David Bernstein takes over next month as president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the voice of the Jewish federations’ 125 Jewish community relations councils on domestic and international issues, and which represents 14 national organizations.
A longtime Jewish advocacy professional, Bernstein was president of Culture Solutions LLC, which helps Jewish federations and national foundations become more effective, and served as executive director of The David Project, which helps to improve Israel’s image on campuses. In addition, he handled community and government relations at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. This is an edited transcript of an interview with him.
Q.: As executive director of The David Project, you transformed the organization from what was widely considered a right-of-center group to a more centrist organization. How do you see JCPA, and what is your vision for the organization?
A: Before I announce a fully fleshed-out vision for the organization, I am going to go on a six- to eight-week listening tour and speak with all of our key stakeholders — from local JCRCs, to partner organizations, federations, donors and some of our external non-Jewish partners to get a strong sense of where we are today and what the opportunities might be for the future.
Do you have any preliminary ideas?
I’m a believer in depth over breadth. I believe when organizations focus on their chief priorities, they get more done than if they move in too many directions at once.
In recent years, your predecessor, Rabbi Steve Gutow, concentrated on interfaith, poverty and environmental issues. Do you have any favorite issues you would like to stress?
Not at this point. Part of what I would like to do is ask the question, “What policies and issues reflect our highest ideals and values, which ones might be better done by other parties, and how might we best align ourselves with our key external partners.”
Latino organizations are a key partner and are heavily involved in immigration. We should take that into account in setting our own priorities. … America is going to be majority non-white by 2043 and we have to make sure that we know the emerging demographic groups.
Rabbi Gutow has said the most challenging part of this job was trying to bridge the political gaps within the Jewish community on issues relating to Israel. Do you believe these divisions have grown in recent years, and will you similarly try to bridge the gaps?
I do believe we are facing a crisis in the communal conversation around Israel and that we must learn to engage in much more civil discourse as a community. The one thing the vast majority of us have in common is a profound commitment to Israel’s well-being — and that is a great place to start the conversation.
There are those who have been critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Do you share that view?
I doubt there is anybody alive who agrees with every policy undertaken by every Israeli government, and I think there is room for Jewish leaders to express their concerns about a particular policy. But my focus is going to be on strengthening our engagement and advocacy efforts in behalf of Israel and in making sure there is civil discourse among Jews.
One of the JCPA’s major initiatives is the Israel Action Network, an outreach and response group devoted to countering perceived assaults on Israel’s legitimacy. Do you believe it has been effective?
My understanding is that it has been extremely effective in developing community strategy and action around BDS [Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel]. I also think it is important moving forward that the community relations movement focus on preventive medicine in strengthening our connections with current and potential allies for Israel.
You have expressed concern that in the quest to counter BDS, too much effort is spent trying to build ties with left-wing groups at the expense of the center-left. What role do you see the JCPA taking in the BDS battle?
I think engaging with center-left groups helps build a firewall against radical groups that are pushing for BDS. We can reach out to key parties on the center-left and help encourage the community relations movements around the country to do the same.