Commentary Magazine


Community Relations

To the Editor:

Jack Wertheimer [“A Jewish Contract With America,” May] is distressed by the continuing commitment of Jewish communal agencies to the separation of church and state. He argues that that commitment is likely to increase the level of tension between Jews and other Americans.

The American Jewish Committee is committed to preserving the separation of church and state precisely because it believes that the involvement of the state in matters of religion is likely to be a potent source of irreconcilable conflict, particularly in a multireligious democracy in which religion is taken seriously. This view is neither novel nor peculiar to Jewish communal organizations. It emerged from the long and bloody wars of religion that convulsed Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries and profoundly influenced the authors of our Bill of Rights.

Jewish opposition to amendment of the Bill of Rights and Jewish support for Supreme Court decisions interpreting it may, of course, provoke hostility. Given the substantial number of Christians and atheists who share these separationist views, it is hard to see why the expression of them should elicit any particular animus toward Jews—except among bigots, and bigots, of course, do not need reasons. Be that as it may, whatever ill-will may be engendered by Jewish support for the principles expressed in the Supreme Court’s school-prayer decisions, it is much safer to support those principles than to abandon them.

Consider the conflicts that would be generated if the details of prayer and other displays of religious piety were to become the subject of controversy and debate in thousands of school-board elections across the country. Those conflicts—between Gentile and Gentile, Gentile and Jew, and, indeed, Jew and Jew—would plainly have the capacity to produce very dangerous levels of tension, antagonism, and bitterness.

Nor is it to be supposed that, were the wall of separation dismantled, the prayers to be proffered in public schools would be inoffensive, irenic, and bland. Surely George Santayana was right when he said that “the attempt to speak without speaking any particular language is not more hopeless than the attempt to have a religion that is no religion in particular.” Those who believe it is imperative that their children pray in public school are also likely to think that it is imperative that their children pray in the words and images that their respective faiths deem sacred. Indeed, those who are now distressed by the desacralization of the public-school classroom will, justifiably, be more distressed by any attempt to desacralize prayer.

Mr. Wertheimer suggests that separationism reinforces secularism within the Jewish community. It is hard to see why this should be so. Tocqueville and other astute observers of the American scene thought that strict separation of church and state served to enhance the sway of religion in America. Whether or not that analysis is correct, the Jewish community cannot rely on the state to promote Jewish piety among our children. It is not reasonable to expect that the prayers to be uttered in public schools will be drawn from the siddur, the Hebrew prayer book, and it is not evident what is to be gained from an intense exposure of Jewish children to the Book of Common Prayer.

Mr. Wertheimer is concerned that Jewish communal organizations are taking positions “out of sync with the mood of the country.” Only time will tell whether he has correctly assessed the mood of the country. Of course, he is surely right in suggesting that care should be taken to avoid giving needless offense to our neighbors and to treat them with the respect with which we wish to be treated. But there is no disrespect involved and no legitimate grounds for offense in the position that all religions should be protected from political intrusion. And being out of sync with the national mood is not something that has heretofore deterred COMMENTARY from engaging in stalwart advocacy. Nor should it. One can hope to influence the mood.

Jews have fully enjoyed the special blessings that American freedom has conferred upon us. Is it not appropriate to feel some obligation to be active in the ranks of those who are vigilant in defense of those freedoms—even if doing so takes a little fortitude?

Robert S. Rifkind
President, American Jewish Committee
New York City

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To the Editor:

In his zeal to suggest that Jewish public-affairs organizations are “out of sync with the mood of the country,” Jack Wertheimer would have the community-relations field abandon Jewish self-interest in favor of gaining political standing with conservatives—exactly what he condemns the field for having done in the past with regard to liberals.

I can assure him that the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council (NJCRAC) and its network of 13 national and 117 local member agencies are no more likely to do the former than we are guilty of having done the latter. The community-relations field will continue to be guided by its dual mission, namely, to safeguard the rights of Jews here and around the world even as we strive to enhance American democratic pluralism.

Although Mr. Wertheimer would have your readers believe otherwise, there is ample evidence to show that the issues and positions articulated by the community-relations field are representative not merely of “social activists,” as he grudgingly acknowledges, but of affiliated Jews across the country. A 1995 poll of San Francisco Federation contributors (by definition, “affiliated Jews”) is illustrative. Over 80 percent of the respondents believe that Jewish agencies, as Jewish agencies, should be involved in such issues as reducing poverty in America, assisting the homeless, improving public education, fighting discrimination against African-Americans, addressing U.S. immigration policy, supporting international human rights, and making coalitions with other ethnic and religious groups.

