By Joshua Yudkin
There is a dangerous philosophical debate occurring in society between some weak leaders who have taken a self-serving utilitarian approach to governance and stronger leaders who have committed to a more ethical approach. Whether I look at the presidents of leading universities who, smirkingly, affirmed that calling for genocide can be justified depending on the context or representatives who have refused to denounce rape unconditionally, I cannot help question what leadership means in the status quo.
For me, leadership is merely an extension of our humanity. As social animals, we need interaction and, by extension, community — there is a reason we cannot and do not live in isolation. What differentiates humans from other animals is our humanity, our complex high-level thinking and ethics. Using our complex high-level thinking and guided by our ethics, leadership is about inclusively bringing a group together for a higher purpose, in the service of collective self-actualization.
In simple terms, a self-serving utilitarian leader asserts that, as part of the majority, I will do what is best for the majority — not all persons matter, or at least not equally. An ethical leader posits that, in a radically inclusive manner, I will work on both individual and systemic/structural levels so the entire group can thrive, both individually and collectively. This Kantian deontological commitment to all members, regardless of their quantity, privilege and/or identity, distinguishes an ethical leader.
The recent instances where leaders failed to unconditionally denounce calls for genocide and rape leave us questioning the motives behind such failures. Why? Is it a fear of losing institutional funding or campaign financing? Perhaps an ignorant framing of comparative identity politics, or is it an ancient and deep-seated hatred, namely antisemitism, resurfacing? While Jews will likely never be a numerical majority, we have the same right as any other Americans to safety.
Jewish leadership, previously described as inside-out, begins with self-mastery. Stemming from the belief that we are all created in the image of God, Jewish leadership manifests in stepping up and leading by example. Throughout history, Jews in America have been at the forefront of denouncing and combating racism and discrimination, epitomized in the 20th century by individuals like Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and Jack Greenberg. Neighborly citizens like Goodman and Schwerner were beaten and murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in 1964 for registering African Americans to vote, and lawyers like Jack Greenberg advanced this fight in the courts. Rabbis like Joachim Prinz and Abraham Joshua Heschel modeled Jewish leadership by standing as stalwart allies when opening Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech and marching alongside him from Selma to Montgomery, respectively.
Despite being a minority group, Jewish leadership in American society has only continued to grow since these events. As we read in Morgan Pearlman’s TJP article Nov. 9, we continue to protest and fight racism and discrimination by marching in Black Lives Matter protests, attending Pride parades and participating in women’s marches. We are actively building both radically inclusive and equitable communities. In our local communities, we build sustainable and evidence-based programs addressing social determinants of health like food insecurity, housing instability and disability services for all members. In our global community, I immediately think of the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda that was built by a Jewish woman to address orphans after the 1994 Rwanda Genocide, based on an Israeli model for Holocaust orphans almost 50 years earlier.
Reflecting on this tradition, Jewish leadership emphasizes leaving divine wisdom for future generations. Before Martin Luther King Jr. spoke, Joachim Prinz, the rabbi of Berlin under Nazi Germany, said that “the most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”Today, we are speaking up and with more than just our words. While antisemitism grows and gaslighting continues, so many leaders have showed up, spoken up and taken action to fight hatred. As representatives. As allies. I am inspired by and want to amplify today’s leadership.
During Hanukkah, as we celebrate our enduring community, we light Hanukkah candles to illuminate and amplify beacons of light and hope. This year, we light for our brothers and sisters held hostage who cannot light for themselves. During Hanukkah, we openly celebrate our tradition and peoplehood to commemorate our victory against those who tried and continue to try to diminish, desecrate and delete our tradition and existence. This year, Hanukkah illuminates that calling for genocide is never context-dependent; it is always unequivocally wrong.
Hanukkah is a celebration of our survival and a reminder that our light will always be greater than their darkness.
Dr. Joshua Yudkin currently serves as an executive committee member of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas Community Relations Department and works at the intersection of community building and public health.