Solidarity critique deserves nuanced reply

Andrew Rehfeld is President and CEO of Jewish Federation of St. Louis.

By Andrew Rehfeld

Two weeks ago the Jewish Federation of St. Louis issued a statement expressing concern with the recent executive order concerning refugees. The statement enjoyed the broad, if not unanimous support of our organization’s leadership. Since then we have received supportive and critical responses from the community, both of which I value and have learned from. 

One response does concern me. A small number of people in our community asked why the Jewish community speaks up for non-Jewish groups when, as these critics perceive it, those other groups do not stand in solidarity with us. 

I have heard this argument before when Jewish organizations have expressed support for the lives of Palestinians in Israel, Muslims and Christian Arabs in Syria, or African Americans in our own region. 

The argument is troubling to me for four reasons: first it is not true; second, it treats others as an undifferentiated “them”; third, it is targeted primarily at minorities in the United States; and finally, it treats moral action as strategic rather than based on what is the right thing to do. 

To begin with, it is simply untrue that other communities stand idly by when the Jewish community is threatened. 

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A good example came just last month when we responded to the bomb threat and evacuation of our Jewish Community Center. On social media our leadership was asked where the Muslim community had been in our moment of need. Actually, the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis (its central community body) reached out to our leadership personally and also issued this statement to the media: 

“The Islamic Foundation Of Greater St. Louis and the Muslim Community at large is highly concerned about the recent threats to local [JCC] and 30 different Jewish organizations in the country. Thankfully none of the organizations have reported any detection of bombs. We condemn this spate of threats, hoax or not; it speaks of prejudice and creating an atmosphere of fear.  

We stand with our Jewish friends all over the country and ask our law enforcement agencies to apprehend the perpetrators as soon as possible. 

The strength of our country is the diversity of our faiths, ethnic origins and races.  We pledge to defend this diversity with all of our citizens.”

Similarly, when the Movement for Black Lives put forth its platform that contained noxious statements about Israel that we publicly objected to, African-American leadership forcefully denounced those passages in a letter to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

These are just two examples. 

A second concern I have with the argument that “they don’t stand with us” is that it lumps all minority groups into a singular “them.” We know the diversity that exists within our own Jewish community. Other communities also contain a range of voices, some of which agree with positions we take, and others that do not. Speaking of Muslims and African Americans as an undifferentiated “them” fails to appreciate the significant diversity of thought within their communities. 

A third reason I am concerned is that the solidarity critique is targeted primarily at our Muslim and African-American neighbors.  The truth is that our Muslim and African-American neighbors stand with us—and disagree with us—no more or less frequently than our non-minority Christian neighbors do. 

We have close working relationships with many non-minority Christian groups who have stood by our side whether to support Israel or as partners during times of crisis. But non-minority Christian groups are also diverse. Most don’t issue statements when we are targeted and some find solidarity easy while others find it difficult, particularly around Israel. 

Some non-minority Christian groups go so far as to propose resolutions to boycott Israel, resolutions that we have vehemently and actively opposed. And in non-political moments of crisis—like the recent JCC bomb threat—it has been only our Muslim and African-American neighbors who have reached out to express concern. So if one wants to criticize those who do not stand with us, the concern should be aimed far beyond those only in minority communities who are perceived to remain silent. 

In fact, the silence of non-minority Christian groups, or any group, does not concern me because I do not use statements of solidarity as a litmus test of “who’s for us” or “who’s against us.” The truth is that we have strong and longstanding relationships throughout our region that reflect abiding concern for our mutual well-being; I am confident that we would be able to count on them in any time of real need as they can count on our support as well. My own feeling is that minority communities in particular are motivated to reach out to us when we are attacked because like us, they understand better than most what it is means to be a target simply because of who they are and what they believe in. 

This leads to the final reason why, in my view, the solidarity critique misses the mark. Our decision to stand in solidarity with those who need support should not be based on strategic considerations of what “they” have done or will do for us. Rather, our actions should be based on what we believe is the right thing to do. In the case of the recent refugee ban, the Federation believed our history supporting refugees gave us something that was important to say. It was for that reason and not whether we owed something to others, which motivated our leadership to act. 

The Federation’s work will continue to strengthen our community, working for a safe, democratic and Jewish State of Israel, and providing multiple points of access to engage in our tradition—in service to ourselves and others—as part of a life well lived. This will sometimes mean engaging in sensitive issues about which many feel passionate. I will continue to appreciate the respectful feedback on our work, based on facts and not prejudice, and using standards applied equally to all.