In 2012, when Barney Frank decided to leave Congress, JCRC organized a candidates’ forum with the Democratic and Republican candidates running to succeed him. We heard from a few people in our community who objected to our engagement with one of the candidates who held strong views on a range of issues in opposition to stances taken by JCRC.
We took that opportunity to remind our Council that as a 501 (c)(3) organization, the IRS code allows us to advocate for our priorities but bars us from showing preference to a particular candidate. And we pointed out that although the likelihood of this particular candidate being elected was low, it was still a possibility, so we had an obligation to our community to find a way to be in a relationship with him should he win.
I’m reminded of this exchange as we and many of our member organizations are facing the far more significant dilemmas posed by this year’s presidential election.
This weekend I will be at the AIPAC Policy Conference, where most major candidates are confirmed to speak and all have been invited. The inclusion of the Republican front-runner has brought reactions, including the Reform Movement’s vow to “engage” him, while there, “in a way that affirms our nation's democracy and our most cherished Jewish values.” ADL’s national director this week published an op-ed calling the candidate’s ideas “bigoted, revolting and simply un-American,” and expressing the hope that it is this behavior that “all people regardless of their political affiliation call out at every instance.”
Regardless of how troubling many of us find the rhetoric and behavior of this candidate, by inviting him to its conference, AIPAC is simply doing its job.
Those who tell you today that there is no way that this candidate could become President are the same people who were saying six months ago that he could not possibly come as far as he already has. As a focused, single-issue organization, AIPAC has a responsibility to engage the next President of the United States and clarify that person’s view on the U.S.-Israel relationship without indicating any bias or preference. We need to fully hear his views on this matter in more than debate one-liners.
It is also true that this is a profoundly troubling moment in our history. Never have we seen such a degradation of this nation’s political discourse. The qualities that have made this country great for Jews and in fact, for all Americans – robust liberal democracy, constitutional freedom, a commitment to civil liberties and the protection of minority rights – are under direct challenge. Our nation without these qualities would become a more dangerous place for all of us. Beyond our shores, America would become further diminished in the world (including, for what it is worth, as an effective advocate for Israel in international arenas). Let’s not kid ourselves — those who said we could afford to ignore a candidate’s comments six months ago are no longer laughing at them.
It is within this context that I have profound admiration for leaders who are speaking to this political moment. I deeply appreciate those in our community who are not limited by their responsibility to particular institutional roles and who are giving voice to a robust critique of some candidates. I honor the way in which the URJ is approaching a moral calling without diminishing the importance of AIPAC’s obligation to the pro-Israel community.
I don’t know what will happen during this coming week or over the course of the campaign. I do know that when I show up at AIPAC on Sunday, I will be there as the director of this institution. As such, I will honor the responsibility placed on me by our community to steward our public voice in all its breadth and diversity without partisan bias or preference for any candidate. I’ll also honor being entrusted to articulate our values and interests with as much clarity as circumstances allow.
Even in this dark moment – when I’m continually asked, “What should we do? What can we do?” - I take some heart in the respectful ways in which our various member organizations are navigating a difficult dilemma without demeaning and denigrating each other and in the seriousness of thought with which our community is confronting the moment.
I draw strength in the unity of purpose that I see emerging. We are renewing our shared commitment to an American idea that has served us so well and that, if we fight to ensure its survival, will continue to renew our nation in the years to come. In that, and in the knowledge that we as a nation have faced dark political moments before and are today stronger for them, I have hope for a better future.