC envisions a Jewish community that is a regional and national model – in civic engagement, building bridges, and initiating partnerships – in service to Jewish concerns and the collective good.

I hope that you will join us in celebrating this milestone year and partner with us in this work in the months and years ahead.

Shabbat Shalom.

Antisemitism that defies partisanship

Last week, I wrote about the importance of relying on mainstream institutions and leaders of our community to determine what is antisemitism. I identified three that I, as one individual, look to: the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, and Dr. Deborah Lipstadt. Predictably – I got flak over my choices.

I heard from some on the left of our community who objected to these voices. They offered alternatives; progressive organizations with a solid track-record of calling out antisemitism on the right. Others, on the right of our community, had their own objections. And they suggested their own trusted sources; conservative groups with a solid track-record of calling out antisemitism on the left.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repetition because we’ve got a problem here. Antisemitism is on the rise in this country.

Right here in Massachusetts, over the last fortnight we’ve had incidents in at least seven school districts: Brookline, Melrose, Newton, Sharon, Watertown, Weston, and Westwood. We’ve had three arson attempts in Arlington and Needham. We’ve had vandalism at Brandeis University and seen a disgusting Holocaust-related cartoon at Harvard University.

Despite the protestations of ideological purists, the ways in which antisemitism is rising in the United States do not conform to some neat partisan confirmation. 

While we don’t know the perpetrators and motives for all of the above incidents, we do know that the man who killed eleven of us in Pittsburgh invoked the ideologies and conspiracies of white supremacy (and saw President Trump as too beholden to Jewish advisors). And the man who killed one of us in Poway published a manifesto deeply rooted in white Christian nationalist ideologies. And, as New York City, my hometown, experiences an unprecedented wave of violent attacks on visibly presenting (i.e. kippah-wearing) Jews, the evidence – in camera footage and comments by the attackers – makes clear that not one of those attackers yet identified could be classified as a white supremacist.

To further complicate matters, when it comes to public rhetoric by political officials, there have been Democrats (including in Congress) who have invoked antisemitic tropes when talking about Jews, including the charge of dual loyalty to another country. And, we have a sitting President who has invoked that same trope of dual loyalty to “your country” when talking to Jews. We have political actors on the left who normalize Louis Farrakhan even as he dehumanizes Jews with his antisemitic ravings, such as calling us termites. And, we have a President who refused to marginalize people who chant “Jews will not replace us” and has never walked back his “good people on both sides” comment about their rally.

I could go on for pages.

My point is simply this:

  • We cannot fight antisemitism in this country without confronting white supremacy in its most blatant form and in its more subtle presence in mainstream culture, and;
  • If we only fight the forms of antisemitism that present as white supremacy, then we are ignoring the circumstances in which the world’s oldest hatred also shows up in ways that have nothing to do with the far right.

An analysis of antisemitism that only critiques the other side of the ideological spectrum, no matter how thoughtful that op-ed is, is one that I personally view as unhelpful and even counterproductive for framing this crisis. Telling a progressive to look only at antisemitism on the right is dangerous for our community. Telling a conservative to look only at antisemitism on the left is equally dangerous for our community. There is no denying the fact that antisemitism motivated by a white supremacist ideology is more lethal in our country right now. We have been stricken with grief and horror in witnessing the murder of Jews celebrating shabbat in two different synagogues within six months. Yet, as an Orthodox Jew, I cannot deny the real concern and trepidation that I experienced while wearing my kippah in the streets of Brooklyn on my most recent visit.  All forms of antisemitism threaten our community and they need to be confronted.

One final point worth making this week, when ugly racism here in Boston is once again on the front page:

If we only fight antisemitism and don’t stand up to the other forms of bigotry that are rising in our society (and that are distressingly present in our own community) then we’re doing a disservice to ourselves and our country. We’ll end up alone and abandoned by many people we need as allies in this work, and we’ll end up with a country that isn’t a very good place to live for us and for a whole lot of other people.

