Category Archives: Letter from the Director

Invoking the Holocaust in Contemporary Debates

The New England Holocaust Memorial

In the coming year, we’ll be marking the 75th anniversary of the end of the Shoah. Here in Boston, we’ll also mark the 25th anniversary of the dedication of the New England Holocaust Memorial (NEHM). NEHM was specifically placed in the center of our city, along the Freedom Trail and across from City Hall, because its founders wanted the memorialization of the Holocaust to be a continued source of learning and relevance for generations to come.

As we prepare to mark these milestones, I am reminded of the privilege I had, a few years ago, to spend Shabbat with the Munich Jewish community and to pray at the Ohel Jakob synagogue. Ohel Jakob re-opened in 2006 almost 70 years after it was destroyed by the Nazis in 1938. I write “1938” and many students of the Holocaust will assume this means that the synagogue was burned on Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass,” November 9th and 10th. In fact, Munich’s main synagogue was burned five months earlier, in June. This was a test of sorts, a test that the world failed. When nations remained silent, the Nazis read their silence as license to expand the persecution nationwide.  

I thought of that visit in recent weeks as debates over the appropriation of Holocaust terminology were back in the American political discourse.

Last month, Alabama adopted a law banning abortion that explicitly compared this medical procedure to the Holocaust and other genocides. And last week, the controversy over the horrific conditions under which migrant children are being held by our government veered into a Holocaust appropriation debate when Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez instragrammed, calling these detention centers “concentration camps.” 

So as others, seemingly increasingly, are invoking the Holocaust in contemporary political context, I have a few thoughts to share:

The Holocaust has both universal and particular legacies.

In the aftermath of the Shoah, the Jewish community has felt an affirmative personal duty to work toward the global relevance of lessons derived from the Holocaust. As early as in 1951, it was an Israeli representative at the UN, Jacob Robinson, who helped draft the International Convention on Refugees. And today, that legacy informs our efforts to mobilize the Greater Boston Jewish community around our immigrant justice work and our commitment to the notion that the United States must continue to open our doors to refugees and asylum seekers.

Still and the same, every event is unique and to make direct comparisons does not serve us. We have a duty to preserve the specific nature of the Holocaust as a unique event in history. The philosopher Emil Fackenheim, in “To Mend The World,” examines four specific and unique distinctions about the Holocaust: 1) It was a final solution of total extermination. 2) The “crime” was the Jews’ mere existence. 3) The genocide was an end in and of itself without other political or economic purpose—an end for which resources would be diverted. 4) It was committed, by and large, by otherwise ordinary citizens.

Fackenheim notes that while other genocides and atrocities contain some of these characteristics, none, other than the genocide of the Jews by Nazi Germany, contains all four.

Political actors must understand that to invoke the Holocaust as an applicable metaphor to contemporary events is to co-opt something that was incomparable, and in a way that is painful for many in our community.  That many who were silent regarding Alabama are condemning Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez, and vice versa, is noted. The result is that a sacred Jewish vulnerability – including the profound trauma and lived experience of survivors who are still with us – is being weaponized for partisan purposes.

That’s unacceptable.

Further, to limit our outrage to “only” those things that accurately and adequately compare to the Holocaust is to fail to meet the moral necessity of calling out horrors for what they are. As Dr. Deborah Lipstadt rightly noted this week: “Conflating…two periods diminishes the specific, unique horror of each particular crime, and impedes our ability to understand them on their own terms.”

So we need to do better, as a society and especially as public leaders. Let us condemn the horrors being perpetrated in our name by our government for what they are. And let us do more to educate ourselves and our next generation about genocides, including the Holocaust. Ways to do this can include advocating for legislation like Massachusetts’ “An Act Relative to Genocide Education” (H.566 & S.327), sponsored by Rep. Jeffrey Roy and Sen. Michael Rodrigues, and supported by a coalition led by the ADL, JCRC, and the Armenian National Committee of Eastern Massachusetts.

