For the last several weeks, David Bernstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, has been on a de facto tour of Pennsylvania, visiting seven cities all told, including Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, both of which have established and active Jewish community relations councils, or JCRCs.
But the visits to some smaller communities, including York, Redding and Allentown, were intended to help re-establish or relaunch JCRCs in response to the current political and social climate.
“For many years, JCRCs were on the decline,” Bernstein said. “We’re starting to see new JCRCs popping up in cities that were once scaling back, and we feel that it is because Jewish communities are correctly perceiving the need to be externally leveraged and connected.”
Bernstein was in Pittsburgh last week to meet with professional and lay leaders in the community, to talk about improving relations with the African-American community, how best to support immigration policies in the U.S. and the threat of anti-Semitism.
Part of the mission of the JCPA, and the more than 125 JCRCs across the country which are under its umbrella, is to forge and strengthen relationships with other religious and ethnic groups, as well as community civic leaders, because “we can’t afford to be isolated in our own cities,” Bernstein said.
The JCPA recently received a matching grant for its Criminal Justice Reform Initiative from the Leon and Toby Cooperman Family Foundation. That project “seeks both to create a national Jewish effort on criminal justice reform and to strengthen relationships with communities of color,” according to a JCPA news release.
“We are doing a lot on criminal justice reform and African-American/Jewish relations,” Bernstein told the Chronicle. “The Jewish community is not nearly engaged as we once were with the African-American community, and because of that, there is a growing sense of alienation. We have a stake in that relationship and a stake in African-Americans knowing who we are and what we stand for. And that means we have to be engaged in who they are and what they stand for, too.”
Bernstein anticipates funds from the recent grant to “seed a lot of work at the local and state levels, so that local communities are a lot more empowered to engage with African-Americans and build these relationships.”
While the JCPA is not the only Jewish group working to forge relationships with the African-American community, it is one of the only “mainstream Jewish groups in this space,” according to Bernstein.
Bernstein acknowledged the difficulty between the two ethnic groups that arose last year when the Movement for Black Lives published a policy statement that included language condemning Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians, using terms such as “genocide” and “apartheid” to describe the actions of the Jewish state.
Bernstein favors forging connections and communications with the African-American community as a way to combat misunderstanding and misinformation.
“We can either condemn that and hope it goes away or we can find people within the movement to engage and hope that they come to know us and understand us better,” he said. “I favor the latter.”
Examining the Jewish community’s response to contemporary U.S. immigration policy is also prominent on the agenda of the JCPA.
“We’re very concerned about the direction of immigration policy in this country,” Bernstein said. “It’s not just a numbers game. It’s about America’s fundamental narrative and how it sees itself — or doesn’t see itself — as a home for immigrants.
“I think immigration is a bellwether of American tolerance and we are concerned that these cutbacks in immigration will undercut our basic commitment to being a nation of immigrants,” he added. “That said, we have to understand that immigration can create challenges for communities, and we have to be engaged in those challenges as well. No country has an unlimited immigration policy, and neither should the United States. So, we have to be involved in what a thoughtful and reasonable immigration policy looks like.”
In addition to African-American relations and immigration policy, the subjects of anti-Semitism and Israel always loom large for the JCPA.
Bernstein sees anti-Semitic threats coming from both the political left and the right and advises that while both must be addressed, they must be addressed differently.
“One need not speak of the threat of anti-Semitism on the left when dealing with White Supremacy,” he said. “And one need not speak about anti-Semitism from the right when dealing with anti-Israelism. They are very different and they require very different strategies. But they both exist and we have to be in a position to combat them.
“For us to contain anti-Israelism on the left, it requires us to engage with progressive fence-sitters, people who are willing to contemplate a more nuanced perspective on Israel,” Bernstein opined. “And so fundamentally it is an engagement strategy. I think anti-Semitism on the far right is more of an isolationist strategy, to make sure these groups that are small in number but are extremely dangerous remain on the margins of society.”
Because the current political environment is so “polarized,” he said, the JCPA — which seeks to be a voice of the wider Jewish community, beyond party lines — finds itself “doing more work on the fly, helping local Jewish communities respond to emerging challenges,” according to Bernstein.
“We have to be nimble,” he said. “We find it is important to give ourselves space to respond to emerging challenges and not to be so maxed out on issue campaigns that we can’t actually respond to changing environments. I would say our volume of emerging policy challenges has probably tripled after the election, so we have to be able to face those and guide our network to face those as well.
“Sometimes it feels like we are double traumatized,” he continued. “It’s the trauma of the original policy issue and then the trauma of having to navigate the discussion in the Jewish community about it. I think too many Jews upset about the direction of the country engage in a kind of displaced rage in which they attack others similarly concerned but go about it expressing it differently.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at