Jewish Leaders Mustn't Be Afraid to Reject Unethical Policies

Disheartening as it must be for those still committed to the organization, maybe Morrisons letter will serve as a flaming baton of change -- if others are ready to grasp it and run with it.

I didn't know Seth Morrison before last week, but now when I attend board and committee meetings, it's Seth that I think about.

In an article in The Forward, Morrison announced his decision to step down from the board of directors of the Washington metropolitan area's Jewish National Fund.

Israeli flag in Silwan - Emil Salman - December 2011
Emil Salman

His action was meant to protest the JNF-KKLs widely-publicized move to expel the Sumarin family from their home in East Jerusalem.

It wasnt the first time Morrison had publicly criticized JNF policy. In a January 2011 op-ed in the Jerusalem Post, Morrison was measured in his criticism of the organization, at that time around the issue of Bedouin land claims.

The JNFs reputation and ability to effect positive change would be enhanced by a decision not to plant trees on lands that are in dispute with the Bedouin, he wrote. But almost a year later, Morrison clearly felt that the organization had pursued actions that required a much harsher response than a gently-chiding op-ed.

In an interview over the weekend, I asked Morrison how he came to his decision to resign from the board.

I felt three things," he told me. "I did not have the power to change it from within; this was just more egregious than I could tolerate, and as someone who works in media and marketing...I felt that by going public with the resignation I could do more to stop these evictions than I could by staying and advocating against them.

Whether to pull a seat up to the table and evoke change from within, or whether to protest and try to bring about change from the outside, is something we should all regularly be asking ourselves in whatever capacities we operate communally. It is also a question with which I personally and frequently grapple.

As a political scientist as well as a blogger, columnist and public commentator, I have been trained to analyze and critique. Most public commentators and intellectuals hope our words -- about why, how, and what shall be -- will eventually have an impact.

But I am not only an arms-length commentator. I am also active in Jewish communal leadership on various issues and in various organizations. Like Seth, I consider myself to be a progressive. And like Seth, I am drawn to getting involved in the mainstream as well. I like to see if I can invest these organizations with the change ethic that I hold dear.

Two years ago, my community sponsored Brigitte Gabriel, a noted Islamophobe, to speak. I wasnt on the committee that made the unfortunate selection of speaker, but I was invited to captain a table for the event. After unsuccessfully trying to get the committee to reconsider its choice of speaker, I grudgingly accepted the task. In the end, the event was even more disturbing, and Gabriels remarks more hateful, than I had feared.

A few days later, I ran into an acquaintance at my neighborhood cafe and recounted the events to her. What do you expect? she said. You hang out with those people, youre gonna get what you got. Her cynical response helped spur me to actually redouble my efforts to stay involved. Because once cynicism sets in, the game is over.

With the tireless help of others, I ultimately achieved what initially seemed an unlikely outcome: the issuing of a community-wide letter from the head of the organization distancing it from Gabriels hateful views.

Fast-forward to these past few weeks: like many others, I had been following the Sumarin family eviction issue with great concern. I had attempted to share the controversial JNF issues with another friend who is a highly committed JNF supporter. But it was only when Morrisons open letter was published in The Forward that I felt I finally had an appropriate instrument, one that struck the right note, one that was written by an insider.

Disheartening as it must be for those still committed to the organization, maybe Morrisons letter will serve as a flaming baton of change -- if others are ready to grasp it and run with it.

Morrison is now putting his efforts towards running for one of the vacant positions on the J Street board. And while he made clear to me that quitting one board and running for another were totally parallel and unrelated, (in fact he had applied to the J Street board weeks before coverage appeared about the eviction) to me they tell a story of the inherent tension between being committed to big-tent politics and progressive values. How big can the tent actually be before it collapses?

Its never easy to stand apart from a group to which one has committed resources and through which one has no doubt developed relationships. But if its never an option; if our organizational energies are meant to be unconditional love -- like that between parents and children, we forfeit the ultimate tools of democratic and civil change. No one said change is always easy, and no one said its never a little messy along the way.