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Being Better Allies

How does the Jewish non-profit community fail at allyship so often?

As someone who has been involved with the Jewish community a various levels for over 20 years now, I feel like I should say something. I have seen many strong advocates come and go, I have seen some of them maintain and strengthen their ties and advocacy, but most either disappear or worse become disillusioned or even worse, go to the other side.

Why? Because being an ally in any struggle is often conditional, usually based on “common values,” which to be blunt is not the firmest foundation to begin with. When dealing with something like Zionism, which in its most simple modern form is just the belief in and the desire to create and maintain a Jewish state with self determination on Jewish ancestral land, it’s important to note that even that simple definition allows for a plurality of thought and opinions that come from diverse and sometimes countering opinions and ideologies. Jews are perhaps the least monolithic people in existence, so other than being Jewish, finding a “uniter” is next to impossible.

For instance, I come to my Zionism from a firm belief in the rights of indigenous peoples to have the ability to protect their sacred places and perpetuate their languages and beliefs on their own ancestral lands. This would not really be compatible with someone who believes Israel should exist because its an “outpost of western democracy,” and really just a colony that perpetuates “Judeo Christian values.” This is problematic because other than the agreement that Israel should exist, the basis for support of that existence would be vastly different. I think Israel should exist because its the greatest story of colonial decolonizing in history. The Jews not only forced the British to leave, but then fought off 5 Arab armies and created a thriving modern nation, where Jews can be Jews without interference from non Jews.

This brings me to the topic. I believe it often fails for several reasons.

Firstly, throughout their own history, one of the most important lessons Jews have had to learn is that they cannot rely on anyone else to protect them. Their entire history consists of holidays that can be described as “They tried to kill us, we miraculously survived, lets eat.” Such a history does not lend itself to trusting outsiders, not even well meaning ones. This mistrust can come off as xenophobic and “ethno-supremacist” when viewed by people who are predisposed towards being antisemitic in the first place. I call this the “they call themselves the chosen people” trope. Many Europeans have an ingrained antisemitism from being raised Christian and being taught that the Jews call themselves chosen out of hubris. The idea that “they just think they are better than me” is much easier to believe than to try to understand generations of generational trauma created by constant betrayals. For a potential ally, it’s not that they don’t trust you, it’s just that for millennia they couldn’t trust anyone. Their trust can be earned but it is not easy and it will not be universal (nothing with Jews ever is by the way).

Secondly, like any community, the Jews are not monolithic. When working with Jews I liken it to trying to herd cats; cats with add and oppositional defiance disorder. This means no matter what, you will have Jews who will disagree with whatever you are doing, even if they agree, because their entire ethos is one of argumentation. Do not take it personally. Often it will be annoying but sometimes it can be valuable as you will be able to find holes in your ideas before you implement them. So instead of thinking of it as wasted time and effort, try to think of it as figuring out issues before they arise. Non Jews are not used to having our suggestions and ideas torn apart before they are implemented so some people take it personally.

Thirdly, if you have ever been to a restaurant with a group of Jews you will understand this more easily. Having always been the minority, they have learned that they have to be vocal to get anything done and this can manifest as what seems to be fussiness and pickiness and even bossiness. I developed a strategy when going to restaurant with my Jewish friends in Canada and the States; when the waitress comes, I excuse myself and go to the restroom. That way, I can avoid becoming annoyed. Then I come back and do my own order. I did learn, though, that when working on projects, this strategy doesn’t work. You have to just learn to be very firm about things you are not willing to compromise on.

Fourthly, when working in the Jewish non-profit world, the vast majority of these organizations are run by people who created them from nothing, so they are going to be very opinionated on “what works.” Often they will be highly intelligent people who have built successful organizations, so they are actually harder to work with because they think “What we do works,” and thus will be uncomfortable with, and unwilling to, try things that might seem out of the box; or if willing, they will try to “adjust them” sometimes into being unrecognizable. As someone who has worked with Jewish organizations a lot, they tend to be too concerned with credit and the opinions of donors and not concerned enough with actual effectiveness. It’s probably the biggest reason why non-profits rarely work well together in the same space even though we all fight for the same cause. This also means the people in charge tend to be control freaks, which is somewhat understandable if they are successful. Less so when they are not. Having worked for one who was not successful in the slightest, my level of frustration at being told to do things that were clearly counterproductive was off the charts. Being told to be less controversial by the CEO was only mitigated by my actual boss telling him “You don’t hire Don Cherry and then tell him not to be Don Cherry.”

Fifthly, Jewish organizations are, in general very risk averse. They generally have a seat at the table even if it’s a shitty seat at the far side of the table, and they are rarely willing to risk that seat as it was hard won. This is why for decades the mainstream Jewish organizations did mostly “behind the scenes” advocacy and rarely did anything visible unless it was fundraising. They also often try to do too many things in order to appeal to a larger pool of donors. This leads to serious issues as sometimes these things are counterproductive. For instance, some of them try to do government outreach AND advocacy, but outreach means building relationships and comfort levels slowly and behind closed doors while advocacy often means being very visible and often motivating people by making them uncomfortable by drawing attention to things that need changing. The best advocates are not by nature quiet and introverted. As an ally, it’s often hard to understand that the very thing that drew the Jewish community to you is often why they won’t platform you after the initial honeymoon phase is over.

That leads me to the final one. In the interest of brevity, I had to limit this to Tokenism.

There is a hierarchy of tokenism, and it’s very easy to get bogged down or discouraged by it. Because there are so few Jews, you would think strong Jewish voices would be more promoted, but they aren’t. Usually those voices are given solid jobs, but since they aren’t really promoted. They end up in desk jobs where their talents are not fully utilized. Then you have “Jews of Color,” who more recently have gained prominence as the rise of identity politics became stronger. Then you have at various levels the non-Jewish supporters of Israel, mostly based, it would seem, on how many boxes they check to counter the progressive obsession with victimhood.

Thankfully grassroots Jews have figured out that the best way to build bridges is to simply be yourselves and make friends with people, otherwise only Hashem knows where we would be right now.

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