April 10, 2011
Challenging the Leftist Domination of the Jewish Community
Change is in the air. From the toppling of Middle East potentates to the Tea Party's dramatic rise to the recent historic public employee union legislation enacted across the Midwest, things suddenly seem to be turned on their heads. And from the unlikely location of central Indiana a new model has arisen for Jews whose unequivocal support for Israel and America has hitherto been marginalized.
In October 2010, the Jewish American Affairs Committee of Indiana (JAACI) (http://www.jaaci.org/) was born out of many years' worth of frustration with Indianapolis' Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC). The JCRC, in their own words, "is the public affairs advocacy and intergroup relations arm of the Indianapolis Jewish community." Their stated mission is to "1. safeguard the rights of Jews here, in Israel, and around the world, and in order to accomplish that, to 2. protect, preserve, and promote a just American society, one that is democratic and pluralistic."
For years the JCRC included representation of the major Jewish institutions in the Indianapolis area and was generously funded by the local Jewish Federation, with salaries for its two full time and one half time staff totaling over $230,000. The JCRC was therefore able to assert with some credence that it was the official communal representative of the Indianapolis Jewish community, or as it describes itself, the "central address" for the public to interact with the Jewish community. In support of its claim to represent the whole Jewish community the JCRC states that issue positions it takes are "designed to foster consensus."
The Indianapolis JCRC's mission statement is notable in two respects. The first is that while it adopts nearly verbatim the first and third goals of its parent organization, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), it tellingly leaves out the JCPA's second goal -- "To dedicate ourselves to the safety and security of the state of Israel." Second, while the mission statement suggests the JCRC is receptive and amenable to the wide range of viewpoints that exist within the Jewish community, the reality is that the priorities and agenda at the organization were set by individuals with a very narrow and highly ideological point-of-view. This stance tilted heavily towards a liberal political, economic and social agenda, especially when compared to the wan, meager, and often conflicted support it gave efforts to safeguard Jews, both here and abroad.
This is not a new phenomenon for JCRCs. In The Oslo Syndrome: Delusions of a People Under Siege (1), Harvard psychiatrist and historian Kenneth Levin carefully chronicles how from the 1980s onward Jewish groups in the US came increasingly under the ideological sway of the New Jewish Agenda, which itself evolved from a hard-core leftist form of thinking that rejected Jewish particularism and embraced a universalist world view. Levin aptly describes how this shaped one prominent Jewish Community Relations Council:
The annual report......gave particular emphasis to reaching beyond the Jewish community to address "social justice issues" and advance "universal goals of tikkun olam, the repair of the world." There was nothing in what the JCRC calls its "action agenda" that entailed responding to the political and strategic challenges facing Israel. A glance at Action Alerts sent out by the JCRC over these two years -- that is, calls on the community to political action, such as lobbying elected officials over some issue -- reveals that virtually all those action alerts had to do with issues of support for immigrant rights, funding of welfare programs, and related matters. There was very little addressing threats to Israel, terror in Israel, and tensions in American-Israeli relations, even though these were very live issues over those two years.These priorities reflected a leadership that preferred that Jewish self-definition focus less on Israel than on the traditions of charity and good deeds in Jewish thought and practice and on their application to a social activist and universalist agenda.
While Levin is in fact describing the Boston JCRC during the years 1997-1998, his characterization could apply equally well to the 2011 Indianapolis JCRC. A leftist view of human rights, social and economic justice, tikkun olam (thereby replacing the traditional meaning with a 21st century social activist chic version) -- these and other buzz phrases from the New Jewish Agenda are generously sprinkled throughout the Indy JCRC's most recent website. Interestingly, Levin cites 1996 polling data demonstrating that the Indianapolis and other JCRCs leaned far left when it came to matters of Jewish security even when compared to the Jewish community's generally liberal orientation (2):
With regard to Israel, while the JCRCs were typically claiming not only that Israel was now safe but that American Jews overwhelmingly concurred with this view and also overwhelmingly supported Oslo, the Indianapolis JCRC poll indicated otherwise. Almost 80 percent of those questioned believed, for example, a Palestinian state would be a threat to Israel's security. Less than half felt that Israel should give up Judea and Samaria, even with a viable peace. More than two-thirds said Arafat could not be trusted.
