Sunday, April 19, 2015


Lee Smith, in a brilliant thought piece in Tablet on April 8 -- "Honey, I Shrunk the Jews" -- suggested that President Obama had managed to "shrink American Jewry" sending his message of our irrelevancy by transmitting his version of the Iran "deal" through a low level Biden advisor. Smith, of course, was joking as he closed his piece with what is obvious to all of us -- we have "shrunk" ourselves. And, it's pitiful...downright pitiful.

Anyone who was engaged in the United Jewish Appeal, z'l, will remember that in our visits to communities, in our solicitations, one constant in our message was that Washington is watching the American Jewish communities weighing our support for Israel by the only data available to them: the amount of financial support we provide our extended mishpacha. Of course, that was just one measure -- a measure we have discarded believing that our financial support for  those running for elective office trumps all else and applauding the strength of the support for Israel, without regard for its motivation, by the Evangelical Christian community. Financial support for Israel? We might claim that it far exceeds today that it exceeds by hundreds of millions of dollars what our allocations once were -- but we have no way of knowing what the amount really is. What we know is this: our communities today are allocating almost $200,000,000 less today than at the time JFNA came into existence -- collective allocations -- even coupled with designated allocations -- which have never been lower in our communal history.

Putting that horrible reality aside, we have also known, but seem to have forgotten, that our strength as a People is founded on our unity, on our recognition that a fist is so much stronger than any finger or fingers. Our unity has been shattered, in large part... by the lack of any unified, collective response to the multiple and growing challenges we as a People face today. Who speaks for us? The leaders of JFNA, who should be our spokespersons, silent for so long they are incapable of inspiring us or our communities, their messages more an embarrassment than a call to action, were they even capable of one. Leaders of too many other organizations so fearful of being out front...actually leading...that they are way behind, trying desperately to catch up...or, more likely, they aren't trying at all.

After what seemed like a decade of self-imposed silence, the chachams at JFNA chose to issue a statement seemingly attacking the Iran "deal" -- the one issue where even I might have urged greater internal review. The result has been serious questioning of the "process," or more to the point, the apparent lack of process, in arriving at at statement signed by Siegal and, duh, Silverman. I guess it's true: consistency is the hobgoblin of tiny minds.

But, if we wish, we can continue to allow Alan Dershowitz or Abe Foxman or Rabbi Eric Yoffie to speak for us, but, really, who, in fact, do these fine men speak for? You and me, maybe, but our communities? Instead, our continental organization can't rouse itself (although its leaders did express "caution" -- I don't have a better descriptive term for their response -- over the Obama/Kerry Iran nuclear "deal" but did so apparently ad hoc) to offer a consensual response.   (I have been reminded by my betters that the JFNA Executive Committee won't be formally abolished until November 2015.) So, it's better, in the view of some, to just stand silent, send out a "Solidarity Mission" once in a while and rely on surrogates to speak never even embracing their statements. Ours is now an organization overwhelmed by its own institutional cowardice and laziness.

The best/worst example of these twin afflictions can be found in JFNA's position on the attempts by J-Street to join the Conference of Presidents -- an abstention. Jeez, the national Jewish college fraternity, AEPi, actually cast a vote, while our "adult" organization chose abstention, prudence, caution. 

That's us today, friends pp abstention, prudence, caution...nothing.



paul jeser said...

Richard - not to cause an argument, but AEPi is much more than a college fraternity. AEPi includes the students but also a large cadre of active and pro-Israel Jewish adults, and they are in the middle of a $1million campaign raising funds for Jewish and Israeli-based institutions and organizations. They deserve to be under the tent - JStreet, for sure, doesn't.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Jeser:

Since you started this--the whole rationale for the Conference is a joke. Why should JINSA, CAMERA and AEPi be in, for example, while the Reconstructionist movement and J-Street be out?

The skew is so painfully obvious and reflects horribly on the Conference as any sort of indicator of US Jewry. Of course, Malcolm Hoenlein has a clear preference for center-right groups (or to the right of that). Based on the membership of the Conference, you'd have no sense of the true organizational pull of US Jewry, let alone of American Jewish viewpoints in the aggregate.

I won't go any further so as not to incur the wrath of Mr. Wexler.

Anonymous said...

The issue is not whether JFNA should take a position on the J Street issue but whether it has the capacity to evaluate or even understand the issue. The majority of Federation CEO's and their senior laity are woefully ignorant on matters of Israeli politics and society, having substituted an admirable love of all things Israel for Informed judgement and critical analysis. We are like grandparents talking about our Grandkids. Unfortunately for Israel and the credibility of Federation younger Jewish activists and a growing number of us veterans demand greater discernment and political sophistication. Richard, you mention for example the 90's argument that the US government pays special attention to the number and amounts of Federation gifts. That was always a silly super Sunday line used to encourage separate women's giving usually listed right after the bubemeiser about legal prohibitions of expenditures over the green line. Now I believe in separate women's giving and my money not going to settlements. However, it always challenged my intellectual credibility as to the reasons we gave for each. In short we have a long history of substituting crass salesmanship and knee jerk populism for thoughtful honesty.

Anonymous said...

I think the last anonymous has simplified the old rationale for women's giving. I, too, was a federation exec in the good old days when that argument was around, but we and most people recognized that was not a good reason we used to encourage women to give their own gift. When a couple told us they wanted to give as a family we told them they were both individuals, perhaps even with different viewpoints on issues. As a result they each should have their own voice, their own vote, and should make their own statement through their own gift even if the net result was the same total dollars. The argument given by the anonymous seems to me as to have a been a way for a solicitor to make an argument without really understanding the importance of individual giving.