Jewish politics are eviscerating Jewish leaders. Moral courage and open discourse in Jewish institutions are under threat, with ramifications for the immediate health of those institutions, for the future leadership of North American Jews and for the success of the community as a whole. We in the organized Jewish community have the talent, agency, resources, and responsibility to address these threats; and it is time for us to take on this challenge.
Jewish communal leaders are pushed, as part of a rising partisan divide, to constantly take stands on contentious political issues even beyond the scope of their missions. And then they are punished by one side, or other or both as their statements emerge into an impossible political and media climate.
Jewish institutions are caught in a constant cycle of public response to the news cycle yet are still frequently “called out” for failure to take the “right” stand in a clear and timely way.
Purity tests are becoming more stringent and inimical to effective, inclusive communal leadership, while marginal activists carry out deliberate smear campaigns of personal delegitimization, using social media, press releases, and other cheap means of publicity.
Our famous capacity for healthy disagreement is failing. The range of ideas and ideologies that form contemporary Jewish public discourse is narrowing, and the incentives for the types of courageous leadership that will generate a creative, diverse Jewish future, have been replaced with incentives for risk-avoidance.
As a result of this social climate, some rabbis and other communal leaders are frequently choosing to censor themselves or to speak with less conviction. This takes its toll on collective, thoughtful public leadership on crucial issues.
For those who choose not to diminish their voice, the constant demands to “take a moral stand” muddy the waters for those moments that actually require moral clarity.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, given these vicissitudes, there is growing anecdotal evidence that fewer and fewer qualified and capable leaders are seeking particular leadership roles, in the belief that the work involved in these roles is too political, unrewarding, and dangerous. Until now, consequences to individual leaders have been widely heard, but of even greater importance are the silent effects already damaging the entire Jewish community.
Since January 2018, the Courageous Leadership project has convened a variety of communal leaders to share our hypotheses about this problem, to enrich our own learning, and to begin the process of building a diverse coalition that is rooted in sober awareness. As a culmination of the first stage of our research, we wrote a White Paper to outline our research into this issue; offer an analysis of the forces that are creating this problem; and then provide concrete recommendations.