I hope you’ll join us in this urgent struggle.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Lessons from the Tlaib Controversy

(Alex Wong/Getty Images)

American discourse on antisemitism went through yet another round of toxic controversy this week following an interview with Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (D-MI). If you are seeking a deeper and more nuanced understanding of what she actually said, I recommend this editorial by JTA editor-in-chief Andrew Silow-Carrol. And, if you want a quick yet thoughtful read on the problem with the underlying “narrative” Congresswoman Tlaib was referencing regarding Palestinians, the Holocaust, and Zionism, I recommend this opinion piece by Robert Rozett, the senior historian of Yad Vashem.

This is not the first time this year that the comments of a public official rapidly metastasized – rightly or wrongly – into a social media and partisan flame war regarding antisemitism and Israel. We are gleaning critical lessons from these rounds of controversy that should inform and strengthen the work of community relations:

  1. We talk a lot about how it is wrong when folks on the left, outside of the Jewish community, try to tell us how to experience antisemitism or rely on fringe elements of the Jewish community to excuse antisemitic behavior that the vast majority of us find hurtful and dangerous. A responsible media cannot rely on partisan or fringe groups on either side of the aisle to determine what is, or is not, antisemitic. Rather, we must insist that the mainstream of our own community gets to make that determination. Institutions and leaders who represent the sensibility of our community will call it as they see it, both on the left and the right. On matters relating specifically to antisemitism, I look to such groups as the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee, and to scholars like Dr. Deborah Lipstadt, author of the recent and excellent “Antisemitism: Here and Now.”
  2. Somewhere in each of these flare-ups, the vast middle gets lost. Partisans circle around whether someone “is or is not” an anti-Semite; whether their opponents are or are not racists. Extremists will argue over the intent of a speaker but never actually have a serious and important conversation about the impact on an audience. In these tenuous times, many communities, including ours, are feeling vulnerable and under assault. And yet, when the flare-up passes, we end up never having addressed inaccurate or misleading clams which then end up in the permanent public record of our internet era. We never get around to addressing the hurt and undoing the damage caused by the words in question.
  3. When we react, we don’t always pause to ask the question: to whom are we speaking in our response, and to what end? We (whoever the “we” is on any particular occasion) yell because it makes us feel good, because that’s what social media encourages, because others are too. We don’t stop to ask: who needs to hear me, and is this the best strategy to reach them? As I’ve said before, at JCRC we speak with an eye toward one and only one audience – Boston’s civic leaders beyond the Jewish community. Our role is to help them understand how our community experiences a given moment, how we interpret an issue, and what we need from them. Sometimes that involves having the conversation in public. And more often, that means relying on our longstanding relationships of trust with elected officials and faith leaders to have more private and often difficult but necessary conversations.
  4. Lastly, this week is a reminder of the work yet to be done in developing healthy relationships between American Jews and Palestinians (and Arabs and Muslims…) despite our differences of opinion on issues. I do not condone Congresswoman Tlaib’s comments. But, we are going to have to learn to talk to and hear each other as individuals and communities, and that includes coming to understand that we see the events of the past century or so in very different ways. To that end, I strongly recommend that all members of both our communities read “Side by Side: Parallel Histories of Israel-Palestine.” It is a genuine attempt by Israeli and Palestinian educators to address the “unbridgeable gulf” of narrative. Reading it has helped me to open myself to the “other” in this conflict, and to learn how to talk to more people about a topic I am passionate about, in ways that will encourage them to be open to my narrative as well.

Events like this week have become, unfortunately, a part of our civic reality. We should learn how to be more strategic and relational in how we respond to them.

I welcome your thoughts about other things we can and should be doing in these challenging times.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

“We, the People”

The foundation of our American democracy is “We, the People”; an engaged electorate, with robust participation, and elected officials who represent communities. Communities and people from whom power flows.

But democracy is a fragile thing.

In his excellent book “The People vs. Democracy,” Yascha Mounk outlines how this fragility takes many forms: the internet era has “weakened traditional gatekeepers, empowering once-marginal movements and politicians.” A fraying of common ethnic identity within a country can lead to a “rebellion against pluralism.” Mounk writes that a healthy democracy balances the competing imperatives of individual rights and popular rule. One can end up with “illiberal democracy” – a state where popular will outweighs rights but is instituted through elections. At the other end of the spectrum one can have “undemocratic liberalism,” like the European Union. And when democracies fray and lose that balance, we see eruptions of discord and challenge to the very institutions of our societies.

