Bankole: Jewish leaders should speak out more

Bankole Thompson

President Trump’s latest critique of the American Jewish community for its overwhelming support of Democrats has drawn some fierce responses from some top Jewish organizations in the nation, including the Anti-Defamation League, whose president Jonathan Greenblatt called Trump’s remarks anti-Semitic, noting that the “charge of disloyalty or dual loyalty has been used against Jews for centuries.”

In his attack, Trump said Jews who support Democrats show disloyalty to Israel. While the criticism against majority Jews for supporting Democrats shows a clear lack of understanding of the issues central to the Jewish pilgrimage in America, it underscores the need for Jewish leaders to speak out more on the issues shaping this era, and not merely react to Trump.

When Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu banned Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib from visiting the Jewish state because of their views, there should have been a groundswell of condemnation from all quarters of the American Jewish community for that kind of dictatorial behavior.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers his speech during meeting with businessmen in Kyiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2019.  Israeli opposition leader Benny Gantz’s party signed an agreement with a potential kingmaker that could hurt Netanyahu’s chances of re-election.

The response to Netanyahu's decision read like a religious edict — lukewarm and lacking in passion and zest. No matter their positions on the Israel/Palestinian question, the two members of Congress should have been allowed to visit Israel. A ban on them is an affront to the authority of Congress.

In a democracy, we don’t shut the door on people we disagree with. We open the door and have a rigorous dialogue about the issues that matter. Whenever a political leader slams the door on those they disagree with, it is nothing short of the attributes of dictatorship. I have been greatly disappointed in the leadership of Netanyahu regarding a multitude of issues including his open and blatant disregard of former President Barack Obama, something that I have long conveyed to some members of the Jewish community.

FILE - In this Feb. 5, 2019 file photo, Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., left, joined at right by Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., listen to President Donald Trump's State of the Union speech, at the Capitol in Washington. Israel's prime minister is holding consultations with senior ministers and aides to reevaluate the decision to allow two Democratic Congresswomen to enter the country next week. A government official said Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019, that Benjamin Netanyahu was holding consultations about the upcoming visit of Omar and Tlaib, and that "there is a possibility that Israel will not allow the visit in its current proposed format." (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

I’ve had a long relationship with the Jewish community in southeast Michigan, and I’ve made my opinions known to them as friends would do. But only a few leaders are willing to speak up when the stakes are high.

In fact, at a recent forum I moderated at the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield about white supremacy based on the film SKIN, which was hosted by the ADL, I recalled the Rev. Kenneth Flowers, an African American minister from Detroit, who was on the panel challenging the mostly Jewish audience to speak out more on racist attacks on blacks. Flowers bemoaned to the audience that Jews should be doing more and standing in solidarity with their counterparts in the black community.

But Israel shouldn't be the only thing that gets swift attention of Jewish advocacy groups. They should equally be concerned and take visible roles on local issues facing our region, and especially Detroit given the history of black-Jewish relations.

Jews were instrumental in the founding of the NAACP and Jewish lawyers also worked tirelessly alongside black civil rights leaders in helping break down the walls of Jim Crow. But the relationship between the two communities over the years has often soured. If anything, what is happening in this dispensation should bring the two communities closer because they share a history of oppression and dehumanization.

Several years ago, before the Jewish Community Relations Council merged with the American Jewish Committee, I was invited by then JCRC executive director Robert Cohen to sit on an advisory panel to render my observation and critique of JCRC and what it should represent in the future.

I expressed then my candid views at the Max Fisher Federation building that JCRC needs to decide whether it wants to be seen as a public affairs group that speaks only on the Middle East question, or an entity interested in championing local issues like addressing poverty and educational inequality.

I told the panel that if JCRC must be viewed as a relevant organization in Detroit, it should include in its platform issues that are facing Detroiters, not just Israel and Palestinians.