Stephen Bannon in 2016..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As anyone who follows my social media posts knows, I am an unapologetic Democrat who holds President- elect Donald J. Trump in very low regard. I am pleased that the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has condemned Trump’s choice of Stephen Bannon as his policy chief. I also reject those calling for Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) and the communities it represents to follow suit.
The Jewish community has survived and prospered in the United States, and throughout our history, largely on the basis of inspiration and organization. The fact that America and even the incoming transition team appear to be in disarray is no reason for our community to respond in kind – quite the opposite, it’s time for us to coordinate and strategize.
The fact that JFNA just held its annual General Assembly last week in Washington may be the reason for picking on JFNA to respond. But the mood in the Washington Hilton was more focused on the broader implications of a Trump administration on every single Jewish and social issue.
We have many voices and many roles within our community, and not every leadership platform needs to condemn every act by the next president of the United States.
We have well-developed and distinct organizational roles and leadership structures, along with umbrella organizations and independent agencies.
Perhaps we have become desensitized to this distribution of labor, as each organization and politician is expected to immediately issue a press release for every terrorist attack in Israel, and three dozen groups each claim to be “leading” the fight against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement on campus. But we can afford to think strategically and develop contingencies to get us through the four years or eight years of President Donald Trump, and not insist that everyone do everything all at the same time.
Though many of their donors also support Federations, the job of the defense agencies – traditionally the American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress and particularly the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) vis-à-vis the radical Right – has been to build coalitions when possible and speak out when necessary, not to feed the hungry and clothe the poor.
ADL is widely respected as a leading and representative community voice, and also as a team of credible and professional guardians against racism and antisemitism. Not only is the ADL uniquely empowered to speak out on such matters, arguably it is obligated to do so. At each and every turn over the next four years, ADL needs to be gauging the threat to our civil liberties and choosing a proportional response, always opening itself to consultations with others in our community and in the broader civil rights space.
JFNA occupies a very different slice of the communal spectrum. JFNA is our “big tent” and the ultimate clearinghouse for all communities and organizations, and it bears primary responsibility for securing government support and permissions for elder care, poverty and disaster relief, tax exemptions, and a dozen other core functions without which Jews and others would literally be the poorer. The fact that JFNA’s government affairs division is also able to facilitate significant “community relations” successes, beyond its core responsibilities, reflects the versatility of its staff and not a mandatory date with destiny.
And let’s be clear, JFNA withholding a statement in no way suggests it isn’t concerned; if anything, it probably chafes under the need to hold its tongue.
While we may all criticize actions and policies of a government, especially those of this incoming administration, boycotting any White House – whether à priori or ever – is neither wise nor practical. Federations and social services across the country and globally rely on decisions and initiatives that flow from and through the Executive Branch. The president and his subordinates convene public and private conversations where interest groups air their concerns and develop constructive understandings.
Casual interactions are also indispensable to forming insights and plans for more formal approaches, and ideally government becomes a partner rather than an adversary.
JFNA would close off such access only at great cost to its programs and the millions who depend on them; one week into the transition would be recklessly premature.
The bar for JFNA to condemn an action by the president – before he’s ever taken office, before he’s had the chance to issue a single executive order – must be very high. Condemning the president-elect’s choice for top policy official runs the risk of alienating him and his staff for the duration, squandering decades of cultivation and branding overnight.
ADL need not be at the table when the Trump administration is getting feedback on Obamacare repeal from representatives of key interest groups – JFNA absolutely does.
I would say the same for entitlement reform, tax overhaul, security grants and all those receptions with carefully vetted invitations. The full list is too long to include here.
If the Jewish community finds itself outside the White House security perimeter, will the champions of blanket community-wide opposition pick up the slack? Will they miraculously produce some congressional “fix” when our concerns are never considered, will they replace the many millions of dollars in federal aid lost because JFNA responded rashly and outside its core competency? JFNA is not a defense agency. It enjoys neither the luxury nor the role of “telling truth to power” at every opportunity. ADL is a perfectly competent and legitimate representative of the Jewish community in that respect. If President Trump does take steps that directly and significantly threaten our community’s interests, JFNA must be in a position to register a principled and credible response.
Keeping its powder dry at this early stage gives it the chance to develop and leverage the kinds of relationships that will hopefully help to avert such a disastrous scenario down the road.The author, a former community professional and lobbyist, is an consultant to businesses, governments and non-profits.