Consistent with other national polls, the San Francisco survey, undertaken by the local Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) finds that nearly half of all respondents consider a “commitment to social justice” as the “quality most important to [one’s] Jewish identity,” exceeding both “religious observance” and “support for Israel” by nearly fourfold.

These data confute the notion that affiliated Jews are uninterested in either the issues or the positions of the community-relations field. It is hard to reach any other conclusion but that the Joint Program Plan, the NJCRAC’s annual analysis of the Jewish public-affairs agenda, is representative of the thinking of the overwhelming majority of American Jews who maintain some connection with the organized Jewish community.

One can argue whether a communal identification rooted in social activism is sufficient to maintain a vibrant American Jewry. That is a separate, albeit extremely important, line of inquiry. What is central here, however, is to acknowledge that many Jews find in the social-justice agenda some validation of their Jewishness. An obligation of the community-relations field, therefore, is to provide Jewish structures and vehicles to nurture that impulse. In so doing, the field provides an invaluable service both to the political agenda and also to the communal self-interest of the organized Jewish community.

NJCRAC is not apologetic, either, about the contribution of the community-relations field to the so-called “continuity” agenda. There is no “presumptuousness” in suggesting, as the Joint Program Plan does, that

the way the field looks at public-policy issues is informed by a Jewish tradition, a Jewish vision, and a Jewish language of social concern that does not foreordain a policy position but establishes a communal universe of discourse that is central to the priority of Jewish continuity.

Even as we reaffirm the goal of preserving a vibrant Jewish community in America, we embrace coalition-building as a central tool for our activities. Jewish experience in America has shown that the best way for a minority—including the Jewish minority—to achieve its goals is by making common cause with others. The coalitional strategy has yielded many successes. The MetroWest, New Jersey JCRC administers a grant on behalf of fifteen interfaith and ethnic-advocacy groups to educate new Americans about their legal rights. In West Palm Beach, the JCRC is working with the NAACP to implement school curricula on both the Holocaust and the African-American experience. The Black-Jewish Leadership Coalition in Philadelphia denounced hate speech when Nation of Islam spokesman Khalid Muhammed visited the city. In Boston, a similar statement was issued by African-American ministers. . . . In recent years, at least three-dozen NJCRAC member agencies have developed relationships with local Muslim groups arising from a shared concern about genocide in Bosnia. And the list goes on and on. Each of these collaborative activities builds relationships that both advance the social-justice agenda and engender support for public-affairs issues among the coalition partners.

At times, differences exist among coalition partners. As closely as the community-relations field works with the Catholic church on various issues, there are unbridgeable public-policy gulfs between our two communities on such questions as reproductive choice and aid to parochial schools. Nevertheless, neither community expects the other to abandon a position of principle either for short-term political advantage or for the sake of comity.

With regard to church-state separation, however, Mr. Wertheimer would ask the community-relations field to do exactly that. The dedication of organized Jewry to the separation of church and state is not political posturing, but . . . a core conviction that that principle has assured the right of Jews to full, unfettered participation in the civic life of this nation with no limits other than those imposed by one’s interests and ability. This belief is neither transitory nor trendy. It does not depend on which party is in power. If there is a Jewish “contract” with America at all, it is with the U.S. Constitution and the protections that it provides us and all our nation’s citizens.

Lawrence Rubin
Executive Vice Chairman
National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council
New York City

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To the Editor:

How frustrating it must be for Jack Wertheimer, trying to enjoy the new situation in Washington yet finding that the overwhelming majority of his fellow Jews are still on the other side of the political divide.

I suppose we should be grateful in one respect to Mr. Wertheimer for expressing with such clarity his personal prescription for Jewish public policy today. Mr. Wertheimer would have us (a) abandon support for church-state separation; (b) suspend our concern for the disadvantaged; (c) withdraw from the struggle for adequate health-care coverage; (d) end our support for public education, protection of the environment, and a woman’s right to choose; and (e) stop wasting our time in joining coalitions with minorities and other groups of Americans—except, of course, with conservative Republicans.

Most astonishing is his suggestion that we lower our voices on issues that might, as he puts it, “increase the level of tension” with other Americans. I would have thought that the days of “sha, sha” were gone forever.

What is obviously most troubling to Mr. Wertheimer is that so few Jews will adopt his agenda for Jewish community relations. If there were any substantial Jewish opposition to the policies of our community-relations organizations today, it would by now have come across loud and clear. Jews have never been bashful in expressing their dissent from positions taken by their communal organizations—I write as past national chair of NJCRAC and a past national vice president of the American Jewish Committee.