A healthy democracy needs trust in governmental processes, checks and balances, fair and free elections. In other words, our enduring constitutional system.

Over the last several months, JCRC leaders met with experts, activists, and attorneys to ensure that we were fulfilling our mission to protect America’s democratic institutions. During our Council’s public policy process, they took a deep dive into the vitality of our political systems, the strength of our institutions, and the overall functioning of our democracy.  Together, they developed a series of principles – rooted in Jewish values – which were approved by our full Council last week and will now guide action over the coming years.

For example, in the last Massachusetts legislative session, JCRC worked with our allies to finally pass Automatic Voter Registration in Massachusetts. However, more is needed. Seemingly every day across the country, there is an innovative ploy to block access to the polls and to water down the vital principles of one-person-one-vote.  There are attempts to criminalize voter registration drives, punish people for errors on registration forms, overturn citizen initiatives on access to the polls, and voter restrictions targeting African-Americans with surgical precision.

We tell ourselves that Massachusetts is immune from these anti-democratic principles plaguing our country, but really, we know we have work to do right here in our communities. We have had elections where the winner only receives 22% of the votes, a Mayor was recalled and reelected in the same election, voter registration deadlines were declared unconstitutional (but then that decision overturned), and as we know, gerrymandering was invented here in Massachusetts. “Even” in Massachusetts, democracy is showing signs of weakness.

JCRC’s principles will guide us to support policies that make voting easier and elections more secure and reflective of the people, and to institutionalize norms that lead to a more informed electorate and accountable government. These principles will provide a lens for JCRC action over the coming years as we analyze legislation with our partners. We have already jumped into the fray in support of Election Day registration, where Massachusetts would join 15 other states and Washington D.C., to improve turnout and transparency, and to modernize our voting systems.

The fraying of democratic norms in America didn’t start this year or five years ago. It’s been happening over decades. Our collective commitment – as Jews and as Americans – to the health of our democracy isn’t new either. We’ve invested in, and benefited from American democracy for generations. But as the conversation about the health of our democracy has been heightened and sharpened in recent years, we feel compelled to clarify what we stand for and what we, as a community will fight to protect.

Challenging times call us to action. JCRC’s Council has heard that call and is responding. We hope that you will stand with us in these efforts.

Shabbat Shalom,

Aaron and Jeremy

Aaron Agulnek, Director of Government Affairs

Aaron Agulnek
Director,
Government Affairs

Jeremy Burton

Jeremy Burton
Executive Director

Building Hope and Resiliency

If you had told me last week that joining a public letter calling out the New York Times for a cartoon would be only the second most noticed message this week about rising antisemitism, I would not have believed you.

But if you had told me one year ago that a synagogue shooting resulting in the murder of a Jewish woman wouldn’t even rise to being the most significant synagogue attack in this country this past year, I would not have believed you.

Yet, this is where we are. I believed it when I read this week’s announcement in an Anti-Defamation League (ADL) audit that “people across Massachusetts continue to experience antisemitism at historically high rates." And I believe it that we recorded the fourth highest number of incidents (following California, New York, and New Jersey).

There is a growing awareness and fear that this tide of hatred toward Jews isn’t dissipating anytime soon. The signs are unmistakable: the second murderous assault on an American synagogue by white supremacist this past year, waves of vandalism, and an image that, in another age, might have been published in the pages of Der Stürmer—all occurring just days before we marked Yom HaShoah, this year on May 2nd, the Jewish national commemoration of the Holocaust.

And yet, this is not 1938 when, on Kristallnacht, German police and political leaders coordinated and abetted the attacks on the Jewish community. Nor is this 1943 when Boston’s Jewish community lacked the relationships with our political and civic leaders to respond to local acts of antisemitic violence that were cheered on by radio priests as police looked the other way.