Because amidst a rising tide of hatred and bigotry, and as memories of prior atrocities are fading, one lesson from my visit to Munich and the reality of the lead-up to Kristallnacht remains all too relevant: If we fail to protest the first violations of people’s rights, then those in power who seek to do harm will themselves take our silence as a license to do even worse. It is our obligation to stand against this through action and education. I hope you will join us in this work.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

Penny & Anna: 8 Years of Reading Together

A GBJCL volunteer & her tutee

During this 75th year of JCRC, we're taking time to mark important milestones. The end of the school year is a very special moment that happens annually, when students and teachers reflect on all the learning that has taken place over the year and take pride in their accomplishments. Our Greater Boston Jewish Coalition for Literacy (GBJCL) marks this moment together with our 29 school partners through end-of-year celebrations where students have an opportunity to say goodbye to their tutors. This year, GBJCL was able to present over 800 books with accompanying newly created literacy kits to students at their school celebrations, so that they can feel empowered and motivated to continue reading and learning in fun ways over the summer.

Every tutor-student relationship is unique. There are some students who are quiet and reserved and can take weeks or months of one-on-one attention to come out of their shells. Some students open up right away. Sometimes these bonds are so strong by the end of the year that the tutor becomes a core part of the student’s growth, and the student now has another adult role model who provides undivided attention and strengthens their self-esteem. And sometimes, that volunteer will be able to work with the same student as they move on in school. In the special case of one volunteer, Penny Schwartz, she was able to work with her student Anna for eight consecutive years.  

Penny has dedicated the past decade to one student, Anna, at the Healey School in Somerville that partners with Temple B'nai Brith of the same town. Penny was smitten right away with this social first grader. Anna was a joy, with an eagerness to learn and a desire to become a better reader.

When the end of the year came, the pair wanted to continue. Penny recalled, “Through the amazing cooperation of Anna's teachers—and the ok from Anna's family—we were able to continue our nearly weekly get-togethers through Anna's eighth grade graduation.” Throughout the eight years together, Anna’s teachers recognized the importance of the relationship. They could see how Anna continued to grow and learn with Penny’s support, and always made sure the two had time for one another.

Penny describes seeing Anna grow up through elementary and middle school. Penny recalled in 7th grade, when Anna beamed with pride when she received the school’s coveted Student of the Quarter award. And later that year, she was able to travel on the class trip to Washington, D.C. and exuberantly showed Penny photos of their visit to the National Museum of African American History and described in detail a painting she fell in love with.

The work continues as the relationship grows annually. Before Anna started high school, Penny encouraged two teens from Temple B’nai Brith (TBB) to meet with Anna and share “insider tips” for a freshman. Penny says, “But what really stands out for me is a mirror of what stands out for Anna: weekly, Anna has given up time to meet with me—a middle-aged white woman from another background— to share her thoughts and what she's up to in school, her ups and downs, to accept guidance—giving up rare chances to hang out with her friends. No question, I am still smitten.”

Penny feels she has been changed by the experience: “My life is made richer by getting to know Anna and her family—seeing her accomplishments, admiring her aspirations, and learning about the issues of the day in my own community—and a window into what it means to grow up today in an immigrant family. This extended relationship between GBJCL and TBB has been a constant reminder of the extraordinary devotion of school faculty and staff to support their students in and out of the classroom.”

As Penny prepares to say goodbye for the summer, however, it is a different form of goodbye, one that we are very accustomed to in Jewish tradition–a l’hitraot or “see you next time.” The pair plans to reconnect after the summer. And in the meantime, the relationship between Penny and Anna continues to grow and evolve. Penny hopes to be able to tutor Anna’s younger brother, staying connected to the family. And as Anna enters this next chapter of life, she knows she has many people who will be cheering her on as she pursues her goals.

I hope you will join us as we look to the next 75 years of JCRC, where we continue to mobilize over 200 volunteers annually to help elementary school children in underserved communities discover the joy of reading. To learn more about how you can get involved as a volunteer or support this work, visit the GBJCL website. It doesn’t require an eight year commitment. But we do need you to take the first step.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy

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.

Representation matters

This week's Friday message is from Aaron Agulnek, JCRC Director of Government Affairs

Seventy-five years ago this month, JCRC was founded by a group of Jews demanding a seat at the table in civil society. They were living through the worst of times for the worldwide Jewish community, where inaction led to destruction and death at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators. With no unified voice to compel collective action, and with limited representation in government, all the pressure fell on a few prominent Jews.

