Debate over the Obama administration’s diplomatic agreement with Iran, reached in conjunction with five other nations, is creating significant tension within the American Jewish community. Much of this tension stems from the
fact that many Jewish institutions are publicly opposing the deal when, according to multiple surveys, a majority of American Jews support it.
This divide between Jewish institutions and the larger community has led many to ask: Why are Jewish organizations not representing the communities they’re charged to serve?
Indeed, 51 local Jewish Federations across North America — which invest in building inclusive communities — have made public statements about the Iran deal. Of these, 20 are outright opposing it, most question its efficacy, and not a single one is supporting the deal. This defying of public opinion in the Jewish community isn’t reserved to Federations. Many of America’s largest Jewish organizations are opposing the Iran deal, such as the American Jewish Committee (AJC), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA).
However, not every Jewish organization has taken a divisive political stance on the Iran deal. A prime example is the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, which has actively sought balanced speakers on the topic and whose recent statement on the Iran deal reflects the diversity of opinion among Pittsburgh’s Jews. So why is Pittsburgh one of the few communities to have its signature communal organization not just acknowledge but honor the diverse views of the region’s Jewish residents? The answer might be found by examining why other communities have been unable to mirror Pittsburgh’s inclusiveness.
So what is the principle reason local Federations are taking positions which do not jibe with the communities they serve? The likely answer is troubling: pressure from donors, who tend to lean much more conservatively than the larger Jewish community. This is something the renowned sociologist and polling guru, Steven M. Cohen, noted in his recent analysis of Jewish support for President Barack Obama’s diplomatic achievement:
“The dominant leadership [in American Jewish institutions] is somewhat older and more conservative than Jews on the whole. Perhaps even more important, it disproportionately represents wealthy Jews. Contrary to age-old anti-Semitic propaganda, the wealthy are a small minority of all Jews, but among all Americans, this is a plutocratic age. Those who pay pipers call tunes.”
Even the Jewish Federation of San Diego County admitted as much in its formulation of a welcomed neutral statement, explaining that said neutrality was “out of respect for the diversity of opinion of our donors,” not out of respect for the diverse opinions in the larger community.
Yes, it’s troubling that many Jewish institutions in America are being influenced by conservative donor pressures to break from the communities they serve. However, perhaps even more concerning is that explicitly pluralistic institutions are taking political positions in the first place, particularly on a matter of U.S. foreign policy hotly contested in the American Jewish community. This isn’t just about the United States, though; it’s also about Israel, whose prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been fiercely lobbying Jewish organizations to turn American Jews against the deal.
Pittsburgh is not immune from such pressures, and my hope — as a committed member of the Jewish community —is that this public honoring of progressive voices as equal in value to conservative ones by Pittsburgh’s Federation will continue to be the rule, and not an exception. It’s the only way the Pittsburgh Jewish community will grow and thrive: through passionate inclusion and honest debate.
David Harris-Gershon is a teacher at Community Day School and is the author of “What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?” His work has appeared in The Jerusalem Post, Ha’aretz and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.