What Makes A Jewish Issue Our Issue?

Last week the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) ranked the top 25 Jewish influencers on Twitter. Noting that the list included only three women, I wrote a column expressing concern about inclusion and gender in the Jewish community. On Tuesday, JTA’s editor-in-chief, Andrew Silow-Carroll, wrote an extended and thoughtful response. His conclusion:

“We agree with Burton’s overarching message. The Jewish community still has a lot to do in order to address a gender gap in positions of influence. It’s an issue that goes way beyond the confines of Twitter.”

I thank JTA for inviting an honest critique – and for joining an active public discussion about this important issue. I also thank five men on that list – Peter Beinart, William Daroff, Jeffrey Goldberg, Avi Mayer, and Arsen Ostrovsky – who used their prominence on the list to elevate the gender issue by sharing my column on social media.

Silow-Carroll’s column motivates me to explore an additional issue that is of particular importance to us at JCRC. In response to a critique that I and others noted about the list focusing exclusively on those who tweet about Israel, he writes:

“The question of what constitutes a ‘Jewish issue’ is an old and unresolved one. Jews contribute to uncountable fields and debates, but that doesn’t necessarily make those contributions ‘Jewish.’ Certainly there are issues that fall beyond the purview of even a community relations council because they exceed its ‘Jewish’ bandwidth.”

He’s right. This is an old question. But it is not one with which I struggle.

The Judaism I love and embrace – with its prophetic values and thousands of years of rabbinic wisdom – has something to say, often even competing things to say, about virtually every issue. This wisdom doesn’t always lead us to one defined conclusion or specific answer to a public policy debate, but there is a contribution that can be made to almost every issue from a distinct Jewish perspective.

Virtually all issues are Jewish issues. If you have any doubts about this, you need look no further than your own inbox, with its myriad of Haggadah supplements coming your way from just about every organization in our community.

The more precise question for us at JCRC is: What are our Jewish communal priorities? While our values and tradition can spur us to action on all issues, when should we feel compelled to mobilize our collective voice and take action, and to what end? We know we can’t do everything, so we have to be clear about how those values intersect with our most pressing priorities and interests for this community at any time.

Let me offer three guideposts we take into account when making judgments about our priorities for action on “Jewish issues.” The first is one of urgency. The hateful and divisive rhetoric of this political moment and its consequences is one in which we have felt pressed to act. In fact, there has been wall to wall Jewish communal condemnation of the demonization of Muslim-Americans and of immigrants. Some of us have come to this from the place of Tzelem Elohim (the dignity that comes from all of us being created in the divine image). Others apply our historic awareness that Jewish self-interest is served best when our larger society is committed to the protection and support minority communities. But regardless of what informs our position, we know that our absence as a community in this moment would speak volumes, so we have lifted our voices in response to an urgent public matter.

The second guidepost is consensus. As the voice of the organized Jewish community, we go to great lengths to ensure that our actions are in fact representing that community’s sensibilities. Last summer’s debate on the Iran deal, like all issues related to Israel’s security, was clearly a Jewish priority. However, despite the widespread sense of urgency, we found consensus to be lacking in our community; we were divided on the exact position we ought to take on a vote by Congress. So, with a consensus about the priority but not for a specific position, rather than advocate for or against the deal, JCRC publicly examined the elements within it – the particular and specifics. We sought to shine a light on the issues, understand and debate them, and ultimately, to urge members of Congress to address them.

Finally, we are guided by political opportunity - the opening of a window for effective action. The galvanizing of our community to take swift and decisive action following the horrific murders in Newtown provides a compelling example. The political will to prevent further gun violence offered an opportunity to advocate for stricter gun laws in the Commonwealth. We quickly joined and led within a Coalition to pass sweeping legislation, and we remain committed to this work. In this case, the issue was one on which we already had consensus and were thus able to leverage an opportune political moment.

So no, we haven’t yet found “the issues that fall beyond the purview of even a community relations council because they exceed its ‘Jewish’ bandwidth.” But yes, we constantly evaluate which issues we will act on as priorities within that bandwidth, making sure that we act on those urgent ones on which we have consensus and a path for effective political change. We also embrace the diversity within our community that helps us determine what those priorities should be.

That’s how a community relations council makes a unique contribution to the public discussion on issues of concern to our Jewish community – on Twitter and wherever the debate takes us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy