National communal lobbyist brings social justice pitch to Pittsburgh
When Rabbi Steve Gutow met with Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, he gave her a mezuzah; when he met with the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, he gave officials a message.
The president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the national public affairs arm of the organized Jewish community, was in Pittsburgh last week to discuss efforts to keep the security of Israel top on the minds of policymakers. His visit was coordinated by the Federation’s Community Relations Council.
In his remarks to officials, Gutow pointed to Israel’s recent war in Gaza as presenting new challenges.
“Israel just went through as difficult a time as any of us can imagine and although no one can argue she had a right and a duty to defend herself and her people, still the world does not always see truth when it comes to a more powerful adversary who, in order to defend her own people, had to engage in asymmetric warfare killing many civilians in this defense,” he said.
Despite global efforts to inform, Gutow claimed that “this reality seems lost to many in the world.”
In disseminating information on the situation in Israel, Gutow and JCPA have relied upon public demonstrations and other campaigns. During the recent war, JCPA helped organize rallies nationwide. Gutow noted, for instance, that 2,500 people attended Pittsburgh’s rally at the JCC in Squirrel Hill.
During the same period, Gutow and JCPA made weekly calls to state and national political leaders, as well as Jewish community relations directors to discuss contemporary concerns.
Moving forward, two matters still trouble Gutow: Iran’s nuclear activity and the de-legitimization of Israel. Regarding the former, Gutow admitted that time will tell whether the world’s response to Iran will be enough.
“We will know soon enough,” he said, “but that concern must also occupy our minds as we march into the next year.”
Regarding Israel’s public relations battle, Gutow worries that the “next frontier of the BDS movement may be to convince blacks and Latinos to come over to the Palestinian side by calling Israel a white, racist state,” he said.
On a recent trip to St. Louis, Gutow learned that some in Ferguson, Mo., are already paralleling Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to locally experienced racism.
Gutow travels often. As the leader of JCPA, an organization with 14 national and 125 local independent partner agencies, he represents the “united voice of the organized Jewish community.” As such, Gutow regularly encounters political figures and celebrities. In 2012, he, George Clooney, Dick Gregory, Martin Luther King III and four congressmen were arrested and imprisoned for protesting at the Sudanese Embassy in Washington, D.C.
In 2013, he more peacefully presented National Security Advisor Susan Rice with a mezuzah for her support of Israel.
“The leaders from the Jewish groups wanted to give her something to feel close to us by,” he said.
Despite Gutow’s position within public life, his amiable personality, unpretentiousness, and Texan drawl foster an immediate likability.
“I was bred, born, and raised in Dallas,” he said.
And though he now resides in New York, when asked how often he returns to the Lone Star State, Gutow replied, “As much as I can. I love Texas.”
Gutow’s Pittsburgh stay was brief yet memorable. For those he encountered at the Federation’s office in Oakland, ringing louder than his accent and uncanny wit was an explicit message.
“We cannot become a community of old Jews — our younger folk care deeply about social justice and if we are to keep them on board, we need an expansive but carefully thought out agenda,” he said. “The JCPA and your CRC are essential to an American and Pittsburgh Jewish community that can fight the battles we need to fight, hold onto the friends we must maintain, and protect Israel in her difficult moments.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.