A crisis has enveloped the Jewish Community Relations Councils around the country, according to David Bernstein, the executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella body of JCRCs around the country; and according to a number of JCRC directors quoted in a JTA report on the crisis at the beginning of May.
JCRC directors from Richmond, Dallas, St. Louis, Miami and the San Francisco Bay Area were quoted as representative of the dilemma faced by the 125 JCRCs. The dilemma, as they see it, is this: Consensus is no longer possible in many Jewish communities on hot button issues, such as Israel, guns, health care and immigration.
As a result, JCRCs are ducking many of these issue. “I need to spend my time in the realm of the possible,” one director is quoted as saying. The director can only work on issues around which consensus is possible, and they are often strictly local issues, or issues of secondary importance.
Another JCRC director avoids debate on the immigration question by helping the immigrants already in the city. That is a worthy effort, but for a body whose raison d’etre is to address public policy issues (the very name, “Jewish Council for Public Affairs,” has always meant this), the avoidance of the politics of the immigration issue is an admission of defeat.
“When we speak out on established policy issues, we still risk creating a backlash,” said another director.
The risk is avoidable. The risk is a function of the archaic, alternative-universe methodology of JCRCs: consensus. Congress does not work by consensus as an exclusive methodology. Nor do state legislatures, the Supreme Court of the US, PTAs or synagogue boards. Actually, votes are taken! Some positions are majority positions and some are minority positions.
This apparently is a modus operandi that JCRCs have not considered. But why? Is it any secret that long before the current polarization in American politics, Jews were divided on religious and political lines? Have JCRCs not heard of two Jews, three opinions? Is there anything wrong with this? Is not consensus, as an exclusive methodology, artificial and unrealistic?
“Consensus,” in the calmest of times, often means watering down a position so as to include by some stretch very different points of view. We believe that JCRCs would be more effective, more representative of the Jewish community, and more able to address any issue, however divisive, if, instead of pursuing consensus exclusively or avoiding critical issues, JCRCs simply issued majority and minority opinions. Then, as to the predominant, but not the exclusive, view of any given Jewish community, let the majority represent the community. But let the minority view be publicly expressed, too; and let it be characterized by its dimensions. There is a world of difference between a 51-49 vote, and an 88-12 vote.
This is in the nature of Jewish communal reality. If, on any given issue, there is consensus, fine. But if not, also fine. We cannot imagine the effectiveness of a JCRC being undercut by advocating before a lawmaking body a point of view that is characterized as the majority view of the Jewish community.
We believe it is better to have all views around the Jewish table on even the most controversial issues than to avoid them. For this simple reason: The advocates of both the majority and the minority views on a critical issue, such as guns (just to take one example), are going to go out and advocate their position anyway. So let the discussion be central in the JCRCs, let all views be heard, let all controversies be addressed, and let all positions be officially and openly expressed. Then: Majority rules. Minority still talks.
It’s a much better option than consensus, and a much more realistic one. Rather than JCRCs tying themselves up in knots of frustration over not being able to take a stand on many of the controversies of the day, let them do away with consensus as an exclusive goal and embrace, to quote Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the dignity of difference.
We think that by issuing majority and minority opinions (unless there actually is consensus), JCRCs would gain in relevance, and the credibility of those of its views that do reflect consensus would skyrocket.
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