Bend the Arc Holds Its First National Convention

A Report by Rabbi George Stern, Executive Director of JSPAN

            There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about the “rightward shift” in the American Jewish community. Whether statistically true or not, it certainly wasn’t evident in Washington, DC, in early June, when 500 progressive Jews gathered for Pursuing Justice, the first national conference of Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice, of which JSPAN is an affiliate. Joining me at the conference were 6 JSPAN board members, an intern, a long-time supporter, and, for a Lobby Day, 6 other Philadelphia area Jews.

            The most searing takeaway for me was the ubiquitous presence of race in talks and workshops, no matter what the issue. In his keynote, Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, clinical professor at New York University School of Law, and author most recently of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, reminded us that 1 in 3 black children are predicted to go to prison, as are 1 in 6 Latinos. The integrity of communities and families cannot possibly be improved without a major overhaul in the criminal justice system, which—especially since the start of the War on Drugs—has been especially harsh on people of color.

            Workshops suggested that positive change depends upon fair distribution of public school funds (Pennsylvania is among the worst states in terms of inequality of education funding), more subsidized housing, and a commitment to increasing, rather than decreasing, meaningful access to the political process and voting. (It’s hard to find a reason other than racism to account for the effects of attempts to restrict voting that followed immediately after the evisceration of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court.)

            I was struck by the number of Jews of color who presented at the conference, reminding us of how much internal work our community has to engage in if we hope to help the country as a whole end the racism that continues to be an albatross about our necks. In fact, one of Stevenson’s most striking suggestions was that all of us, including decision makers, need to “get proximate,” i.e., gain direct experience with the poor and people of color in order to understand the enormous challenges they face simply to live from day to day. Few white Americans, including white Jews, have meaningful contact with people of different socioeconomic, ethnic, and racial groups. Indeed, Jews were among the earliest whites to flee cities, leading to a segregation that is in many ways worse today than 50 years ago.

            During our day on the Hill, we emphasized with both Senators and Representatives the importance of passing the Voting Rights Advancement Act—which would substantially restore provisions of the 1964 Voting Rights Act—and the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act—three provisions of which would reduce strict mandatory minimum sentences for low-level nonviolent federal drug offenses, make retroactive provisions of the Fair Sentencing Act that remedied the wide disparity between powder and crack cocaine sentences (the latter especially harsh in black communities), and ban solitary confinement of juveniles, whose brain development is very adversely affected by such treatment. We urged the House to pass the Freedom of Religion Act, which would block attempts to exclude immigrants, refugees, or travelers to the U.S. on the basis of religion. And on the Senate side, we urged that the Senate do its duty and give Judge Merrick Garland a fair hearing. It may be of interest to our readers that both PA Senators arranged for a meeting with aides, one (Casey’s) who knew of Bend the Arc and JSPAN, the other (Toomey’s) who was a novice Jewish aide from the Main Line with little knowledge of issues we raised. On the House side, only Brendan Boyle gave us an appointment. Bob Brady’s office never responded, and Patrick Meehan’s office refused. By the way, also on the Lobby Day, we participated in a vocal action at the Senate Cafeteria, which, unlike its House counterpart, is not unionized.

            Daily we are reminded how much is at stake in the upcoming election, which seems to be shaping up as a battle between two very different visions of what America is all about. As one who went to college and rabbinical school during the Vietnam era, I recall how important activism, including taking to the streets, was in moving the political needle. Whatever tactics are deemed most effective in 2016, the Bend the Arc conference reminded us how significant our direct involvement in issues of the day is. If not now, when?