Rather, we live in 2019. And as we saw after Pittsburgh and again this week, our local political leaders, civic partners, and law enforcement are standing with us. They are reaffirming a commitment to protect our houses of worship. They are rejecting as un-American the violence, the antisemitism, and other hatreds that are seeping back into the mainstream.

We now live in a time when we have the power to act. Governor Baker has reconstituted the MA Hate Crime Task Force. And our partners in the legislature share our commitment to ensure that institutions and all houses of worship can make the appropriate and necessary choices to balance safety and security with being open and welcoming. We are grateful to our representatives on Beacon Hill, led by Senator Eric Lesser and Representative Ruth Balser, who have secured $225,000 for pilot state-level non-profit security grants over the past two years. That money has directly benefited the JCC in Newton, Gann Academy in Waltham, and a synagogue near Springfield.

But it is not nearly enough. Massachusetts has fallen behind other states.

Since Pittsburgh, several states reacted swiftly by partnering with at-risk institutions to develop security enhancements and protocols, including: the State of New York offered $10 million in grants; New Jersey released $11.3 million in funds; Maryland released $5 million; and recently the Governor of California announced $15 million in grants. Massachusetts, however, has no funds yet allocated for the next year.

We have work to do. Massachusetts should lead, not follow, in protecting all Americans as we practice our first amendment rights of freedom of assembly and freedom of worship.

After every occurrence, we post our own and share others’ statements and public messages, both to share our community’s experience and to resist accepting the unacceptable as “normal.”

But statements aren’t the heart of our work, as JCRC or as a community. Our real impact is through our advocacy, the engagement of civic leaders, the determination to ensure that we do not stand alone—the very work that JCRC began 75 years ago. And it’s the work we’ll continue to do as we, along with our partners, shine a light on bigotry and antisemitism, and ensure that we have the tools and resources to reduce fear and build hope and resiliency.

Building hope and resiliency is what we’ll be doing this Sunday, May 5th, 2:00 pm, when we gather yet again at Faneuil Hall. We’ll be joined again by Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, along with our Christian and Muslim partners, for the community-wide Holocaust commemoration of Yom HaShoah. This year's program will center on the transmission of memory from survivors to generations to come and will feature Holocaust survivor, Janet Singer Applefield, whose testimony encourages children and adults to stand up to discrimination and injustice.

We will also honor the student winners of the 13th Annual Israel Arbeiter Holocaust Essay Contest. This year they were asked to answer the question: What responsibilities do you have as a “witness” when you see an act of hatred today?

That’s an important message and a question for our times.

I hope that we can count on your partnership in this collective effort this Sunday and in the weeks and years to come.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Why we won’t be making a statement this Wednesday

This coming Tuesday, April 9th, the citizens of Israel will go to the polls to elect their parliament. By late afternoon EDT, we’ll have a sense of the outcome – which, of some 40 parties on the ballot, will be represented in the 21st Knesset and, within a seat or two, how many seats in the 120-member body each party will hold.

As in the past, we can expect to wake up on Wednesday to at least some media declarations about who won the elections. But seasoned observers of Israel’s electoral process know that, barring a blowout not forecast in any of the polls, congratulating a winner next week would be a foolish mistake.

We recall 2009, when Tzipi Livni led Kadima to a 28-seat plurality, but Benjamin Netanyahu eventually formed a government led by the 27-seat holding Likud, beginning his current decade-long run in office. And of course, there was 1984, when Shimon Peres (Labor, 44 seats) and Yitzhak Shamir (Likud, 41 seats) fought a hard campaign, and when both failed to bring smaller parties to a coalition, formed a national unity government with a rotating premiership.

For Israel, a multi-party parliamentary system, election day is but one step in a process of choosing a new leader. Following the election, President Rivlin will invite each party to recommend any Knesset member for prime minister. He must then decide which individual has the highest likelihood of successfully forming a 61-seat majority. Once that person is invited to form a coalition, they will have up to 36 days to do so.

The next Knesset, like the current one, will also have parties within the parties; factions that run as a joint-list for the ballot but have different priorities once seated in parliament. And each party will have very different demands about what it “must have” to be in a coalition, whether that is investment in women’s issues or legalizing marijuana, economic reforms, and, predictably, specific policies on security and peace issues. Someone will find a way to get to 61 and have a coalition agreement that paradoxically both reflects and alters the platforms of the parties involved.

