Thursday, November 25, 2004

It's Broken, But Can It Be Fixed?

Card players who have been dealt a bad hand can fold or they can bluff and play on. The sincere folks who lead United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization for more than 150 Federations, have a bad hand and they know it. However, they cannot fold their tent because Jewish organizations don't exist to go out of business. So they bluff a bit and play on.

How do we know that UJC is in trouble? For one thing, just about everyone -including its leaders - say it is. Attendance at the just-held General Assembly was way down. Nearly all who came were on one or another communal expense account. Ariel Sharon and Shimon Peres were expected but stayed home. There is much talk about a lack of focus, the absence of vision. It is said that UJC is attempting to do too much and that too much effort goes into the GA.

There's no thought of going out of business because, again, that's not the American Jewish way. If UJC were to close down, what might happen to thousands of other Jewish organizations that have been on life support for years? The subversive notion that the Biblical imperative "be fruitful and multiply" does not apply to organizations might take root and gain support. Before long, there may be a grassroots movement to properly inter all those brain-dead Jewish groups. For fifty years or since the eminent sociologist Robert MacIver wrote his famous report urging the consolidation of a number of Jewish groups, we have known that something was rotten in our organizational life. Our response then and now has been to create even more groups.

What ails UJC extends far beyond the confines of one organization. UJC has not suffered sudden vision loss. What it does not have now in focus and vision, it did not have when it was formed in the 1990's as the successor to the Council of Jewish Federations. It is a large, expensive bureaucracy whose member Federations are themselves bureaucracies. In the aggregate, an inordinate share of income is spent on in-house expenses, including fundraising and public relations.

The General Assembly is at its core a gathering of expense-account pseudo machers whose idea of vision is to be together with other pseudo machers. It is not a place for ideas or boldness and that is why our best and most creative people stay away.

Whatever the UJC's limitations, it's short-sighted to think that what is wrong or even dysfunctional emanates from the top of our organizational heap. The UJC is nothing more than an extension of the Federation system, an arrangement that may have made sense in the early years of the last century when our community was caught up in the imperative that a central agency was needed in every locality to coordinate the work of Jewish social service providers. Although some coordination was achieved, constituent agencies essentially continued to determine their own affairs, a process that has accelerated because of the dominance of public funding and the minimal funding received from Federation.

It is time to rethink the Federation network which gobbles up enormous resources with little payoff except in newer places of American Jewish settlement where the local Federations are generally vibrant. It's also time to reconsider the merger that resulted in the Federations swallowing up the United Jewish Appeal. The savings that resulted from this key policy shift have been offset by fundraising downturns. Most importantly, the virtual obliteration of the UJA brand name was a mistake because it reduced the capacity of American Jews to identity more directly with Israel. There was something distinctive about contributing to UJA and that has been lost.

The UJC/Federation issue transcends questions of structure or purpose. Our organizations have a life of their own, operating oblivious to the vast changes that have occurred among American Jews. We feed our organizations without paying heed to what is transpiring in the world outside of organizations. Simply put, there is a disconnect. We can debate how many Jews there are or what to make of intermarriage and other demographic issues. What is beyond debate is that we have lost a ton of people and among those who remain, overwhelmingly they do not give a hoot about our army of organizations. It boggles the mind to think that in the face of massive and continuing losses, we have 155 Federations in North America. They are, incidentally, just specks on our vast organizational map.

Our communal life has calcified, which is to be expected in view of the inertial forces that inhere in organizations. What is exciting in philanthropy comes from outside of the Federation world. The super-rich have decided that an independent path offers the best prospect for creativity. Inside of our organizational world, there is little room for ideas or boldness and there is scant opportunity for those who challenge the status quo.

I acknowledge that our huge infrastructure has convinced many who are not Jewish that we are a super-powerful and vibrant people. I recognize, as well, that there are organizations that are doing good things and that some of the old-timers - the AJCongress and the AJCommittee come to mind - have changed and adjusted to new realities. Overall, though, the picture is dismal. It is also true that among groups that are doing good work, such as Hadassah, there is an expanding demographic problem as the membership is graying and declining in number.