President Franklin Roosevelt’s Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr, his only Jewish Cabinet member, was an easy target for anti-Semites. Morgenthau shied away from any perception that he favored Jewish causes for fear of embarrassing the President and providing more fodder for the scurrilous claim of dual loyalties levied against Jews. However, by January 1944, Morgenthau and his colleagues at Treasury could no longer remain silent. They prepared a report with an initial title: “The Acquiescence of this Government in the Murder of the Jews,” which led FDR to issue Executive Order 0417 and establish the War Refugee Board.

Though still novel in the 1940s, Jewish representation in the upper reaches of Government was not unprecedented. Only 25 years earlier, Justice Louis Brandeis was nominated to the Supreme Court. He was met with virulent antisemitism from fellow Justice James McReynolds. According to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: “McReynolds was an out-and-out anti-Semite, and he treated this brilliant man with utter disdain. When Brandeis would speak at conference, he would stand up and leave the room… Brandeis ignored it. 'Dignity' is the right word to describe his response to that bigotry."

Rather than shy away from his background and values, Brandeis led with them, proving to the nation that being Jewish and American were not incongruous. He inspired a young, mostly-immigrant American Jewish community, seeking a future in a country in which it was still finding its collective footing. Brandeis’ legacy to the Jewish community goes much deeper than his judicial chops and world-altering decisions. He cemented a sense of belonging to a wandering people.

Today, there are Jews serving at all levels in government, proudly representing their constituents. Where necessary, many have directly asserted their Jewishness in public spaces. There was no clearer example than the public debate following the attacks on synagogues in Pittsburgh, San Diego, and Chabad centers here in Massachusetts.

JCRC led and championed an advocacy campaign enlisting rabbis, synagogues, day schools, and other communal institutions for the expansion of a grant program to provide security enhancements to houses of worship, community centers and other vulnerable institutions across the Commonwealth. In late May, the Massachusetts State Senate debated an amendment to the State budget to increase its funding.

When the amendment was called, lead sponsor Senator Eric Lesser (Longmeadow) like any effective senator, framed his remarks in the context of public safety and the proper role of government. He spoke about the rise in antisemitism, attacks against mosques, the targeting of LQBTQ community, and the burning of a black church in Springfield the night of President Obama’s election in 2008. But when Lesser began sharing his experience as a Jew, a deep silence fell over the Senate chamber. He expressed the deep sadness and despair he felt when he learned of the murders at the Tree of Life synagogue, just as he and his young family were at Shabbat services.

Senate Majority Leader Cynthia Creem (Newton) described how her temple has balanced security with inclusiveness; Senator Cindy Friedman (Arlington) spoke about the recent incidents at Chabad in Arlington; Senator Barry Finegold (Andover) shared a story about the security conversations he had with his rabbi for his daughter’s bat mitzvah; Senator Becca Rausch (Needham) spoke of her children and her concern for their safety at a Jewish day care; Senate President Emerita Harriette Chandler (Worcester) spoke about the impact that violence is having on our communities; all under the watchful eye of our Jewish Senate President, Karen Spilka (Ashland).

Seven Jewish senators, from every corner of the Commonwealth, each sharing their vulnerability and trauma; each speaking from their own lived experience to advocate powerfully for their – our – community, sharing their pain and bringing their petition directly to the floor of the Senate for redress. Representation matters.

But for many in our society, representation is still a distant dream. There are currently zero African-American and zero Muslim senators in the State Senate. There is a single Latina senator and two LGBTQ senators. Representation is not just about numbers, but also about the power of personal testimony, in compelling justice for marginalized communities. Only when we represent our own interests in the halls of power can we effectively protect and defend our community’s interests. We need to demand no less for other minorities. Shirley Chisholm said it best, “if they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” When debate ended and the roll call was taken on Senator Lesser’s amendment (which passed 40-0), the impact of the debate had a lingering resonance in the chamber. Twenty minutes later, when offering up his amendment to codify the Hate Crimes Task Force, Minority Leader Bruce Tarr opened with these remarks:

…I have been a member of this body a fairly long time and I have never been prouder …. What makes this so extraordinary are the types of remarks we heard around the chamber where members were willing to come into this chamber and share their thoughts about fear and anxiety and concern for themselves, and for all of us. That takes character, it takes commitment and it takes dedication. What just happened in this chamber is so extraordinary in some ways because … hate lives in darkness. It thrives on concealment. And it preys on fear. Do you know what happened here? People brought the reality of the threat we are faced with right into the daylight and said here is it and we are going to stand up to it.”

