Opinions | Federation’s stake in fight for civil rights and social justice

This election cycle reminds us of the aggressive xenophobia and bigotry embedded in our society. Sadly, the American Jewish community has withdrawn from the national conversation involving racial and other issues that must be addressed if we are to have a just society.

When we were growing up in the ’60s, the Jewish community was seen as a major player in the civil rights movement. Rabbis and young people blanketed the South to make our voices heard and to assist the civil rights movement in opposing segregation and racism, while promoting voter registration and tearing down the symbols of hatred, bigotry and segregation.

In the past, we as a Jewish community made a constructive imprint on American society. Jewish America cannot afford to be voiceless in the face of the killing of unarmed people of color (as well as whites) which reflects the deep prejudice that still exists in this country 50 years after the civil rights movement and this nation’s landmark voting rights legislation.

Today, 26 states have enacted Jim Crow-type voting restriction laws that impair the ability of thousands of people to participate in the political process. Those who support these initiatives allege they are doing so in order to eliminate fraud in American elections. Bluntly, this rationale is false. It is undertaken to reduce voting rolls. We, as American Jews, should publicly oppose these legislative and executive actions that undermine the rights of citizens.

We need to be outspoken regarding the events in Ferguson, Missouri, a town that reportedly arrested and fined its poor and black citizens at a disproportionate rate. What an American outrage. Unfortunately, there are many other communities like Ferguson.

We are not suggesting that the Jewish community must address every issue of injustice. But we are imploring the Jewish community to respond to those abuses that are deeply and adversely affecting our freedom and potentially our future as an open democracy.

Beyond race, there are many other policy matters that the Jewish community ought to address if we are to be seen as central players in advancing our country’s future. But, again, local and national Jewish leadership, particularly our federations, have failed to speak out on major policy matters that are critical to the progress and growth of this country.

Our community ought to support educational meritocracy that promotes affordable and truly excellent public education at all levels. We should be outspoken about the growing economic chasm between the very wealthy and the rest of American society. The domination of corporate America over both political parties and our government, in order to advance the interests of their shareholders’ financial well-being at the expense of the public interest, should not be the legacy we leave our children.

Our values as Jews have always been directed to the public interest, to the preservation of this country as a great, enduring democracy that has fostered the greatest golden age for the Jewish people in our history. We should be at the forefront of making this country a free and open society, in which our children and their children will be able to have meaningful lives.

Today, our federations sadly reflect the general political polarization afflicting our country. This is particularly detrimental to the effectiveness of the federation movement and its community relations’ function, locally and nationally. We as a community must resist polarization and stress the need for seeking common-sense solutions.

The changes that have occurred over the past 25 years within our federations have shifted the focus and priorities of our communities away from addressing the issues of the public square. As more emphasis has been given to securing larger gifts, federations have moved away from supporting our historic positions affecting the welfare of society.

Beyond withdrawing from the public arena, we note with concern the reduction of funding of core Jewish community organizations, including Jewish family service agencies, the community center movement and bureaus of Jewish education. In many cases, federations have downsized their boards, excluding key voices of leadership from recipient agencies and other institutions, as well as individuals who reflect the diversity of our community. In general, the impact of all of these changes has been to reduce the effectiveness of local federations and the national movement in fulfilling their roles as locally based community action organizations and nationally oriented opinion leaders on these important policy questions.

In this political season, our communal institutions need to articulate our social values loudly and clearly. As we have witnessed, candidates have demonstrated a shameful display of ignorance, prejudice, racism, intolerance and pandering to the lowest common denominator in our society. It is time for American Jews to provide solid, principled leadership.

George T. Caplan served as president of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles from 1988 to 1990. Steven F. Windmueller was a federation and Jewish Community Relations Council director and former dean of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Los Angeles campus. This essay appeared in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and is reprinted here with the authors’ permission.