Tragedy aftermath highlights the power of intergroup relations


In the aftermath of the worst anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history, the Jewish community is asking itself how to best counter rising anti-Semitism. How can we ensure that there aren’t other attacks? How do we keep anti-Semitism on the margins of society?

There are numerous tried-and-true ways to combat anti-Semitism and hate violence, from enhanced monitoring of hate groups and tougher hate crimes laws to publicly calling out anti-Semitism, to better security at Jewish institutions. One of the most effective yet unheralded ways to fight anti-Semitism is to build alliances with other religious and ethnic communities. And we American Jews need more of them.

In the past two weeks, Jewish Federations and Jewish Community Relations Councils (JCRCs) have held hundreds of vigils across the country. In the 70 vigils the Jewish Council for Public Affairs has tracked, nearly all of them featured clergy and ethnic leaders offering their condolences and support. In some communities, particularly those that have invested heavily in intergroup relations, there were scores who showed up. These Jewish communities often did little to recruit these non-Jewish leaders to participate. They already knew them and their organizations. They asked to attend.

In a Greater Washington, D.C. vigil, more than 350 faith and ethnic leaders participated in one of several vigils held in the community. The Washington community has been conducting high level intergroup relations for many years, which paid off in spades when it needed the support. But such efforts need not be limited to the bigger, most resourced communities. Just prior to the Pittsburgh shootings, the small but active Jewish community of Reading, Pa., took an interfaith mission to Israel. In the aftermath, the president of the Islamic Center of Reading, Elsayed Elmarzouky, who participated in the mission, offered his full support.

“If it happened in a church or a mosque I wouldn’t expect any less from my Jewish family,” he told his friends in the Jewish community. “It’s a very difficult time for all of us that we have to live in fear despite our own motto, ‘one nation under God.’”

JCPA, the hub of the 125 JCRCs and 16 national agencies, was created to ensure the safety and security of the Jewish community through building strong intergroup relations in order to advance a pluralistic and democratic America and the security of American Jews. Through our 75-year history we have seen the importance of these relationships and alliances. We see four primary purposes in building intergroup ties.

First, intergroup relations allow Jews to sensitize other minorities to ant-Semitism and other communal priorities. As they get to know their Jewish partners, they become aware of our concerns and we of theirs.

Second, intergroup relations send a message to the larger public that Jews cannot be scapegoated. When other groups show their support, they make it clear to all those watching that Jews are an integral part of society, not an alien force. A show of solidarity exposes anti-Semitism as a marginal phenomenon and the anti-Semite as a marginal figure.

Third, building a web of relations ensures that a community has ties to others when they really need them. In several instances around the country, other faith communities came together and created a “ring of peace,” joining hands to form a protective circle around Jewish congregations, showing their care and support. It is in times like these when we not only need physical security, but emotional support from our neighbors. We offer the same in their time of need.

Fourth, intergroup relations amplifies our voice. When we join forces with others on issues of common concern, we become stronger. We have a much better chance of advancing our agenda both domestic and international.

Despite the incredible showing at vigils across the country, those of us who have been doing this work for many years know that the Jewish community cannot take for granted these relationships. They must be nurtured and prioritized. We are currently seeing a generational turn over in the Jewish, civil rights and faith community leaders. In order to ensure the safety and security of the Jewish community, and all communities in the United States who are the targets of hate, bigotry and xenophobia, it is important that we strengthen our work with the methodology that we know makes the difference. Now is the time for the Jewish community to double down on intergroup relations. n

David Bernstein is the president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public
Affairs. Melanie Roth Gorelick is the organization’s senior vice president.


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