March 30, 2020

Federation stays neutral on Trump refugee order, despite pressure

In the days after President Donald Trump signed an executive order restricting refugee admissions to the United States, a long list of Jewish organizations authored fiery statements condemning the new measures. Notably missing from their ranks was The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

The L.A. Federation’s decision to refrain from taking a clear position on the executive order raised questions about whether it should make any political statements at all, hearkening to a similarly bitter debate about the Iran nuclear agreement. And while disagreements on that point simmered behind closed doors, the Federation has signaled that it would continue to abstain from taking sides on the day’s issues.

In a Feb. 2 email titled “Our Commitment to Immigration and Resettlement,” Federation President and CEO Jay Sanderson addressed the executive order without criticizing it: “I want you to know that we have heard your concerns and feel the anxiety of our community,” he wrote.

For some, Sanderson’s email fell short, failing to express solidarity with impacted communities and carrying a fundraising pitch some saw as tone deaf. Within the organization’s circle of stakeholders, volunteers and employees, many raised concerns privately over whether Federation should take a stronger stand on the issue.

In a private letter obtained by the Journal, 36 alumni of Federation’s Rautenberg New Leaders Project strongly criticized Sanderson’s email for being too passive it its approach.

“We must express our profound disappointment — for some of us, even anger and shame — at ‘Our Commitment to Immigration and Resettlement,’ ” they wrote, adding their voice to a chorus of donors and community members airing their grievances internally.

Addressing themselves Feb. 6 to Sanderson and Julie Platt, chair of Federation’s board of directors, the young leaders asked Sanderson to reconsider his statement. His email, they wrote, “neither specifies the policies against which so many Jewish leaders are battling, nor identifies by name the Muslim and immigrant communities with which we are standing together. In standing silently by, the communication betrays our values as Jews, as Americans, as Angelenos, and as civic ambassadors for the Jewish Federation.”

The authors noted that their “continued voluntary and philanthropic involvement” in Federation programs would be impacted by the response they received.

The letter prompted a Feb. 13 meeting between more than a dozen young leaders and top Federation officials, including Sanderson, Platt and Richard Sandler, chair of the board of trustees for the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) and former L.A. Federation board chairman.

Jay Sanderson

Jay Sanderson

The following day, the letter’s signatories and Federation leadership issued a joint statement to the Journal.

“While we don’t agree on everything, we all believe that we must continue to engage with each other honestly and openly and to find more ways to help those in need,” they said in the statement. “Working together in ways that reflect our shared Jewish values, we will find new and meaningful opportunities to stand with our community and with all Angelenos.”

According to those present, the meeting was a productive and cordial one.

“We had a group of very committed passionate leaders come, and we listened, and we talked about how we can be proactive,” Sanderson told the Journal on Feb. 14. Unlike other Jewish organizations, he said, “we’re not in the statement business.”

He stood by his Feb. 2 email, saying, “We’re a mission-driven organization that lets our work make the statement.” He made this point in the original note to the community: “Our Federation’s statement on immigration was made 104 years ago when we made the rescue and resettlement of immigrants — like our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents — a top priority,” he wrote.

He said that of the people who have responded to the email, the vast majority were positive responses.

“Oftentimes people in the community get fixated on statements,” he said, “and what I’ve learned in my career is the most successful advocacy oftentimes happens quietly, oftentimes happens behind closed doors.”

Sandler told the Journal he supported the L.A. Federation’s decision to refrain from issuing a statement on the executive order.

“Federations really should not get involved in making statements one way or another, because they need not get distracted from the work Federations are supposed to do,” he said, adding that political statements inevitably upset some Federation donors.

Some Jewish Federations decided to weigh in anyway, including the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, which submitted an amicus brief to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, asking it to uphold a lower court’s ruling that blocked Trump’s executive order. But JFNA, the umbrella organization for all North American Federations, remained silent on the issue.

Sandler praised Sanderson’s Feb. 2 email as “very measured” adding that “it talks about what Federations do: that we don’t ignore these issues but we’re not going to get involved in the debate.”

The conversation around Sanderson’s letter mirrored an earlier one, from July 2015, when a Federation statement opposing the Iran nuclear agreement met with backlash from community members who supported it. The Iran deal statement raised similar questions over when, if at all, it is appropriate for a body catering to the entire L.A. Jewish community to make political pronouncements.

“That statement was a learning process for us.… It made us look at who we are and what our role in the community is, and our role in the community is to be out front and doing the work,” Sanderson told the Journal.

Protocols in place now require a statement to be reviewed by the L.A. Federation’s board prior to being released. Since Sanderson’s email was not a statement, but rather a regular bi-weekly update to community members, those protocols did not apply, he said.

But one notable difference has been the full-throated opposition with which the organized Jewish community met the refugee order, while opinions on the Iran deal straddled both sides. The letter from young Federation leaders noted “the broad consensus we have already seen from Reform and Orthodox Jews” on the refugee order and which, in theory, would have given Sanderson political cover to come out in opposition.

“This was a case where I thought you’d have fairly strong unanimity of thinking here,” said Steven Windmueller, a professor emeritus at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and an expert on Jewish political life.

Sanderson said the L.A. Federation will continue to abstain from political debates.

“We’ve been asked to make public policy statements in the last month five times, including positions from the right and positions from the left,” he said. “We would be a whirling dervish if we reacted to all those things.”