A specific focus of this Limmud FSU online session with Hoenlein, the executive vice chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, was the wave of demonstrations across the US.
NEW YORK, NY, June 06, 2020 /Neptune100/ — In a wide-ranging conversation earlier this week that was chaired by Matthew Bronfman, chair of the International Steering Committee of Limmud FSU, Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, discussed topics that ranged from what the Jewish world might look like after the coronavirus lockdown, the ongoing threat posed by Iran, the Trump peace plan, and the impact of the Soviet Jewry campaign of the 1970s and 1980s – in which he was an early activist – on American Jews: “Soviet Jews saved more American Jewish children than the other way round because it brought American Jews into the community; we need to have that kind of altruistic commitment to today’s challenges.”
A specific focus of this, the sixth in a series of conversations with Jewish influencers mounted by Limmud FSU, was the wave of demonstrations across the US. Limmud FSU generally mounts peer-led, volunteer-based gatherings of Jewish learning that specifically reach out to Russian-speaking Jews around the world from Moscow to the US West Coast, and from Europe to Israel. In a project initiated by Limmud FSU founder Chaim Chesler, and produced by Limmud FSU Public Affairs director Natasha Chechik, since the corona lockdown made physical conferences impossible, Limmud FSU has been providing digital e-learning opportunities on Jewish, general – and coronavirus – topics. Sessions have also been arranged by volunteer organizing committees of the festivals. These online gatherings are an opportunity for Russian-speaking Jews to learn – and be – together, virtually.
“We are today facing the most serious moment I remember in five decades,” said Hoenlein, “that are the confluence of several different factors – coming out of 11 weeks of Covid isolation, possible annexation by Israel of parts of the West Bank, the upcoming elections in the US, political divisions, social unrest, economic dislocation and difficulties, and broader manifestations of frustration that find expression in riots.” The results, he argued, were not difficult to predict; “young people are bored, they are out of work, they don’t know if they will work again – and they are being incited by extremist elements.”
Where the Jewish world is concerned, Hoenlein discussed with the moderator Deborah Lipson the broader implications of the expected downturn in philanthropic resources and dilemmas of how to distribute them. “While food and housing of course come first, we cannot forget such needs as security, education, the arts.” Philanthropists and foundations will have to dig deep, he argued, to ensure that community institutions and global projects do not close down. “When things close down they don’t come back,” he said, calling on “thoughtful philanthropic leaders” such as Matthew Bronfman and Aaron G. Frenkel, Limmud FSU president, to help the Jewish world take a wide view, share best practices, and support Jewish communities as they cope with the serious challenges they will face.
He sounded a more optimistic note when discussing the riots that have seized American cities in response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of a policeman in Minneapolis on May 25, and stressed that there have been very few anti-Jewish manifestations. “Only one synagogue in Los Angeles was daubed with Free Palestine slogans,” he said; “the Jewish community was not targeted as the Jewish community – we do not even see evidence of that in New York. While there have been some specific incidents of antisemitism, they have not been widespread.”
Seeking to place what some perceive as antisemitic overtones to the current protests in a wider perspective, and against the long, special relationship between the African American and Jewish communities that dates back to at least the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Hoenlein reminded the worldwide online audience that while a church near the White House was burned, no synagogues have been destroyed in the protests and rioting. Those early days of that special relationship are perhaps best encapsulated by leading Jewish theologian, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, marching alongside Martin Luther King in the Selma civil rights march of 1965. “Yet it remains true today,” Hoenlein noted: “Jews are still disproportionately highly involved in efforts to make society more equitable. Indeed, among those at the protests there are many Jews.”
He acknowledged that there are, today, complex relationships between the African American and Jewish communities in the US. “There are those who link intersectionality to the BDS movement, some leaders of Black Lives Matter have relations with such Black supremacists as Louis Farrakhan. This is a cause for concern, and we should be able to raise them as part of an honest dialogue, but there is a whole array of Black leaders, many of them clergy, who are pro-Israel. We need to focus on building relations with them, and not, as the media often does, focus on those who are critical of Israel and the Jewish community.”
Perhaps, he suggested, it is a reminder that the Jewish community needs to rebuild the coalitions it successfully created with Blacks and Hispanics at the time of the Soviet Jewry campaign, but this time in a reciprocal manner that will examine what each community can do to help the other communities. At a recent peaceful demonstration of the African American community in New York’s Far Rockaway, Hoenlein noted with satisfaction, Black leaders addressed Jews who were demonstrating alongside them and said, “You didn’t need to be here with us but thank you for being here.”