So, as in past election years, do not look for a congratulatory statement from JCRC on Wednesday. Instead, we’ll be getting out the proverbial popcorn and observing negotiations that will likely run into mid-May. We will be educating ourselves and our community about the election results and their significance. We’ll invite you – on our social platforms and in our programs, including our monthly Israel Engagement briefing on April 17th – to pay attention to how the smaller parties did and what they are prioritizing. We’ll wonder about different coalition possibilities and what they will prioritize. We’ll pay attention to a diverse group of Israelis with expertise as they make sense of the results.

Later this month we’ll sit down with our Council, our own diverse community of 44 organizations covering the gamut of Jewish communal views about Israel – everyone from AIPAC to Hadassah, ZOA and the Boston Workmen’s Circle, AJC, ADL, J Street, and the Israeli-American Council, along with representatives from the community at-large. Together we’ll try to make sense of how we as a collective understand the results.

And then, when a new government is formed, we’ll make a statement. We will articulate once again how we, as one organized Jewish community, perceive the new Israeli government. And we will do so rooted in our commitment to support our Israeli partners in the pursuit of a secure, Jewish, and democratic state of Israel, living side-by-side with a viable Palestinian state in peace, security, and mutual recognition.

For now, Shabbat Shalom.

Jeremy

p.s. A tidbit: In Israel, election day is a national holiday. People go to the polls and then to the parks. And voter turnout is quite high, 72% in the last election (compared to 56% in the U.S. in 2016). Something for us all to think about.

Stories we still cannot tell

Almost every family in America has an immigration story, a place we came from; often fleeing persecution, war, famine or poverty. This coming Tuesday, April 2, will mark the 100th anniversary of my own grandfather, Jose Sandoval, arriving in this country as a child refugee from Mexico. Growing up, he told me stories of what it was like to flee the turmoil of a revolution with his parents and older siblings to start over and build a life as a proud American.

I’ve previously described the work of the Boston Immigration Justice Accompaniment Network (BIJAN – pronounced ‘beyond’). We helped create BIJAN to support T and other immigrants detained in MA who are reaching out to us for support. This multi-faith coalition accompanies our immigrant neighbors to their court hearings, connects them to legal support, bonds them out of detention and remains connected post release. Over the past 14 months we have helped bond 64 people out of detention; immigrants fleeing danger from all over the world. Once they are released, they travel hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles, to reunite with families they were seeking to find, when they started out on their perilous journeys.

Some of that support happens in quiet moments of simple, empathic human contact. JCRC staff member Solon Arguello is part of a cohort of volunteers who make sure that immigrants who we succeed in bonding out make it safely back to their families.  Several weeks ago, he went to South Station to meet T, originally from Guatemala, who was driven there by volunteers following his release. T felt comfortable telling Solon about his life before detention, what motivated him to come to this country and how he ended up detained. He shared his dreams: working and providing the funds necessary for his daughter to have a better life than he has had, and living in safety, away from the volatility of his town in Guatemala.

T is far from alone in enduring unbearable hardship as he seeks safety for himself and his family. Each year, hundreds of immigrants seeking refuge are detained here in Massachusetts city jails that rent beds to ICE. Many have lived here for decades.

Our Jewish community has responded to their calls for support with astonishing generosity and compassion. Hundreds of community members, from 20 synagogues and beyond, have stretched themselves beyond what we – and they – would have anticipated at the outset of this work, by opening their hearts and homes, donating funds, providing transportation and more. They run the gamut from college students to people in their 90s. All of them have stepped up to accompany our neighbors as they navigate the chaos and cruelty of immigration enforcement and detention. Individuals and families host people released from detention with no place else to go, sometimes for months at a time.

The border is right here in Boston, with a port of entry at Logan Airport. And, just as we did on a CJP mission to the southern border and San Antonio last summer, young students at Temple Shalom in Newton, moved by what they learned about the plight of immigrants, stuffed backpacks with socks, snacks, t-shirts, toothbrushes and toothpaste and loose change to accompany newly released immigrants for the long, lonely bus rides back to family. Sitting atop each pile of bare necessities inside each pack was a card lovingly penned by a Hebrew school student: “Buena suerte,” one said. “… know that we want you here!” reads another.

