LGBTQ rights: When consensus and leadership collide

A recent article about negotiations over a potential resolution on transgender rights at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA, the national network of JCRCs) raises interesting issues about the challenges of reaching consensus in the community relations field.

I love the JCPA resolutions process, in which national agencies and local JCRCs come together to debate issues and adopt positions. It is remarkable that the organized Jewish community gathers across our wildly different institutions and communities to engage in a parliamentary process of agenda setting each year. It reflects our aspiration to at least try to act as one - to establish some shared vision of what we stand for as a community.

To convene those disparate institutions successfully, the bar has to be set higher than “majority rules.” Multiple accommodations are made to protect the integrity of this diverse group with their varied interests; including a super majority on resolutions and in limited circumstances, veto power that can be exercised by the religious denominations. These accommodations have enabled all members to stay at the table, and act together as one unified people.

In some ways, our process in Boston, through JCRC’s Council, echoes the national one. Though no one has a veto, each of our 42 member organizations has a vote alongside community representatives. They serve on policy committees that draft and debate our principles, and a super-majority then adopts those principles to inform our statements and actions on behalf of Boston’s organized Jewish community.

Sometimes these rules – super majorities, vetoes, and consensus – prevent us, as a JCRC or as JCPA, from speaking to certain issues in ways that many or even most of our stakeholders would want. However, when we are at our best in deliberating on policy, we are doing so with the legitimacy and authority that comes from fully representing the diversity of our community.

When it comes to LGBTQ civil rights, these dynamics have played out in ways that have made me proud to be part of the Boston Jewish community.

We were the first JCRC in the country to publicly support civil marriage equality, back in 2004. Equally noteworthy, we did so with the support of leaders who didn’t personally share this view, but who respected the will of our community so profoundly that they did not walk away from our communal table. Similarly, we’ve led in the fight for transgender public accommodations, and are participating in the coalition that will fight to defeat a ballot referendum to roll them back in Massachusetts this fall.

Nationally, JCPA has handled this same set of issues quite differently. When JCPA debated same-sex relationships in 2013, they didn’t come to a consensus despite the support of over 80% of American Jews for this position. They never even came to a vote. Nor did JCPA ever address many other issues of LGBTQ equality as a result of this logjam. Now it is unclear if they’ll be able to find a consensus this year that allows JCPA to act in support of transgender civil rights. The result has been that JCPA, an organization that self-identifies as a civil rights advocate, has been absent from some of the most profound civil rights issues of our time. And it is only fair to point out that JCPA has led on some trans rights issues, such as military service.

In 2013, I said that the primacy of maintaining a communal table on things we can agree on is a core principle for any CRC director. And we in Boston support the notion that only through consensus can we speak in our most powerful voice. JCPA’s challenges in taking on matters of LGBTQ equality effectively raises questions about their identity and role as a civil rights advocate. The absence of a shared national vision by the organized Jewish community on LGBTQ equality is both personally painful, and, frankly, problematic in a body that claims to represent all of our community’s members – a frustration I shared with the reporter who called me for comment on the story. My hope is that those inclined to oppose a resolution on transgender rights will find a way to work with the proponents, so that we can speak broadly and as powerfully as we can, in support of transgender rights.

Wrestling with diversity and reaching consensus can be slow, painstaking, and messy. But it is only through acknowledging divergent viewpoints and engaging in open debate and negotiation that we can truly honor the multiplicity of our community’s views. That is the work of democracy and that is the work of community relations.

Shabbat shalom,

Jeremy