All of this was continuously frustrating for many in the Indianapolis' Jewish community who found the JCRC's behavior not only ideologically problematic but also self-defeating, since it involved diverting precious community resources (through, for example, hiring a professional lobbyist) to almost exclusively promoting select social action issues that were apparently deemed critical to the Jewish community's interests. In the last year such issues predictably included voting against school vouchers and the defunding of Planned Parenthood and for the passage of something called the Child Nutrition Act. In the meantime it studiously avoided addressing what are objectively demonstrable threats to the future of Indianapolis Jews, such as the epidemic of intermarriage that is rapidly thinning Jewish ranks and the profound lack of a basic Jewish education that afflicts so many, leading to community apathy and assimilation.
While the JCRC would occasionally turn its attention to combating local or visiting fringe individuals and groups who worked to delegitimize Israel, these were infrequent diversions with dubious results. Oftentimes these efforts would include -- bizarrely -- requests from JCRC members themselves that any attempts by the JCRC to educate local groups about Israel include pro-Palestinian representatives in order to maintain a semblance of "balance." Not surprisingly, suggestions that the JCRC should educate its local constituency on the global Islamist movement (with its well-known local affiliate) with its genocidal anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist agenda were non-starters. In fact, on numerous occasions the JCRC enthusiastically promoted its participation in interfaith events that included stealth jihadist organizations with well documented anti-Semitic track records, such as the Islamic Society of North America .
Especially disturbing was that in the name of consensus no dissenting or minority position was allowed to be expressed in the JCRC's statement of principles, policy objectives, or lobbying efforts. When, in 2010, a number of JCRC members who were not in agreement with key principles and policy statements requested that the Indianapolis JCRC follow the example of the national JCPA and allow for a minority opinion, they were voted down by a majority who saw no reason to allow for minority representation. In response to the JCRC's refusal to allow for a minority voice the board of B'nai Torah, a local Orthodox synagogue, unanimously voted to withdraw its membership from the JCRC.
The Establishment of JAACI
With the withdrawal of B'nai Torah's JCRC membership, the long smoldering fire of pent-up frustration quickly ignited and spread to other congregations, community organizations, and individuals not only in Indianapolis, but throughout Jewish communities in Indiana. B'nai Torah's last representative on the JCRC, Elliot Bartky, spoke with a broad segment of the Jewish community around the state who shared B'nai Torah's frustration and were convinced of the need to start a new statewide Jewish organization unequivocally committed to Israel's defense and the promotion of traditional Jewish and American values. From these discussions the Jewish American Affairs Committee of Indiana (JAACI) was born.
In contrast to the JCRC, JAACI was established to advocate primarily on issues directly related to the security and well-being of the Jewish people and Israel. In a span of a few months, this governing philosophy has garnered the support of the majority of Jewish congregational leaders in Indianapolis, the majority of rabbis in Indiana, as well as congregants from Indianapolis' Reconstructionist, Conservative, Sephardi, and Ashkenazi Orthodox synagogues. In addition to its unequivocal support for Israel, JAACI's stance on political, economic and social issues is shaped by traditional Jewish values and the enduring principles of the American Republic.
The moment JAACI was established it hit the ground running. In less than five months it has achieved a number of notable successes. Its initial goal was to begin forging relationships and friendships with Indiana politicians regardless of their political affiliation. Its first scheduled event, held shortly before the historic 2010 election, was a forum entitled The Future of Indiana: Challenges and Opportunities, A Legislator's Perspective featuring Indiana Republican House Minority Leader Representative Brian Bosma. Representative Bosma expressed his appreciation to JAACI for the opportunity to address Indianapolis Jews, noting this was the first time he had heard a point of view from the organized Jewish community so strongly in support of traditional Jewish and American principles. As it turned out, the Republicans ultimately took control of the Indiana state government and Representative Bosma became Speaker Bosma. Soon after the new legislature was sworn in, Speaker Bosma invited JAACI's halachic advisor, Rabbi Yisrael Gettinger, to give the opening invocation for the new legislative session. This was the first time a rabbi had been accorded such an honor in Indiana's history. He was subsequently honored with an invitation for a second invocation address, this time for a session of the State Senate. Both addresses were received with much enthusiasm and support.