Beginning almost two years ago, with the formation of Sanctuary networks supporting churches in several communities hosting undocumented immigrants (necessitating 24-7 coverage of volunteer companions) there seems to be no task too onerous, no request too audacious for our extraordinary companions and volunteers.

At JCRC, we continue to be both gravely concerned by the impossible odds facing immigrants – and profoundly inspired by the commitment of our community to take action. We invite you to be a part of our efforts. Advocate with us for the passage of H.3102/S.2601 The Work and Family Mobility Act, filed by Representative Farley-Bouvier and Senator Crighton, to keep hard working people like T from being targeted for deportation while driving to work and H.3573/S.1401 The Safe Communities Act, filed by Representative Balser and Senator Eldridge, to ensure that the Civil Rights of all people are protected.

This week and every week I honor my memories of Grandpa Joe by continuing the work of ensuring that the promise of America remains available to those who are fleeing the persecutions and turmoils of our world. If you have family who came here at some point to get away from somewhere else and to participate in the American Dream, I hope that you will join us in ensuring that this country does not close our doors to those who renew our society in every generation.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Prepping for AIPAC

As the AIPAC Policy Conference begins this weekend in DC, I am thinking about a survey that’s creating a buzz in our world.

Last October, the Mellman Group reported that an overwhelming majority of Jewish voters – 92% - identify as “generally pro-Israel” while only a marginal 3% consider themselves “generally not pro-Israel.”

This has come up in recent months as we witness groups identifying as both Jewish and anti-Zionist providing cover for those employing anti-Semitic tropes that go beyond fair criticism of Israel’s government and polices. And when we see and hear some  political and interfaith leaders cite those groups as validators (e.g. “but I’ve met with my Jewish partners and they say…”) we can factually point out that: when some on the left say that they are engaging with and listening to the American Jewish community, but they are only talking to fringe anti-Zionist groups, then they aren't really interested in what American Jews think, feel, and experience.

There’s another data-point in this report, of even greater interest to me, regarding the 92%:

“fewer than a third (32%) say that they are also supportive of the current Israeli government’s policies. A majority (59%) say that they are “pro-Israel,” but critical of at least some Israeli government policies, with 24% critical of many of the government’s policies.”

In other words, American Jews have an overwhelming consensus on our commitment to the future of a Jewish state, but we are divided into three fairly significant camps over the direction of the Israeli leadership.

There is however, another layer, one not covered in survey questions; how do we understand our unique role as American Jews in giving voice to our criticisms?

Historically, our community has been organized around the understanding, most memorably articulated in the “Blaustein-Ben-Gurion” agreement of 1950, that “the State of Israel speaks only on behalf of its own citizens” and that “the allegiance of American Jews is to America alone, and should put an end to any idea or allegation that there is such a thing as ‘dual loyalty’…” We built a network of institutions, including AIPAC, that acted with an understanding that whatever our diversity of views and our differences with Israel’s leadership, we would mostly – and in particular on matters of security – express those views privately.

For the past 25 years, these norms and understandings have been fraying; both Jewish communities have been increasingly open about challenging each other. When Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Accords and Ariel Sharon withdrew unilaterally from Gaza, each had public tension with some portions of American Jews who didn’t rally behind their governments. Over the past decade, American Jews have formed institutions – both on the progressive and conservative side, and very much within our 92% consensus of support for a Jewish state – that have openly challenged Israeli security policies with which they disagree. More recently, many of us have been openly frustrated when Israel’s political leaders speak on behalf of all Jews, including us Americans, in ways that effectively absolve our own elected leaders of their role in amplifying antisemitism in our country.

In an era when any fool with a twitter handle can amplify any extreme idea, the norms of a relationship between two Jewish communities built on public comity and solidarity has become increasingly challenged. Legacy institutions, whether it be AIPAC, a JCRC, and others, are navigating these changing norms.

