The Changing Dimensions of Jewish Community Relations in America

Steven Windmueller, Ph. D.

Posted on June 10, 2010 / 28 Sivan 5770

Written by Steven Windmueller, Ph. D.


Just as major new social trends and generational choices are reshaping the landscape of American society, one finds similar transitions taking placing in the field of Jewish political advocacy. Jewish Community relations was seen as a discipline that in some measure served as the barometer of the American Jewish experience. For nearly three decades between the mid 1960’s and the mid 1990’s, political activism defined the status of Jews in America, their success and capacity to access decision-makers and achieve specific political outcomes.

The impact of changing social patterns of affiliation, giving, and commitment shaped in part by a new generation of Jews has fundamentally altered the environment for the conduct of community relations. This field was crafted around a number of core elements. The principle of consensus served to establish the framework by which the community relations agencies arrived at collective and shared action; that unifying element has all but disappeared. A commitment to a particularistic Jewish agenda and at the same time an engagement by the community with a generic public policy protocol dealing with such diverse issues as health care, the environment, economic justice, and human rights served to give balance and integrity to the community relations program. During the primacy of this golden age of Jewish advocacy the collective interests of the Jewish community helped to define the political discourse; this emphasis on the common good has been replaced to a greater degree by a focus on selective interests and individualized institutional political goals, thereby weakening the shared agenda that historically shaped this enterprise. The field endeavored to nurture trusting and longstanding relationships with key community and political elites, just as it understood the importance of coalitional politics where the emphasis was placed on building sustaining partnerships among ethnic and racial groups, religious communities, labor unions, and the business sector.

In its place a type of “boutique politics” has emerged, in part driven by generational influences and a political culture dominated by the “sovereign self” where personal passions and selective group interests have replaced the focus on the collective priorities of the community, and in the process jettisoning or at best marginalizing some of these core principles. Over the course of the past fifteen years, numerous Jewish special interest organizations have emerged reflecting a broad array of domestic and international concerns ranging from the environment to human rights. Where once the major national community relations agencies sought to represent the range of Jewish interests today multiple institutions and websites seek to address particular issues. Trying to even define the central messages that were once essential for Jewish political activism to be successful has given way to multiple voices that today offer at times countervailing themes. As with much of society, the “more is better” syndrome seems to have entered the Jewish public policy world.

In some measure, American Jewry today has two distinctive community relations systems at play. A “red and blue state” phenomenon is now in place. These two distinctive voices are each seeking the center stage competing to define American Jewry’s core interests. The more narrowly-focused agenda of the “red-state” coalition led by AIPAC and supported by such organizations as ADL contrasts with the “blue-state” system offered by JCPA (Jewish Council for Public Affairs) and its allied groups including Jewish Funds for Justice who offer a multi-layered agenda. The former is seeking to frame a “coalition of the supportive” directed specifically toward global issues including fighting international terrorism, world-wide anti-Semitism and anti-Israel activities. It has consciously sought to recruit allies who share some of these core concerns, encompassing Christian evangelical groups and neo-Conservative political voices.

The latter coalition in part incorporates a grassroots effort seeking to create a localized-directed campaign around an array of social justice concerns, at times dodging the complexities of the Middle East situation in favor of domestic and selective international themes that are appear less controversial for their constituencies to absorb.

Just as the policy outcomes are different within these two emerging camps, so too are the decision-making processes associated with these two systems. The red-state focus is highly centralized, offering a top-down system of governance, while the blue-state model has a significant level of communal process, creating a bottom-up approach in managing its outcomes.

In the emergence of this bifurcated system, some old line community relations practices have been abandoned for more immediate and direct outcomes, as both camps seek to play to special interests within the Jewish community and beyond it.

It is possible to argue that the presence of institutional competition and the access to new models of communal participation reflect a healthy level of engagement and growth. However, in an arena where the collective interests of the Jewish community are at stake, the return to a shared agenda remains an essential ingredient for the welfare of the community.

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