The crisis in UJC is not that it hasn't adjusted. The greater difficulty is that there is no viable course to take, no solution to what besets it. I do not see light at the end of the tunnel. For sure, though, our army of organizations will plow on, raising loads of money and emitting loads of pr copy. Too many of us will continue to believe that the emperor is clothed.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Jews as Enemies

From the first moment of our emergence as a nation in our final days in Egypt, we have been beset by internal enemies. Perhaps this is the fate of all nations. It seems, though, that the seeds of extreme discord are inherent in the idea of Jewish peoplehood, that we are stiff-necked and unruly and cannot avoid having within our ranks some who cause us harm. In short, Jews have been betrayed by other Jews.

The betrayal is at times expressed in words, as when Jewish writers give aid and comfort to our enemies. Walter Lippmann was world-renowned, bedecked in journalistic glory and greatly admired by American Jews, yet he was steeped in Jewish self-hate to the point of praising Hitler and attacking Jewish critics of Nazi Germany. There is also the example of Thomas Friedman, the Times columnist, who is less notorious and also less renowned, despite his over-developed sense of self importance. He recently referred to Gaza settlers as Israeli Hezbollah, adding to his long record of cruelty toward Israeli Jews.

Too often in Jewish history, betrayal has had tragic consequences. In the long and painful decades of the Inquisition, there were apostate Jews who were greatly learned and who played an active role in the persecution of our people. More recent episodes of extreme betrayal occurred during the Holocaust when kapos abetted the mass murder of Jews.

I do not know how to describe the outwardly religious Jews of the Neturei Karta whose intense hostility on theological and practical grounds to Zionism and Israel has been re-configured by the group's fanatical fringe into an embrace of those who direct and commit terrorists acts against Jews. Their most recent betrayal was abundantly on display as Yasir Arafat lay dying. These evil-doers who constantly seek media attention and invariably get it do not have a civil word to say about non-Jews, yet they make an exception for the sponsors of suicide bombers.

It's been said that only a tiny number engage in the most extreme and offensive acts. As is generally true of extremist groups, the likelihood is that Neturei Karta has a small fanatic inner core. But there are many others who are associated to one extent or another with the group and they have substantial ideological affinity with the fanatics. In an interesting way, the most despicable of the Neturei Karta are outside of Israel. The group is not tiny in Israel and it is hostile to the State, yet if only because there are terrorists in their neighborhood, Israeli Neturei Karta do not pay homage to those who murder Jews. There is at least one exception in Moshe Hirsch who has been on Arafat's payroll and who is as low as any Jew can be.

Whatever their numbers or dress or look, the Neturei Karteniks who identify with the PLO and Hamas are anti-religious, as well as anti-Israel, as they demonstrate when they participate in anti-Israel rallies that are held on Shabbos. They must figure that if they can desecrate G-d's name with impunity, as they frequently do, there is no reason why they cannot desecrate Shabbos. All is appropriate in the holy war against Israel, including giving encouragement to those who kill Jews. In our long history has there been a comparable situation of persons who masquerade as religious Jews endangering Jewish lives?

Those in Orthodox life who make excuses for these extremists bear some responsibility for what they do. Instead of Neturei Karta being ostracized, there are sincere religious Jews who insist that while certain actions go too far, Neturei Karta's message has elements of legitimacy. It is acceptable, of course, to criticize Zionism and Israel. It is something quite different to be associated with terrorists.

For too long, a code of silence has insulated the extremists against criticism from certain segments of Orthodoxy. There is a related issue involving the Satmar Chassidic group and there, too, there is a code of silence that inevitably encourages those who are prone to violent language and behavior. Satmar and Neturei Karta are not the same, yet it is true that much of the extremist group is embedded within Satmar, receiving financial and other support.

When a Torah scholar - a man in his nineties - came recently to this country, his visit triggered a barrage of hate-filled pamphlets, his apparent sin being that he is tolerant on certain religious and ideological issues. When he spoke at a large gathering in Borough Park, buses from Williamsburg brought hecklers who attempted to disrupt his speech. These were not isolated incidents but part of a pattern that has been allowed to fester because it is considered inappropriate for the Orthodox to criticize other Orthodox.

Within religious groups that tolerate hate, the most violent words and actions are often directed against others who are fairly close on the religious spectrum. Not unexpectedly, the most vicious manifestations of conflict erupt into occasional physical violence. This is happening within Satmar. There are two warring factions and they have not been averse to getting physical. Unless these people come to understand that they must act with restraint, what awaits us is, G-d forbid, bloodshed and Chilul HaShem.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Are We on a Collision Course with America?

To put what follows into context, along with 55 million Americans and three out of every four Jews, I was on the losing side on Election Day. The traducing of basic constitutional rights, despoilment of the environment, reckless fiscal and budgetary policies, coddling of the rich and a cynical attitude toward the poor, as well as doubts about the impact on Israel of President Bush's actions in the Middle East, all contributed to my decision to vote differently from nearly all of the people I am close to. I take it that all agree that this is what democracy is for and about.

I hope that I am wrong, that Mr. Bush will attempt to unite the country. His strong performance has been attributed in part to the unexpectedly large turn-out of Christian fundamentalists and social conservatives for whom gay marriage and the deprecation of tradition are loathsome. I suppose that we will now get additional sermons on moral rectitude from the likes of Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh on such pressing subjects as proper sexual behavior and drug abuse. As mothers tell their children, "Do as I say, not as I do."

However we view values as an election factor, it has now taken centerstage in our public discourse. Overwhelmingly, we Jews are out of sync with much of the country in our strong advocacy of a social agenda that is at once hostile to our religion and also hostile to the beliefs of a great number of Americans, including those who have provided substantial political and other support for Israel. In the process, Jews have been bad news for the Democratic Party because we have helped to push it away from the political center. We have gotten too many voters angry at Democrats. In recompense, we have given the party relatively few votes because we have few votes to give.

There are danger signals in our ideological extremism and rigidity. Presently, we benefit enormously from Evangelical enthusiasm for Israel (whatever its problematic theological sources) and from the embrace by popular culture of artifacts that somehow are identified as Jewish. Being Jewish in some sense is an in-thing these days.

I doubt that these lines of credit will be permanently available. We cannot stretch to the limit our deviation from what most Americans are willing to accept without running the serious risk of a backlash against Israel and Jews. There are danger signals and we are ignoring them.

I do not advocate that we abandon positions that we deeply believe in simply to avoid run-ins with the extreme right. As we preach moderation for others, we need moderation in our own ranks. At the top of the list is gay marriage which American Jews support in substantial numbers with substantial zeal. Gay marriage is not a civil right. It is a civil wrong, a practice that runs counter to the understanding of marriage in all civil societies for thousands of years.

There is more fundamentally the transformation of American Jews from a religious community into an association of persons somehow identified as Jews whose members are increasingly hostile to religion. We reject our tradition, the practices and beliefs that made us distinctive and ensured our survival. This rejection of religion especially informs our positions on public policy. The tenacious opposition to faith-based programs is an extension of our obsessive and absolutist embrace of church-state separation as a cardinal principle of secular Jewish faith.

We refuse to accept that there is a beneficial, creative and, in any case, inevitable role for religious groups in the public square. In every area of social concern that generates government interest and funding, it is not possible to avoid the active involvement of religious groups in efforts to help those in need. Yet steadfast in our opposition to faith-based programs we plow on, never reflecting on whether our absolutism makes sense and never caring about whom we may alienate.

There is a touch of hypocrisy in this. Those bastions of Jewish secularism known as Federations avidly seek public funds. When there is talk of cutbacks, these agencies bemoan how the needy will be hurt, how the safety net is being destroyed. Federations tell us that nowadays most of their activities are targeted toward Jews, which is to say that what Federations do bears a close resemblance to what the Jewish community is objecting to when we oppose faith-based initiatives. The primary difference between Federation activities and those conducted by more overtly religious groups such as churches and Orthodox Jews is that the latter rely heavily on volunteers, do not pay bloated salaries, indulge far less in self-promotion and avoid the steady diet of conferences and other sterile activity that is choking American Jewish life.

We Jews like to preach tolerance. Why can't we be tolerant toward publicly funded initiatives that rely on religious groups to accomplish what government and society need to get accomplished? We are beset by demons that impel us to believe that the roof will fall in if faith-based groups receive public funds. Since the coming of the Great Society forty years ago, such groups have received tens of billions in public funds and so far as anyone can tell, the Republic still stands. All that our intolerance toward religious groups will do is to breed opposition to Jews and Israel.