I perceive AIPAC as a coalition across at least some of those differences; a coalition that comes together to support the enduring bonds of the US-Israel relationship. AIPAC works because it relies on the notion that while we may individually be supportive or have critiques of any particular Israeli government, our agency with regard to criticism of Israel is best, and mostly, to be shared privately and always in loving and respectful ways. And while that notion of agency is changing - and others at the JCRC table come down resolutely on the side of public critique - this particular branch, representing large portions of the Jewish community, works because it bridges its internal divides over that critique.

So on Sunday I will arrive, as I do every year, in DC for the AIPAC conference; the single largest annual gathering in DC to advocate for any policy agenda, reflecting the depth and breadth of support for our nation’s connection to Israel.

There will be evangelical Christians, LGBTQ, African-American, Feminist, Latino and Labor leaders all together in one room. But mostly, there will be American Jews, and we Jews will be a diverse bunch. Many will be from among the 32% of us who generally support the policies of Israel’s government, and many of us will be amongst the 59% who are not.  But there will be some established understanding amongst those present that, at least in this space, our critiques or lack thereof do not unite us.

Next week we will hear conflicting voices including Prime Minister Netanyahu and most of the Israeli opposition leaders - patriots each of them as well. And we’ll be there even in our disagreements about our role in publicly criticizing Israeli policies – including some millennial Zionist leaders who wrote a public letter to the Prime Minister this week.

I believe that Jewish community is best served when we remind ourselves that at the end of the day we’re a small people. We are bonded to each other by our history, our values and what unites us - including the vast consensus we hold as American Jews: to support and work for a Jewish, secure and democratic state of Israel.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

ED Jeremy Burton Remarks at ISBCC Khutbah Service on March 15th, 2019

Brothers and sisters, salaam alaikum.

In the Jewish tradition, when we comfort, we come first in silence. “מצטרף בצערך, I join in your sorrow.” And so, I will speak, but really all of us are here just to be alongside you. Because you’ve been alongside us, because we’ve stood together as communities time and again, because, candidly, we’ve become too good at this. We’ve become too good at being with each other in this city, in Boston. When we have mourned and suffered we’ve known that we have not mourned and suffered alone. I want you to know that you do not suffer alone.

My teacher, Shaykh Yasir, has spoken so eloquently today of the teachings of the Abrahamic faiths, of the understanding of prophets that go all the way back to Adam. And as my teacher Shaykh Yasir has reminded me, there is so much that is shared within our traditions. The Koran teaches us in Surah 5:32, that if anyone killed a person, that it would be “as if he killed all mankind, and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of all mankind.” That same spirit, that same tradition, is part of the Jewish tradition and the Jewish understanding of the way in which we walk in the world together. Our Mishnah, our holy text, tells us that God cried out to Cain when Cain killed his brother, and said: “The bloods of your brother scream out!” And our Rabbis explore that and say anyone who destroys a life, and I’m quoting from our text, is considered by Scripture to have destroyed an entire world; and anyone who saves a life is as if he saved an entire world.

We share a tradition. We share a text. And our scriptures and our texts teach us, in understanding those verses, that it goes back to the very idea that when God created the world, and began with Adam, it was to begin with one individual, so that no one could say to their friend, “My ancestors are greater than yours.”

My brothers and sisters in Boston’s Muslim community, we stand with you because we understand. This terrorist and white supremacy are a sin against our traditions. They are a rejection of the teaching of God—that none of our ancestors are greater than any others. We stand with you to reject terrorism. There is no good on that side. There is no good to be found in those who march in praise of white supremacy and white nationalism. They are a threat to all of us. They are not the other side. There is only one side: It is the way of walking with God and understanding God as we each come to God in our own traditions.

And there is so much to share at a time like this. Know that you do not walk alone, that we will be with you. Shaykh Yasir spoke so powerfully, and in our tradition I want to share the words of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of England, who taught us that:

“We need to recover the absolute values that make Abrahamic monotheism the humanizing force it has been at its best: the sanctity of life, the dignity of the individual, the twin imperatives of justice and compassion, the moral responsibility of the rich for the poor, the commands to love the neighbor and stranger, and the insistence on peaceful modes of conflict resolution. These are the ways that we build a future in which the children of the world, of all colors, faith and races, can live together in peace.”

