No need to shame the Federation


This column is a response to a column posted March 17 at jewishjournal.com, “A Deafening Silence from the Jewish Federation,” taking the Los Angeles Jewish Federation to task for not speaking out against certain policies and statements of President Donald Trump. You can join a Facebook discussion on this issue here.

Our local Federation can do no right. When it took a public stand two years ago against the Iran nuclear deal—which many of us considered bad for Israel and America, and still do—it got reamed by local Jews who felt the Federation should not exclude the many Jewish voices who favored the deal.

Although I was against the deal, I had sympathy for that pushback, since politics in general is very divisive and the Federation’s role is to be as unifying and inclusive as possible. The Federation learned its lesson. 

But now that Donald Trump is in the White House, some of those same voices are taking the Federation to task for staying out of politics and keeping quiet. In a joint op-ed in the Journal by four prominent progressive Jews, the Federation is shamed for remaining “deafeningly silent” in the face of the outrageous words and actions from our new president.

This goes against a long local tradition, the authors write, where “Los Angeles has had active Jewish community organizations that often spoke with one voice, took stands, ventured into politically risky territory and helped mark Jews as a force to be reckoned with on the community relations and political scenes.”

But the authors cite no precedent of past Federations taking on a president, or even a political cause. They use the loose term “Jewish leaders” without specifying if those were Federation leaders.

What they do suggest is that if anyone as bad as Trump would have become president over the past forty years, “The non-profit leadership of this community would have been vocal, visible and busy organizing in opposition.” 

If there’s any “statement” the Federation can make, it might be to organize “Open Nights” where different voices of the community would be heard in a civil and open way.

Fair enough, but here’s the problem with that position: I know a lot of Jews in Los Angeles who think Obama was pretty bad, too. They believe Obama increased the racial tensions in our country, did virtually nothing to stop the massacre of 500,000 civilians in Syria and the worst refugee crisis of the century, and tried to turn America into another failed, socialist European state.

Some of those Jews claimed Obama’s policies violated Jewish values, and that it was a Jewish value to oppose him. In fact, had progressive Jews mobilized to oppose Obama during the massacres in Syria, and implored the Federation to speak out in the name of Jewish values against Obama’s Syria policy, they might be getting a better hearing today.

Either way, I have no political dog in this fight. I’ve written columns urging Republicans to “dump” Trump and even wrote a piece calling him worse than a liar. Personally, I enjoy seeing the Trump opposition movement—it shows me our diverse community in action.

That long and noble tradition that the authors write about, of Jews being “active participants in meetings, demonstrations, legislation, community events and forming alliances,” is alive and well. It reminds me of how much I cherish our freedom to protest and hold our leaders accountable, which I never take for granted.

But should that be the role of the Federation at the expense of further dividing our community? I don’t think so.

It’s interesting to note that when the authors try to strengthen their case by showing examples of prominent conservatives who had the guts to take on Trump, they cite three newspaper pundits. These pundits, they write, “all have readers, long-time admirers and fee-generating organizations that they have angered and alienated because of their courage—but they spoke out nevertheless.”

Yes, but speaking out is the core role of a pundit. Pundits don’t have the duty to unify a community or help it heal. Federations do. Our Federation has made its share of mistakes over the years; I just don’t think that aiming for bipartisanship in tremendously divisive times is one of them.

If there’s any “statement” the Federation can make, it might be to organize “Open Nights” where different voices of the community would be heard in a civil and open way. Instead of picking one voice, the Federation would convene multiple voices. Maybe really smart people will find a middle ground that can project Jewish values in a Trumpian world without dividing us any further.

As the Journal’s Esther Kustanowitz wrote on a Facebook post, “It’s easy to emerge as leaders, with a statement to rouse community to action, when everyone agrees. It’s when people disagree—when a community holds different beliefs in tension with each other—that emerging as a community leader gets difficult.”

If you ask me, any leadership move that can bring Jews together under the most divisive and stressful circumstances would be worthy of the highest Jewish value—Trump or no Trump.

+