With the inspiration of Brandeis and Morgenthau at our back, the Jewish community is better represented today than it has ever been in history of the United States. May their memory inspire us to stand up for ourselves and others, and may it grant us the wisdom to make space for the yearnings of other peoples in their dreams.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

Aaron Agulnek

Building a Shared Future in Israel

Givat Haviva International School in brings together Arab and Jewish students.

This week, we had the pleasure of hosting Mohammad Darawshe, Director of the Center for Equality and Shared Society of the Givat Haviva institute (a Boston Partners for Peace organization), here in Boston.

Mohammad’s story is not a particularly unusual one amongst Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, but the actions that come from his story need to become far more common. His family has lived in his village in the Galilee for 28 generations. He is an acute observer of the Palestinian Israeli experience. He usually begins his talk by describing the challenges that Arab citizens face in integrating into Israeli society. One key factor is the relationship between the Israeli government and its citizens; in this case the relationship between Israel as a Jewish state and its 20% non-Jewish minority. Mohammad’s contention is that Israel’s self-definition as a state for Jews – codified in last summer’s nation-state law – rather than a state of all its citizens, results in discrimination against him and his community.

The other piece of the puzzle has to do with relations between Israel’s Jewish and non-Jewish citizens. This is where Givat Haviva is laser-focused, running a variety of programs that aim to create equality and a shared future for Israeli Jews and Palestinians. We visit there regularly with our JCRC Israel Study Tours.

In one session this week, Mohammad was asked how social progress can really be made given the political obstacles to peace. He answered that while there is a certain aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that he will never be able to control, he is convinced that his work at Givat Haviva constitutes 90% of the solution.

This got us thinking: what if we spent more of our time learning about and emphasizing solutions, rather than fixating on problems beyond our control?

Mohammad tells us about a program that places Jewish teachers in Arab schools and vice versa. This program is designed to reduce racism among Israeli youth, and the results have been dramatic. Israeli researchers have found that roughly 60% of Jewish and Arab youth in Israel hold at least some racist tendencies toward the other. After only two years with a teacher from a different background, that rate drops to 10%. This program is currently running in about 1,200 of Israel’s 7,000 schools. This is what Mohammad would call an “island of success,” undeniable progress, but with much more work to be done.

“There is a pill against racism and that pill is the presence of ‘the Other’ in your life,” Mohammad tells us.

Givat Haviva is breaking down the separations that prevent productive conversations from taking place. Their team is working on creating better relationships between Jews and Palestinians as citizens of one country, while also working on achieving full equality for Palestinians at the same time.

Simply put, Mohammad is working for an Israel that fulfills the promise and aspiration of its own declaration of statehood, to be a “country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions.”

Thinking about solutions 90% of the time is hard, but if we never hear about solutions, then we are only left with the seemingly insurmountable challenges.  And if, by focusing on a solutions-oriented approach toward solving the 90% of challenges, groups like Givat Haviva create the conditions on the ground that expand the possibility to address the other 10% (the political challenges), all the better.

At JCRC, and through Boston Partners for Peace, we are committed to changing the current dynamic by emphasizing grassroots peacebuilding work. There are aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that we cannot solve, nor is it our place to solve them. Instead, we make the choice to turn to and be inspired by Mohammad and the thousands like him working every day for a better future for Israelis and Palestinians.

We hope that you will join us in this work.

Shabbat Shalom,

Eli & Jeremy

Eli Cohn-Postell

Eli Cohn-Postell
Director of Israel Engagement

Jeremy Burton, Executive Director

Jeremy Burton
Executive Director

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, Executive Director

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.