In the series of demonstrations that followed the election of Donald Trump, one of the targets of Jewish protestors has been the Jewish Federations of North America. The JFNA building in Washington, for example, was a stopping point in a Nov. 14 march of IfNotNow, a group that until the election focused on opposition to Israeli settlements. Since then, it has tried to rally mainstream Jewish organizations to condemn Trump, his adviser Stephen Bannon and the right-wing extremism that has been associated with camps supporting them.
A change.org petition launched by Jewish Community of Action Against Hate, meanwhile, had garnered 3,800 signatures as of last week, urging the JFNA to condemn Trump’s choice of Bannon. Supporters of the effort have participated in an email and phone campaign directed toward volunteer and professional leaders of JFNA, urging them to pressure their organization to come out against Bannon.
Why have these groups chosen to target JFNA?
JFNA is the umbrella organization for the system of Jewish federations across the United States and Canada. Jewish federations are often viewed as the local community’s central address, since they play a major role in raising funds for communal institutions, communal concerns and the State of Israel.
JFNA has not responded to the individual calls for action, but it did release a statement: “As with every democratically elected official in America, we believe that President-elect Trump needs to be given an opportunity to lead. We are hopeful that his actions align closely with the American values that we hold dear.”
That position probably satisfied no one. But it probably outraged as few people as possible. And that was the idea. The fact is, it isn’t the job of the JFNA — or any local federation, for that matter — to make political statements or to get involved in political issues, particularly since whatever position it takes could offend thousands of donors or policymakers. By way of example, our own Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh sounded an apolitical tone in a statement signed by board chair Cynthia Shapira and president and CEO Jeff Finkelstein emailed to members of the community (see Metro Briefs this week on Page 5). “We stand with all who are targeted by those who seek to divide, demonize and intimidate,” they wrote. Community members should play a “constructive role in helping our nation heal by focusing on that which unites us.”
JFNA is a fundraising organization, focused on the local, national and international needs of the Jewish community. It is not an organization that should join issue with a presidential administration even before it takes its first steps.
There is no shortage of Jewish organizations that readily take political positions, including those whose job it is to track anti-Semitism and hate in general. The ADL, for example, has been doing just that, and has reaped the benefits of those public efforts. Thus, the day after Trump’s election, ADL reportedly received 50 times the number of donations it usually gets in a given day.
We do not oppose peaceful protest. And we are not among those who give Bannon a clean bill of health. But there is enough dispute out there — Republican Jewish Coalition head Matt Brooks, for instance, swears that Bannon “doesn’t have an anti-Semitic bone in his body” — to make calling on an organization such as the JFNA to castigate him and his boss a misguided strategy. JFNA can best do its job when it stays above the fray.