JAACI is now regarded by the Indiana House and Senate leadership as the "go-to" Jewish organization in Indiana, and they have consulted with JAACI on a number of issues of concern to the Jewish community. A highly contentious and priority issue in this year's legislative session was the introduction of bills promoting educational reform through new opportunities for public charter schools and school vouchers, allowing students to attend any school of their choice. In previous years the JCRC was one of the most outspoken opponents of such bills, premising its stance on "Jewish" values. This year, however, JAACI was invited to testify before the House on this matter, during which they expressed strong support for the bill, which could strengthen formal Jewish educational opportunities in Indiana. JAACI has also been consulted by the House and Senate leadership on other social, political, and economic issues. Although it has not testified on all the issues where its input was sought it has clearly become a voice state leaders are interested in hearing.
JAACI members also penned a number of essays for local and regional publications. One of them, initially published in the Indianapolis Star, was later picked up by Daily Alert, an internet publication of The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations and subsequently disseminated widely throughout the blogosphere.
But certainly JAACI's crowning achievement was crafting and helping organize support for a bipartisan, concurrent pro-Israel resolution that unanimously passed both chambers of the Indiana Legislature. Co-authored in the House by Speaker Bosma (R) and Rep. Ed DeLaney (D) and in the Senate by Senator Mike Delph (R), the resolution expresses "steadfast commitment" and support by the State of Indiana for Israel, its "greatest friend and ally" in the Middle East. It also supports Israel's right to act in self-defense and strongly criticizes attempts by the UN, various nations, and other actors to harm or delegitimize Israel. To our knowledge, this is the first resolution to be passed by any state that expresses full support for Israel without directly addressing the Arab/Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
The JAACI Experience and American Jewry
Does the JAACI experience offer any lessons to American Jews for whom the New Jewish Agenda is a hollow, misguided, and ultimately self-destructive construct? We believe it does, and here are some of them:
- 1. There is no inevitability to the New Jewish Agenda dominating the discourse within and beyond American Jewish communities. Even in a modestly-sized Jewish community such as Indianapolis, a handful of capable, motivated individuals (without any budget to speak of) have been able in a matter of months to completely rewrite the Jewish political landscape. We believe the time is ripe for concerned, informed, and determined Jews to begin to similarly challenge the status quo agenda that exists in many communities around the nation.
- 2. Politicians are impressed with groups that take pride in and make no apologies for who they are and what they stand for. Hillel's aphorism "if I am not for myself, who am I?" is a lesson that many Jews need to relearn. Including a spiritual leader(s) or advisor(s) may also strengthen the authoritative nature of such an organization's positions, especially if they are well respected.
- 3. We have more friends than we often realize. There are many excellent reasons why the large majority of Americans love Israel. Politicians are no exception. While it is our duty to constantly educate the public on why Israel remains of vital interest to the US, many non-Jews are not only aware that supporting Israel makes sense from a moral, economic, technological, civilizational, and geopolitical stance, but feel fulfilled when doing so. We just have to give them the opportunity.
There are Jews who have criticized us on the grounds that we are dividing the Indianapolis Jewish community. To those individuals we say: our sole intention is to promote Jewish values, ensure the survival of the Jewish people, and strengthen the Jewish state of Israel. We very much look forward to the day when we can combine forces with a local JCRC that shares these priorities. Until that day comes, we will do everything in our power to achieve our goals. We also look forward to seeing many similar-minded individuals around the nation follow our lead.
- 1. Levin, Kenneth H. The Oslo Syndrome: Delusions of a People Under Siege. Hanover, NH: Smith and Kraus Global, 2005, p 178.
- 2. Ibid, p. 459.