Have JCRC/Federations lost their way? Are they out of step with mainstream Americans?

I have been active in my local Jewish Federation, Jewish Community Relations Council and Israel Advocacy Committee for the past 25 years. I represent a distinct but sizeable minority voice in that I am hawkishly pro-Zionist and pro-American.  I believe that despite good intentions,  the “Jewish” aspect of these organizations- including the duty of defending our community first and foremost- has been marginalized.

Don’t get me wrong: I support the purpose and many good works the federations do for the community, its poor, infirm, and hungry. I indeed “get” that JCRC’s primary mission today is to build bridges to outside communities.  But unfortunately, their leaders are increasingly operating in an echo chamber of political correctness and a dangerous drift beyond liberal to the left- and as I have been warning, increasingly positioning themselves, and therefore collectively all of us, outside the mainstream of America.

The latest evidence of this trend occurred in a recent local “JCRC Backgrounder” on  President Trump’s revised executive order on immigration, which read in part as follows:

“This past Monday, President Trump signed a revised immigration executive order that will go into effect on March 16, 2017. While there is general agreement that this second executive order is less problematic than the original, the majority of national Jewish organizations remain concerned that it continues to restrict the entry of refugees from Muslim-majority countries and is a direct challenge to America’s “nation of immigrants” narrative. The order also continues to conflict with core Jewish values of acceptance of strangers and providing a safe-haven for individuals who have been forced to flee their homes because of exclusionary and inhumane practices.”

My initial reaction was that this text failed to make mention, let alone acknowledge, another at least equally important– if not the most important– Jewish value: “sacredness of life”/ “self-defense” and its collective “national security.”  I immediately contacted  JCRC staff to express my concerns and received a response:

“Thanks for reaching out and sharing your opinion. After reviewing many analyses of the order’s impact on overall security, including this article from the Cato Institute… and this letter signed by over 100 former high level national security experts from both the Obama and Bush administrations… we, along with the majority of other national Jewish organizations, concluded that since there is no evidence to support that the exclusionary nature of the order will help protect our country and its residents, it is incumbent upon us, as a Jewish institution, to invoke the Jewish value of welcoming the stranger.”

I was thankful for the response, but wrote back that I found it unavailing, unconvincing and ignoring Jewish law pertaining to observing the law of the land. I pointed out that JCRC had become overtly political in ignoring completely the potential danger that this executive order addresses: our national security as Americans, and in particular the anti-Semitism expressed by Islamists. The whole notion of welcoming the stranger sounds very appealing and is an easy battle cry, unless of course you understand the true Torah perspective specifying the stranger “in our midst,” not the unvetted immigrant. The Torah is not a suicide pact.

Indeed, I mentioned, it was the Obama Administration that compiled the initial list of these seven countries (now six) to target for review–they were not drawn out of thin air, but in fact were determined to be places from which proper vetting could not take place, as each is a state sponsor of terrorism.

Moreover, what JCRC and the mainstream media ignore is a review of statistics from a U.S. Senate subcommittee which revealed that since 911, there have been 72 convictions  for terrorism-related offenses of individuals from these seven countries.  Remember, I stated, terrorists only have to be successful once, while we have to stop them 100% of the time. It is presumptuous to believe we will not be wrong.

Then I posed specific questions: a)  Is JCRC/Federation now taking the stand that it is for “open borders?” b)  Should there be unlimited immigration with no restrictions? c) Is it JCRC’s position that this country has no right to protect itself or determine how many people and who can come in at any time?  Finally, I pointed out that there had been no discussion or vote by the JCRC board as to this particular significant stance.

Having received no further response from the staff to these specific points and inquiries, I requested a response from the head of Federation.  Again, I found the answer unsatisfactory:

“As a former JCRC director, I am particularly sensitive to claims of “overly political” work. It is our obligation to have a strong JCRC which is promoting individual as well as group action. As you know, the use of the terms, “JCRC Backgrounder” is used by JCRCs across North America as information for those who have opted into such correspondence, to learn more about issues commonly discussed and regularly reviewed by the JCRC board. The goal of a backgrounder is to send out statements from a wide variety of commonly associated partners, including JCPA, ADL, NCJW, ZOA, the various religious movements, etc. as well as outline pertinent legislation/orders so our community partners have this information at their fingertips, from a reliable source.  As I review this backgrounder, I see it following these guidelines. No discussion or vote is necessary to send such a post. From what I am seeing posted across our various communities throughout the US, our JCRC is not acting in a way that is different from any other JCRC.”

Again a non-answer. Here is my response, to which there was no reply:

“I appreciate your response, but it does not address my specific concerns here and avoids the meat of the issues. This backgrounder is one-sided in its text- despite including articles from various different other Jewish organizations who each express different viewpoints. Had there be even SOME mention, even a very slight one, even a hint of recognition of “safety to the community, self-defense” aspect here to the president’s executive order, I would not have responded….  Welcoming the stranger—yes, an important Jewish value.  The sacredness of life—the most important Jewish value.  This backgrounder makes it seem as if Federation is taking the side of “open borders without restrictions” and without our country’s ability or right to even control them- and that is plain political and unbalanced, and ultimately wrong.”

This is not a small matter: This ingrained, reflexive urge to repair the world, i.e. tikkun olam, is admirable and commendable; it can even be argued is a real mitzvah. But it is also unbalanced. Jewish tradition is far more nuanced, understanding that there are many sides to an issue and that dogma can be dangerous.  Moreover, the use of the term in the text of the JCRC Backgrounder, “Jewish values,” (in this case welcoming the stranger) essentially puts the community’s imprimatur and hecksher on it such that there can be no dispute or criticism.

Our JCRC/Federations have become echo chambers, giving lip service to the fact that they are supposed to be inclusive of the panalopy of views of our diverse Jewish community. This leftward political correctness drift has to stop or we are risking imperiling ourselves by becoming viewed as outside the mainstream of America. This is especially true on an issue so vital as national defense and security.  Most Americans find caution to be eminently reasonable when they see the enemies of our Judeo-Christian western civilization out there, causing mayhem in Europe and the Middle East.

I am not against legal immigration per se, and fully appreciate that Jews have been welcome in this country as immigrants, but if we don’t at least acknowledge what most Americans see– that unrestricted immigration from places where we cannot adequately vet and from places that teach and preach anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism is reckless– then we are going to pay a terrible price and ultimately be marginalized. It should not be that the Jewish obligation to self-defense falls on deaf ears to those whose leftist ideology demands that Jews have to take care of everyone else before themselves, and maybe then they will be liked (albeit posthumously).

We must stand up and not succomb to the Jewish communal leadership groupthink. Question it.  Otherwise, we seriously risk alienating us from our pro-Israel allies in order to appease virtue and guilt. If we are not for ouselves as Hillel so cogently expressed, no one will be.

About the Author
Lee S. Bender co-authored a book, “Pressing Israel: Media Bias Exposed From A-Z” (Pavilion Press) with Jerome Verlin, and has been speaking about anti-Israel bias and activities to numerous schools, synagogues, churches and civic groups, and written dozens of articles published in local and national media. He is Co-President of the Zionist Organization of America-Greater Philadelphia District, a board member of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia, Israel Advocacy Committee of Jewish Federation among other organizations. A former Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney, he has been in private practice as a trial attorney in Pennsylvania and New Jersey since 1995.