We Jews are a diverse people, with a wide variety of public-policy, religious, and philosophical views. While most of us have identified with the Democratic party, substantial numbers have always favored the Republicans. But regardless of party, the great majority of us have consistently supported certain core values. We put our concern for social justice ahead of our particular and personal self-interest and our own party affiliation. And we speak out proudly in support of the things we believe in.

Jewish freedom and security are integral to the larger social context. Jews are free to be Jews in America only because all men and women are free to be themselves. Jews are secure only to the extent that the laws and institutions of the society protect those of every class and race and religion. Why would Mr. Wertheimer want to weaken that protection?

Jordan C. Band
Cleveland, Ohio

_____________

 

To the Editor:

In “A Jewish Contract With America,” Jack Wertheimer criticizes the field of Jewish community relations for not rooting its positions in Jewish tradition, for being narrow in its choice of coalition partners, and for concerning itself with issues not of particular significance to the Jewish community or to Jewish security. He also singles out concern for the environment as one example of such misplaced interest.

If Mr. Wertheimer were to look at the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), the primary vehicle through which NJCRAC involves itself in environmental-protection, he would find that our efforts satisfy his basic criteria for Jewish involvement. . . .

  • COEJL grounds concern for the environment in the traditions and values of all streams of American Jewish religious life. Furthermore, COEJL, through the offices of Mr. Wertheimer’s own Jewish Theological Seminary, engages scholars from the various traditions in ongoing dialogue about ecological issues so that the Jewish perspective of our work will be continually deepened. . . .
  • With 22 national Jewish organizations participating, COEJL constitutes the broadest issue-based coalition in the American Jewish community.
  • The environment is an issue that brings Jews into coalition with a broad spectrum of Americans. Through the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, of which COEJL is a member, the Jewish community works with the Catholic, Protestant, and evangelical communities—again, a model of broad-based coalition work that goes beyond anything that could be construed as a liberal alliance.
  • Environmental issues are at their heart about the collective good. Though Jews have no particular parochial interest in the environment, environmental well-being is at the core of the stability and security of any nation. . . .

Though many of those involved with COEJL believe that there are deep moral and religious reasons for Jews to be involved in environmental education and advocacy, Jewish participation in efforts to protect the environment is also justified by the pragmatic concerns articulated by Mr. Wertheimer.

Mark X. Jacobs
Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life
New York City

_____________

 

To the Editor:

My experience fully supports Jack Wertheimer’s findings. I was a representative to the Dayton (Ohio) JCRC. Since I had became known for my non-politically-correct views, I was not selected to go, expense-paid, to the national meeting held in Washington that year. I was, however, permitted to go as a local representative at my own expense.

Just as Mr. Wertheimer says, I found the Joint Program plan which was voted on at the meeting to be a politically motivated exercise in matters extraneous to the Jewish community. To cite one example, among the issues being voted on was whether the Jewish community should support the “front-line states” in the battle against South Africa’s then-apartheid government. Other than being against the South African government, these states had dubious credentials. I suggested therefore that a general statement against apartheid would be in order and that support for “front-line states” was far removed from the immediate concerns of the Jewish community. But as one person, with very few supporters, I failed to sway the meeting on this or any other issue. And for my vociferous objections to the outrageous agenda, I was disinvited as a representative to the local council.

In my experience, persons in the national office in New York first establish their own agenda and then use NJCRAC to further it. The only saving grace is that, to my knowledge, once the Joint Program Plan is approved and printed, it is never used again.

Lawrence Briskin
Dayton, Ohio

_____________

 

To the Editor:

I was not at all surprised to open the May issue of COMMENTARY and see an article criticizing this year’s NJCRAC conference. I had the much-undeserved honor of attending the conference in February. (As a student at the University of Massachusetts, I was attending Hillel’s Spitzer Forum, which this year was held in conjunction with that of NJCRAC.) By the conclusion of the opening plenum I was completely disgusted with what I had seen and heard. I had no idea that NJCRAC was such a blatantly partisan organization. I believed that any organization which claimed to represent “majority Jewish opinion” and had repeatedly stated that it wished to work with Congress, would not use such caustic language. . . . NJCRAC’s board members did not simply take issue with most of the policies outlined in the Contract With America, they shrilly denounced them, using the harshest language. The balanced-budget amendment was called a “sham,” tort reform was “welfare for the rich,” and a constitutional amendment permitting school prayer “an attack against our freedom and principles.” All the board members continued in the same vein. . . . By the end of the meeting, one of the students in the audience was so sickened that he mockingly grasped the vice president’s hand and said: “Thank you, . . . thank you, for letting me finally realize that I am a Republican.”