In the Jewish tradition, when we hear of a death, we say, “May their memory be for a blessing,” and when we visit a house of mourning, before we leave, we say, “May you be comforted amongst the mourners.” Today I leave you with this: Today on this day, there are far too many blessings in this world, and there are more mourners than you can imagine. Salaam alaikum.

Anti-Semitic tropes and the conversations that follow

I imagine that by using the term “anti-Semitic tropes” in this lead, you will expect to read a piece about events swirling around Capitol Hill. But I’d like to take a moment to share some insights from a different incident closer to home.

Last Saturday night, minutes after coming back online post-Shabbat, I became aware of a piece in Sunday’s Boston Globe Ideas section declaring that “a shocking number of Jews have become willing collaborators in white supremacy.” And much as I try to read everything with an open mind, I was immediately triggered when, five sentences in, the author proclaimed Jared Kushner along with several others to be “kapos.”

That Shoah-related term refers to, per the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, “a concentration camp prisoner selected to oversee other prisoners on labor details. It is often used generically for any concentration camp prisoner to whom the SS gave authority over other prisoners.” I hate when I see this term used by some to refer to others in the contemporary Jewish community for political purposes.

Recognizing that I was triggered, I made a point of checking my judgment before reacting. I reached out to several people – folks whose wisdom I value – for a gut check: Was my reaction to the overall piece just mine, or was it as awful as I thought? Did it merit a response? And how quickly?

Within 90 minutes on Saturday night the answer was clear: Yes, it was as offensive as I thought. In fact, some of our member agencies were already drafting letters to the editor. But the piece was gaining traction on social media, with some highly complimentary reviews. Within hours, this was going to be on people’s doormats. We needed to act quickly and nimbly, to share our concerns and shape readers’ understanding of the problematic assertions in this essay.

With input from trusted colleagues, I tweeted a thread and shared this Facebook post naming some of the worst problems with the essay. I knew that my posting would preclude publication of a letter from me with the same points; an editor would perceive this as previously published content. But I also knew that my colleagues at ADL New England and AJC New England would be making their own articulate cases to the Globe, which devoted their entire letters to the editor section to negative reactions to the piece on Wednesday.

My post went viral, with over 100,000 impressions in 24 hours, driving the kind of discussion we had hoped for. We used that post in response to inquiries from civic and faith leaders with openhearted curiosity about our take on the essay, and with those who had praised it online. These honest exchanges yielded rich lessons for us.

In speaking to that other anti-Semitism conversation this week, Rabia Chaudry and Wajahat Ali – two Muslim activists and journalists from whom I am learning, and who are eagerly seeking out the Jewish community to help them in their own learning – wrote: “Different communities hear words differently and we all need to listen, engage, and communicate with one another to understand why.”

Their insight resonates as we’ve been reminded once again that the words that wound us so deeply can be in a language more private than we realize. We’ve been struck by how many well-educated and informed people outside of the Jewish community were unfamiliar with the term “kapo” – a word that sends chills down our spines. We’ve had many a conversation over the years explaining the history of “blood libels,” “dual loyalty,” and other anti-Semitic tropes with otherwise knowledgeable friends who are appalled once they learn the toxicity of these terms. We leave the conversations with reassurances, not needed but nonetheless given, that not only will they never use those terms in the future, but they’ll be sure to challenge those who do.

The trust that allows for these open exchanges with friends also creates the space where they help us to understand the all-too-frequent assaults on their dignity and humanity. They teach us the language of their hurts; to decipher dog whistles containing tropes offensive to their communities, which enhance our understanding of their experience and strengthen our ability to stand with them when they need us.

The very thin silver lining from that despicable Boston Globe piece is that it exposed anti-Semitic tropes to the light of day and opened up the space to have conversations that differentiate between the actions of individual Jews and the collective accusation of our people. We’re grateful for the heartfelt conversations this has led to – ones in which we can ask our partners how they experience unfolding events and learn something new from what we hear.

And those are the conversations that enrich us all.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy