Monday, January 21, 2002

How Many Tables Please?

Since I was somehow involved in its creation, it was good to get an invitation to the 25th Anniversary Dinner of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, scheduled for February 27 at the Plaza. The accompanying “Dear Marvin” letter had the specimen signatures of eight past presidents of the JCRC, all people of distinction, and it concluded, “We look forward to speaking with you about your important contribution to this worthwhile cause.”

Except for money, the JCRC is not interested in my contribution or anyone else’s. In any case, I made an important contribution to the cause long ago and it was ignored and forgotten long ago. JCRC has embraced an elitism that is, to be generous, unbecoming for an agency that purports to represent Jews around the city. Although it has some good people on staff and some useful accomplishments, by being Manhattan-based in as extreme a manner as can be imagined and by confusing fame and wealth with Jewish leadership, JCRC has distanced itself from the mission that was central to its establishment and has violated its trust.

What’s wrong is immediately evident in the dinner invitation. For a mere $100,000, the “dinner sponsor” gets two tables for ten and the back cover of the dinner journal. Half of this amount gets the inside back cover and one table. The ordinary folks – if any show up – can have tickets at the bargain basement charge of $750 per seat. In all, the dinner is an exercise in fundraising overkill, a distortion of what charity is about or for. The JCRC does not need or deserve the funds that it is soliciting.

When New York Jews first established a community council or the Kehillah in the early years of the last century, Dr. Judah Magnes who was its key leader insisted on the inclusion in a significant way of Lower East Side Jews. He did not want the group to be the exclusive province of uptown, affluent Jews. The Kehillah eventually ran out of steam about 1920 and for a half-century there was no Jewish coordinating council in New York, an anomaly in view of the existence of such agencies in nearly every city in the country with a modest-sized Jewish community.

In the early 1970’s, I suggested to Jack Weiler of blessed memory that he convene an ad hoc group of New York Jewish leaders to meet as necessary to deal with issues of importance to the city’s Jews. The group always met in Mr. Weiler’s office and it had an impact. While I preferred a continuation of this arrangement, in line with my lifelong view of organizational life, others understandably felt that a full-fledged council was needed and so the JCRC came into being.

Mr. Weiler was its principal founder and its major funder. In the more than twenty years of our close friendship, he spoke often of the necessity to avoid an elitist orientation. He wanted a body that would give prominence to those who worked in the community and particularly staff members of local Jewish agencies and not to people whose main claim was their wealth and fame. As one illustration of this feeling, he made a significant gift to allow the JCRC to give recognition and monetary awards to local activists. In the early years of the JCRC, there were, I believe, two modest ceremonies that fulfilled his wishes but there has not been any follow-up since.

What happened with the funds provided by Mr. Weiler remains a mystery. When the JCRC honors Jessica M. Bibliowicz and Rupert Murdoch at the dinner, it might find the rectitude to fulfill its moral and fiduciary obligation and the commitment it gave to Jack Weiler when it accepted his gift.

A key figure in Jewish life who has been involved in the JCRC said to me the other day that the agency is no longer relevant because it has cut itself off from the community. As I have said, there are good staff members who have struggled to keep the agency true to its mission. What is wrong emanates from the top. There is an elitist attitude that elevates celebrityship as it ignores and in a way denigrates those who work in the field.

The JCRC needs a geography lesson and maybe also a history lesson. Of the more than 25 names included in the invitation letter, only one or two live in the boroughs outside of Manhattan. What the Council does not seem to understand is that the serious issues confronting New York Jews arise in their neighborhoods, not in the major brokerage houses, Wall Street law firms, executive suites, Manhattan townhouses or Upper East Side penthouses.

What is at stake is more than propriety or JCRC’s snobbishness as it chooses its leaders, honorees, etc. Crown Heights demonstrates what can go wrong because the agency is out of touch. It is widely recognized that when the riots erupted, JCRC was asleep at the wheel. Its initial reaction was to play down, if not to ignore, the pleas of local Jews for help.

This is but the most painful example of a painful reality. Whatever the reasons for elitism elsewhere in organized American Jewish life, the Jewish Relations Council must operate differently. That was the original intention. It’s sad to see a trust so badly violated.

Of course, JCRC’s machers don’t see it this way. They’ll have some unkind words to say about me and go about their dinner with speeches extolling themselves. Doubtlessly, the event will be a financial success. But after all of the self-congratulation, what will remain of the JCRC’s legacy is another matter.

These lines are written in memory of Jack D. Weiler, a great philanthropist whose friendship and kindness I shall always cherish.

Thursday, January 10, 2002

Thou Shalt Not Kill a Jewish Organization

Am I the only Jew in American who believes that it would be a mitzvah to bump off Jewish organizations? Not a handful or just dozens, but at least several hundred. We have thousands of them in the U.S. and those that are done away with are certain to be quickly replaced. After all, American Jewry has been on an organization binge for more than a century and there are no signs that it is abating.

After forty years of preaching against our mountain of waste, I know that I am a lonely voice in the wilderness. Nor is it much comfort that one day things will change, that our mania for organizations will be recognized for the folly that it is. We live and act in the present and right now I feel quite lonely. This is a puzzlement because it can’t be maintained that we need all of these groups to protect us against our enemies, defend Israel or provide for Jewish continuity. There is, in fact, an inverse correlation between the number of groups and the number of Jews. The only continuity is the survival of an arrangement that is dysfunctional.

This survival is testimony to the power of inertia. Despite their lack of useful things to do, irrelevance, overlap, inability to be creative, many of our organizations exist because that’s the way things have been for so long. We are comfortable with what doesn’t work because it is familiar.

It is recognized nearly everywhere in Jewish life, including within their agencies, that the Federation system is in extremis. Things are so bad that the worried machers within the Federation network have borrowed the religious practice of changing the name of the gravely ill in the hope that the Angel of Death will stay away. So we now have the United Jewish Communities. Alas, the patient’s condition continues to worsen. Since our organizations have not completed their living wills, no one has been authorized to pull the plug.

It is not fair to say that our thousands of organizations serve no useful purposes. They keep the unemployment rate down, bolster the travel and lodging industries, help a great number of small businesses and provide ego gratification for an army of machers.

For all of the role of inertia in maintaining that which should be discarded, it remains that overwhelmingly our organizations are Jews by choice. They exist because people want them to exist, because somehow they can come up with money to pay the rent and staff and do what is needed to keep open. This is especially true of the newly-minted nonprofits, many of them the brainchild of the fabulously wealthy philanthropists who have become a dominant force in our communal life. They are, in the main, people with brains, accomplishments and independence and they are not wed to the tired status quo, yet from the look of things they have been co-opted into arrangements that none of them would tolerate in their own business affairs.

American life is awash in downsizing, in powerful corporations becoming smaller or being taken over, companies and organizations going out of business and in the recognition that because things change, what once existed need not exist any longer. What makes the Jewish situation more bizarre still is the role played by our supermachers, men like Michael Steinhardt and the Bronfmans. They have spoken out against retention of the dysfunctional status quo and they have backed alternate arrangements that to an extent side-step our tired bureaucracy, yet they increasingly appear to be involved in a system that they have criticized.

“Entangled” may better describe the fix that they and we are in. The elephantine size, geographic diversity and complexity of our organizational infrastructure make it largely invulnerable to attack or even reform. There is no single entry point to serve as the linchpin for change. Rather, we have the dazzling and dizzying, albeit also decrepit, pattern of intertwined umbrella agencies. The madness of all of this is self-perpetuating.

Isn’t it madness that after having lost half of American Jewry we manage to have perhaps twice the number of organizations that we once had and that we continue to add to the number almost daily? This is a fundamental question that isn’t even raised. For all I know, there may be more adults employed by Jewish organizations and institutions than there are practicing religious Jewish adults in the U.S.

The mountain of waste will start to crumble one day, but given the willingness of too many who give life support to organizations that are barely alive, it is not likely that this will occur any time soon. The more probable short-term scenario is that as more Jews disaffect, we will continue to add new groups to our already bloated infrastructure.

One day, though, we will come to see that we do not need fifty or more allegedly major American Jewish organizations, that spending a couple of hundred million dollars a year on defense organizations does not provide for Jewish security, that our many umbrella organizations are leaking badly and ought to be discarded, that the annual General Assembly is a pathetic exercise in communal irrelevance and folly, that the Federation network is an anachronistic and awfully expensive arrangement, that our public relations are mainly self-deceptions, that to spend more on our bureaucratic infrastructure than on Jewish education is indecent, that smaller may be bigger and more effective, that the Biblical injunction to be fruitful and multiply is not a command to establish more organizations.

Friday, January 04, 2002

The Unpardonable Ms. White

We are a week away from the first anniversary of President Clinton’s last day in office, the day of the midnight pardons that gave additional ammunition to his obsessed army of haters and left his shrinking company of admirers in a state of bewilderment. In addition to the inevitable political and journalistic tumult, there was much prosecutorial activity centered in the Southern District of New York under the direction of Mary Jo White, the U.S. Attorney who has just left office.

Whatever we may think of Mr. Clinton or his actions, he was exercising his constitutional authority, a point that should matter in a democracy, although it hardly deterred Clinton haters, the media and Ms. White. She seized the public relations opportunity and used every resource available to prosecutors to harass and bully, to do all that she could to find the smoking gun that would allow her to claim some scalps. Along the way, there have been steady leaks to the press, in clear violation of Justice Department rules.

The large local office of the FBI which already served as her satrapy was marshaled in service to this noble cause. Between February 1 and September 11, this investigation was the principal task of the FBI, as thousands of agent hours were spent on fruitless assignments. Terrorism and Osama Bin Laden became lesser concerns.

One of Ms. White’s two main targets was the Skwere chassidic community in Rockland County. Several key members of the community had been convicted of fraud in governmental programs and they were serving extended sentences. While there must be no excuses for their wrongdoing, there also should be no excuses for the kind of prosecutorial abuses that occurred in this case along the way, including deliberately misleading statements by Ms. White’s office regarding the dollar amount of the fraud and, most shockingly, language imbued with group hate that was included in governmental documents.

President Clinton did not pardon any of the Skwere. Rather, he reduced their sentences to what similarly convicted persons usually serve. Here, too, he was exercising presidential authority, a circumstance that also deterred Ms. White not at all. She saw crime in the fact that the chassidim had voted nearly as one for Hillary Clinton. The prosecutor thus sinned twice against democracy, for a modest appreciation of the virtues of our system should beget the understanding that how people vote is their right and business. Ms. White unloosed the FBI in an ugly crusade that bore little fruit and has left scars.

In an important way, her techniques are now standard operating procedure for many prosecutors. I believe that the most powerful journalism in the recent period is Dorothy Rabinowitz’s many articles in The Wall Street Journal detailing how from Massachusetts to Washington State zealous prosecutors abused their authority in their fervent determination to track down and punish alleged child abusers. After being programmed and prodded, children told fantastic stories about highly improbable – at times impossible – acts. Innocent people were prosecuted and imprisoned.

These witch hunts bring to mind the more infamous Salem trials, about which Justice Brandeis wrote, “men feared witches and burned women.”

Too much of our criminal justice system is predicated on fear, fear of crime and on the fear that criminals may go free. As a consequence, we give great latitude to prosecutors who, after all, are the good guys going after the bad guys. We have come to tolerate practices that are wrongful. Despite a steady and shocking flow of incontrovertible stories about doctored evidence, FBI mistakes and worse, prosecutorial overreaching, wrongful convictions and so much else along the same lines, we refuse to reform or even reflect seriously on a system that is in much need of repair.

We have come to routinely accept practices that I believe are alien to the ideal of justice. Senator Harrison William of New Jersey and ABSCAM notoriety died recently, largely forgotten and unmourned. Also forgotten is that ABSCAM was in its entirety a governmentally manufactured crime. Entrapment is now considered proper and we blithefully allow persons who are caught red-handed in criminal acts to purchase leniency by providing testimony against higher-ups who could not be convicted without their testimony. This is an open invitation to exaggeration and lying and both of these elements are real prospects whenever such testimony is offered. For whatever it is worth, I believe that Alfred Taubman of Sotheby’s who is in his 70’s was wrongly convicted because nearly all of the testimony against him was tainted.

There is more than a touch of Javertism in the prosecutorial world. This is a world where too much is seen in terms of black and white and there are too few gray areas. Life, in fact, abounds in gray areas, in ambiguities. It is said about doctors that they bury their mistakes. Those who suffer prosecutorial mistakes are worse off because prosecutors seek to destroy their prey. Prosecutors say that not they but judges and juries decide questions of guilt. In a formal sense, this is true. But in our entirely adversarial system it remains that even when prosecutors operate in a zone of ambiguity, they go full force after their targets.

Even by the reduced standards of prosecutorial propriety, Mary Jo White’s conduct in the Skwere case stands out for its egregious embrace of group hatred. It wasn’t sufficient for her office to prosecute the accused. The larger aim was to go after the entire community, to paint a picture of men, women and children all guilty of the crime of living a chassidic lifestyle.

I have been involved in these matters for four decades and I doubt that there is any other Federal prosecutor in the last generation who has expressed the kind of fetid bigotry that marks the Southern District’s handling of this case.

What Mary Jo White did was, to utilize the relevant term, unpardonable.