American Jewish leadership’s political challenge

Jewish leadership needs to be neutral in this election and in all elections because the future of Jews in America relies on immediate access to whoever sits in the Oval Office.

A giant menorah outside the White House in Washington (photo credit: REUTERS)
A giant menorah outside the White House in Washington
(photo credit: REUTERS)
American Jewish leaders represent American Jews and the welfare of American Jewry must be paramount on their agendas – regardless of who wins the US general election on Tuesday, November 8.
Historically, many Jewish leaders failed in this role. In fact, such failure is one of the obvious reasons for J Street’s lightning, even blistering, rise to prominence during Barack Obama’s presidency.
Prior to Obama’s election, J Street was a virtually unknown organization.
It was certainly not a mainstream Jewish organization. But it was outspoken in support of Obama Democrats. So while most other Jewish leadership and Jewish organizations were seen as siding with the “anyone but Obama” camp, especially on the issue of Israel, J Street was seen as a friend. It has taken eight long and arduous years for the general Jewish American world to resuscitate its standing with the 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Too little, too late, some would say.
This tactical mistake hurt the Jewish community and minimized its ability to impact policies on everything from education to the elderly to health care. US Jewish leadership was seen as a mouthpiece for Jerusalem (i.e. the Netanyahu government) and that disqualified much of their messaging.
It is, without a doubt, flattering and enticing for individual leaders and sophisticated organizations to be courted for statements and support.
But that flattery is felt only in the short term. The US Jewish community deserves better. Jewish leadership needs to be neutral in this election and in all elections because the future of Jews in America relies on immediate access to whoever sits in the Oval Office. The health and ultimate power of the Jewish community, in the long term, requires our leadership to be politically independent and impartial.
Jewish leadership should be pro-Israel, but not as an automatic cheering squad. Israel needs to be one of many issues of concern for Jewish leadership, one of many issues presented to the White House.
Most importantly, when Jewish leaders are given the green light to go in and deliver their messages to the most powerful leader in the Western world, those messages had better be substantive and attractive, advancing dialogue and advocating change that benefits more than their own narrow constituency. Even if discarded, which most messages to the White House are, they need to have helped the White House advance the conversation and decision making.
I am not advocating being quiet on issues of import, on the contrary, I mean varying topics so as not to be a considered a single-issue broken record. When the White House knows your script by heart, your presentation is lost before it is even begun and the only purpose you have served is to fill a time slot on the calendar of someone in the White House.
The relationship is successful when it is a two-way street. When it is not only Jewish leaders approaching the White House but when the White House places calls to Jewish leaders asking for advice and even to run interference – even with Israel. Backdoor discussions and agreements are very useful and more prevalent than the public might believe.
Israeli political leadership could benefit from this same type of behavior both in its interactions with American Jewish leadership and general American leadership – congressional, senatorial and presidential.
But that will never happen if American Jewish leadership is typecast either as always pro-Israeli policies and activities.
Of course there are significant exceptions to this paradigm. Obvious exceptions are individual lay leaders who have political points of view and are heavily invested in a single political party. These lay leaders are, for the most part, significant donors and people of power in both the Jewish world and the general political arena. Each of these Jewish lay leaders has successfully forged their own style and modus operandi.
Many of these highly successful people donate to both parties just in case the “other” party wins. That’s smart politics. They might prefer one candidate over the others, but they realize that access to the president is provided to people who help in the election process. Individuals have that luxury. The general Jewish community does not.
Politics is, essentially, a game.
Smart players win games. American Jewish leadership needs to always play smart to win big. The future of American Jewry is at stake.
Kudos to present-day Jewish leadership in America. The lessons of the past were learned. Political pitfalls were avoided. Hopefully, our post-election future will reflect that solid thinking and mature behavior.
Hopefully, the doors of the White House will be open to the Jewish community no matter who occupies 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue come January.
The author is a political commentator. He hosts the TV show Thinking Out Loud. Follow him on Twitter @ MicahHalpern.