Religion is a vital force in American life and it belongs there. So does the separation doctrine. To believe in separation, as I do, does not require that we accept the notion of absolute separation. When government is neutral and the purposes are secular, we should welcome the role of religion in the furtherance of the public good. Unfortunately, we Jews who have removed religion from our lives are now bent on removing religion from public life. There is in this much peril for us and for Israel.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

A World Jewish Disgrace

If the World Jewish Congress was in fact what its name suggests it to be, Edgar Bronfman would now be the organization's former president. But since the WJC is in large measure his plaything, as he demonstrated recently when he ousted critics who questioned certain financial transactions, the strong likelihood is that he will stay on as long as he chooses to, this despite his vile statement in an interview with the Jewish Chronicle of London that our concept of peoplehood and opposition to intermarriage "begins to sound like Nazism, meaning racism."

I am told that he has apologized somewhat in a letter to the newspaper. No matter. He should do the honorable thing and resign. He used language that has never been used, except by our most bitter enemies, thereby crossing a line that previously was never reached, much less crossed, by a presumed Jewish leader. We have thrown communal fits for far less offensive words. Many Jews are still riled at Jesse Jackson for his "Hymietown" remark. As the Jewish Chronicle editorialized, "Nazism? It takes a truly staggering ability to ignore what Nazism was, even to utter the word in the same breath as a comment on attitudes to intermarriage."

It is not just the one word that disqualifies Mr. Bronfman. His notion that we who oppose intermarriage are racist is only a bit less offensive. Have we forgotten the "Zionism is racism" episode at the United Nations? Are we deaf to the ongoing calumny directed against Jews and Israel by those who call us racist? Edgar Bronfman has given aid and comfort to those who hate us, to those who are bent on harming Israel and our people. It is a good bet that down the road his despicable words will be thrown back at us.

The only decent thing for him to do is to quit.

Mr. Bronfman's sin has been multiplied by the skimpy coverage given to his remarks by the American Jewish media and by the corollary absence of sharp editorial criticism. Our publications have much to say when a solitary rabbi says or does something foolish or offensive or when an inconsequential incident occurs in a small shul. Why the timidity when a man at the top of our massive organizational heap behaves in a wrongful manner?

One certain answer is that it's the money. We American Jews respect wealth, no more so than in our institutional and organizational life. Those who possess great wealth are supposed also to possess other admirable qualities, including judgment and wisdom. Simply put, Mr. Bronfman is given more slack because, after all, he is a billionaire.

It matters, of course, that in addition to being a successful businessman he has ably served the Jewish people over a significant number of years. He has come across as thoughtful, as someone who is more than a cut above the army of organizational officials whose idea of leadership consists mainly of more conferences and an overdose of sterile activity. Additionally, Mr. Bronfman has significant achievements under his belt. This is all the more reason why he should resign.

I cannot figure out what he was trying to say about intermarriage. For all of the stalwart Orthodox opposition on religious grounds and the diminishing number of Conservative Jews who take a similar position about intermarriage, as a practical matter the sociological battle against intermarriage has been lost. For nearly a decade we have been in a post-intermarriage stage, a point in our history when the subject gets decreasing attention on the communal agenda. Unlike a decade ago when we were awash in continuity activities and other initiatives aimed at deterring marrying out, there is now at least tacit acceptance of the status quo that includes massive intermarriage.

We have come to accept counting in those who marry out, which includes their offspring and spouses. This is true of Israel's Law of Return which in turn has a direct bearing on all Jewish activity in the Former Soviet Union. It is true of our demographic studies, the concern not being who one's parents were or the religion of the spouse but whether those who are surveyed regard themselves as Jewish. This is true as well of our communal activity, for we scarcely preclude any longer from leadership those whose lives have been Jewishly compromised by intermarriage. Edgar Bronfman illustrates the point; he has been married five times and two of his wives were not Jewish.

While our new tolerance of intermarriage is contrary to our history and traditions and while it is inevitable that ultimately most whom we now accept will be lost to Jewish life, for the moment it is expedient to accept intermarriage because to do so puffs up our numbers. We are willing to accept all who apply because the more persons we can claim as Jews, the greater the perception of Jewish influence. We believe that Israel will benefit as a consequence. As Mr. Bronfman said in the interview, "anybody who wants to be" a Jew is a Jew.

The nonchalance with which we greet intermarriage is evident even among the Orthodox who despite their sincere rhetoric participate with few or no qualms in social and communal contacts involving the intermarried and their spouses and offspring.

It has been reported that Mr. Bronfman is writing a book to be called "A Jewish Renaissance for a Significant Future." We can easily guess what he will say about intermarriage. Can we hope that by the time this outpouring of knowledge about Jewish life is in the bookstores, its author will be the past president of the World Jewish Congress?