The Communal Bridges We Must Build Better

While flipping through cable channels late one evening, I stopped at the Jewish Broadcast Service. It was replaying an AIPAC policy conference panel from the pre-pandemic days, when we were able to congregate physically and interact. Amanda Berman of Zioness, who I had the pleasure of sitting on a panel with while representing the Simon Wiesenthal Center in the past, said that one of the biggest issues facing the Jewish world was our division between right and left, and our failure to speak with a united front on the most basic issues of Jewish concern, especially Israel. Support of Israel and Zionism, she explained, does not mean that you have to like Netanyahu or Gantz. It doesn’t mean that you see eye to eye with other Jews on settlements or any other issue. What is imperative is to articulate our collective and unified commitment to the Jewish people’s right to celebrate our Zionism, to support the safety and future of the Jewish homeland — now home to the world’s largest Jewish community — and for the Jewish democratic Israel to continue serving as a safe haven for any Jew targeted by anti-Semitism.

At the same time, we must heed that same message for combating anti-Semitism. One of my early mentors, Rabbi Bob Kaplan of the JCRC-NY, taught me a number of key lessons at the very dawn of my career. They are:

  • The key to coalition building is the identification of issues of commonality.
  • You must humanize the process. It is difficult to work through differences and challenges with someone you never knew.
  • You must work to understand and respect each other’s narratives in order to fashion coalitions and alliances.

One of the many local coalitions in which I participate is the newly founded CommUNITY Coalition, which represents the Rockaways, the Five Towns, and Valley Stream on Long Island’s South Shore. The organization held its official kickoff a few weeks ago. One leader on the weekly Zoom asked how we would know if our efforts would bear fruit. My response was that since this process already has brought formerly disparate parts of our local leadership together to begin to develop meaningful new relationships, we have already achieved a crucial goal.

We need to apply the same spirit to our dealings with all other segments of our community.

The recently passed civil rights icon and congressman, John Lewis once said to me during my time on Capitol Hill that “we might have all gotten here on different ships, but we are all in the same boat.” Regardless of what you think about “other” types of Jews, whomever the other represents to you personally — we all are identified as Jews by anti-Semites. Regardless of where your left/ right spectrum judgments are on the specific policies of the government of Israel, we all should remember that there is only one state of Israel and that the Jewish state is the Jewish people’s lone sanctuary.

At the end of the day, these truths should bind us far more forcefully than anything divides us. The Jewish community should be proud of its diversity and embrace it as an empowering strength, just as those who hate surely will see past their divisions to accomplish their catastrophic objectives.

I am fortunate to be at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, where the big tent approach motivates and informs us every day. While it is vital to expand working relationships beyond the Jewish community during these difficult times, it is even more critical to promote and secure the broadest coalition within the Jewish community. Statistics have demonstrated that of late approximately 60 percent of all religious-based hate crimes in the United States target us, our families, and our institutions. We must prioritize finding our path to work better together. Our collective futures depend on it.

About the Author
Michael Cohen currently serves as Eastern Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Mr. Cohen additionally serves on the Englewood, NJ City Council where he was recently elected to his third term. Mr. Cohen has previously held senior staff positions on Capitol Hill and in NYC and NYS governments for over 15 years. Mr. Cohen has also served as Director of Political and Strategic Affairs for a top NY lobbying firm.
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