Back in the day, in 1996 or 1997, Tom Friedman, the same Israel basher then as he is today, wrote some particularly scathing attacks on the Israeli Prime Minister. They were not of the "bought and paid for" or "engineered" as recently, but ugly and harsh and unreasoned. Other than our protests to and in The New York Times and our public and private outrage, there was little that the organized Jewish community could do. I was the United Jewish Appeal National Chairman at the time.
I thought about the hundreds of thousands of dollars in speakers fees our system had paid to Friedman over the years. I called the professional responsible for UJA's Speakers Bureau and asked her for Tom Friedman's direct line at The Times. She said, as I recall, "why don't I give you his agent's number." I said that wouldn't do, and that I would call her back later. I then reached Friedman at his desk. "Tom," I said, "We met at (I think it was) the UJA Palm Beach Event last month. I am the UJA Chair. I wanted to call you personally to tell you directly that so long as I am Chair, you will not speak at another United Jewish Appeal Event." Friedman responded, "How did you get this number?" I then told him that if I had the power to do so, he would not speak at another Jewish Federation event as his then recent attacks on Israel and its Prime Minister were reprehensible, inexplicable and unforgivable. As I recall, he hung up on me.
Friedman did not speak at a UJA event ever again. My recollection is that the CJF issued a public rebuke of Friedman, an unusual act for the Council. Today, we have heard strong public admonitions from the American Jewish Committee and ADL and others, but JCPA, bought and paid for by the federations...nothing, even as The Jewish Week, in a strong and balanced editorial, accused Friedman and the NYT of dangerous words of delegitimization. And, from our JFNA? The organization that was constructed to be, at least in part, our spokesperson...mute...can't find its voice. Too busy with Tribefest or the GPT, (JFNA's "highest priority," we have been told). Tragic.
But, long after the fact, JFNA issued a strong statement against the increased fundamentalist violence in Israel itself -- what one of my friends characterized as "leading from behind." It was an excellent statement but how many fingers had to test the direction of the wind before these excellent strong words were written. Then, we are promised, by the Sr. V-P, Israel and Overseas, that she and Jerry "...will be meeting...with top government officials and political leaders to share our concerns about the damage that recent events can have on the Israel-Diaspora relationship and to offer our help and support to those seeking to heal these gaps." As was the case in JFNA's only confrontation with the political process in Israel over the "Who is a Jew" issue, the professionals, without a playbook want to go it alone. Not even a thought given to mobilizing JFNA let alone federation lay leadership on issues that affect us -- and, why? Because they don't know how. Is there still a JFNA Israel and Overseas Committee, Commission or Work Group? (We know there is a lay Chair...JFNA told us so.) If so, what is its function? Can it be mobilized? This is a terrible time for those who are sightless to be leading the blind...or presuming we are so.
The times cry out for leaders to lead...instead, we throw $30.3 million of our donors precious gifts in the air and hope it lands some place we might care about. We're the drunken sailors of Jewish communal life.