When issues surrounding "Who Is A Jew" have arisen over the past decades, our federation system has spoken as one. Modifications to the Israeli Law of Return have brought us together in a unified and organized manner -- in fact, some of the old CJF-era organizational activities bringing North American Jewish leaders and major donors to the halls of the Knesset were among its finest hours. The firestorm the issue can create has been rekindled with the introduction of new legislation in the Knesset and JFNA is there on our behalf...sort of.
Our leaders sent a letter to the Prime Minister on 10 March -- unless you are a Federation President or CEO, you may not have seen it. It is a strong letter never describing the facts on which arguments such as "[S]ome of the changes currently being debated cross the line of acceptability and present a significant affront to our entire community." Tough stuff...but what exactly do you oppose? (For a cogent explanation of the serious issues raised by the draft legislation, visit http://www.masorti.org/; for tachlis on how the legislation is being handled, see Natan Sharansky's comprehensive analysis in his Memo to the JAFI Board of Governors earlier this week.)
Here is how I envision the original letter was received in the Office of the Prime Minister:
Prime Minister Netanyahu: 'Hey, guys, could you come in here?' (They rush to his side.) 'What the hell is The Jewish Federations of North America?'"
An Aide: "You know, boss. It used to be the United Jewish Communities, and before that it was UJA and the Council of...."
"OK, OK," said the PM. "Wait until you read this letter -- it's almost incomprehensible. Can you tell me what this sentence means." He shows his staff the JFNA letter: "The Law of Return impacts not only the citizens of Israel, but the entire Jewish people. As such, it should be obvious and natural that we form part of the discussions His Excellency Binyamin on any potential changes. The fact that we have not been part of the process is highly disturbing." (the sentences are exactly as in the letter sent to the Prime Minister)
The Prime Minister: "I must be 'His Excellency Binyamin' but what are they talking about? I only went to schools in America for a few years long ago, but I could still write a better letter in English in my sleep."
The PM continued: "OK, I'll send them a letter back. Insert 'Her Majesty Kathy' in the middle of a sentence somewhere. Let's get back to business. Ask Natan to come in; we're working with the Jewish Agency on this Law of Return matter. Let them know."
OK. Seriously now. JFNA a day after it "hand delivered" the original corrected the letter deleting the insert that made it more incomprehensible than otherwise. Certainly JFNA is aware that the Jewish Agency has been at the forefront in defense of the Law of Return -- in the past and today. Did you read anywhere a reference to JAFI in the JFNA letter? Oh, wait a minute, there it is -- Natan Sharansky was a copy recipient.
If you are a Board Member of JFNA, sorry, you didn't get a copy of this magnificent letter. A minor oversight somewhat corrected by the Leadership Briefing you did receive late in the day on March 10. But, my friends, the issues surrounding The Law of Return are so critical to us, to our children and grandchildren they deserved a face-to-face meeting among federation leaders, Jewish Agency leaders and the Prime Minister -- a letter (and, in particular, a letter like the one our leaders sent) is a poor alternative unworthy of our concerns.
By Thursday, the tempest had subsided, in part because the Knesset was not in session; in part because the bill's chief sponsor may have been influenced by Chairman Sharansky's efforts. Let us work assiduously to assure that this legislation remains bottled up. Wouldn't it be an excellent idea for our organization's Chairs to organize a Mission of federation lay and professional leaders, led by Manning and Gelman to join together in Jerusalem to confront this issue head on...or don't we do that any more? (A later Briefing disclosed that federation leaders made their concerns known to the Bill's sponsor -- those federation leaders identified at the top of the Briefing were "Natan Sharansky and Rebecca Caspi." One would never know that meetings were arranged through the good offices of the Chairman of the Executive. Only in the final paragraphs were real federation leaders -- from LA, Dallas and St. Louis -- mentioned in passing. Strange.The entire JFNA assault -- weird.)