Jack Wertheimer is absolutely correct that the Jewish community-relations organizations are out of touch with today’s political reality. . . .

Josh Slomich
Amherst, Massachusetts

_____________

 

Jack Wertheimer writes:

Robert S. Rifkind devotes his letter to church-state matters. He contends quite persuasively that, given the heterogeneous nature of American society, school prayer is not feasible. He may well be correct. But his position is not the one that is most often taken by the Jewish community. Instead of arguing that school prayer is unworkable, Jewish organizations in the community-relations field contend that any breach in the wall between church and state must be fought as an attack on the sacred principle of separationism. Yet for most of American history, Jews have managed quite well to live with small breaches in that wall, particularly with respect to prayer in the public schools. It is only in recent decades that the organized Jewish community has seen fit to battle against every expression of religion in our public institutions. When Mr. Rifkind questions why I suggest that strict separationism reinforces secularism, he should consider what message this stance conveys to members of the Jewish community, let alone to outsiders, about the proper place of religion in people’s lives. This position goes well beyond his original definition of separationism—preventing “the involvement of the state in matters of religion”—to the banishment of religion and its moral teachings from the public square.

Lawrence Rubin attempts to demonstrate that support for his organization’s positions is widespread throughout the Jewish community. But in citing a survey of Jews in the San Francisco Bay area, he calls attention to a source that undermines his claims. When I examined the study he finds so persuasive, I discovered some surprising things. Fewer than 50 percent of all respondents and fewer than a third of respondents between the ages of 30 and 44 felt that Jewish agencies should be “strongly involved” with health care, immigration, the environment, government corruption, discrimination against blacks, welfare dependency, crime, and even U.S. foreign policy. And those defined as the “elite”—i.e., people who served on the Federation’s board or committees and made contributions of $1,000 or more—were less eager than the rest of those surveyed to have Jewish agencies involved in any public-policy issues. Moreover, 54 percent of all respondents considered it all right for Christmas and Hanukkah symbols to appear in public places—in spite of the fact that such displays are the bête noire of the community-relations field. As it turns out, then, even in the San Francisco Bay area, a most Left-leaning community, there is no great enthusiasm for the NJCRAC agenda.

Mr. Rubin also addresses the matter of coalition-building. On this score I applaud his organization and the entire range of community-relations groups for the constructive role they play in helping the Jewish minority “make common cause with others.” And in my article I urged NJCRAC and other groups to widen the circle of potential partners. But this can happen only if they abandon their fixation on what they call the “social-justice agenda,” in reality a euphemism for one particular brand of politics, and recognize that there are a number of different agendas for improving society and bringing greater justice to this country.

Jordan C. Band begins his letter by acknowledging the “clarity” of my “personal prescription for Jewish public policy today,” but then manages to misinterpret everything I wrote. According to Mr. Band, I urged the Jewish community to “abandon support for church-state separation,” when in fact I called for a flexible approach to separationism. He accuses me of wanting the community to withdraw from a broad range of social, health, and environmental issues, when what I did was question the wisdom of speaking with one voice on such complex matters. He interprets my article as a call for Jews to stop working in “coalitions with other groups of Americans—except, of course, for conservative Republicans,” when I actually proposed that the community widen its base of coalition partners to include Republicans, among others.

On one thing Mr. Band and I agree. The days of “sha, sha” should be over. We differ, though, in our assessment of when the Jewish community should take risks. I would have preferred to see Jewish organizations devoting less energy to developing a grandiose healthcare proposal for America and instead expending greater effort in a more parochial Jewish cause: for example, by challenging the inordinately harsh sentence meted out to Jonathan Pollard, an issue on which the community-relations field lagged behind other sectors of American Jewish leadership. Evidently many Jewish organizations are more comfortable fighting for social justice when it is non-Jews who need help.

Mark X. Jacobs takes me to task for dismissing the concerns of environmentalists who wish to bring the teachings of the Jewish religious tradition to bear on a matter of supposedly serious Jewish concern. I have no problem with his using a letter-to-the-editor as a means of advertising the work of his organization, but his remarks have nothing to do with my article, which made only a glancing reference to environmentalism.

I am grateful to Lawrence Briskin and Josh Slomich for their words of support. The testimony of Messrs. Briskin and Slomich about their disenchantment with NJCRAC might help leaders like Mr. Band understand that dissent is not coming through “loud and clear” because dissenters walk away when they are marginalized.

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