Thursday, February 28, 2008

Exploiting Anti-Semitism

For all of its high-sounding name, it is not clear what the World Jewish Congress is about or that it is needed. Founded by Stephen Weiss in the late 1930s, it served for a generation as the base for the fantasy musings of Nahum Goldman, a man of great talent and even greater ego, who imagined that in the post-Holocaust world he was the king of the Jews, although if only because of the establishment of Israel in 1948, there was no such position. Already, history has not been kind to Goldman; even his faint fingerprints are quickly fading away.

From 1977 until last year, the WJC was headed by Edgar M. Bronfman, a truly decent man who has accomplished much good for our tribe, but who shared the distorted view that the WJC actually makes an important difference in Jewish life. It does not, if only because Israel and North America constitute more than three-fourths of all the Jews on the planet and they are outside of the organization’s claimed sphere of activity. Nor has the organization been much of a factor in the Former Soviet Union. Despite its exalted title, the WJC is one more Jewish organization in a very crowded field.

There are, for sure, Jews scattered around the globe in dozens of countries and this has afforded WJC leaders an abundance of jet-hopping excursions and photo ops. Much of this has to do with the much-publicized Holocaust restitution activity, the effort to win this and that financial settlement from governments and corporations that have taken advantage of Jews. While this activity resulted in tons of public relations and huge sums being announced, the restitution story has not been a happy one because survivors continued to be short-changed. Sixty-three years after the Nazi death machine was crushed, there is no way to improve on the sorry record.

There is also no way to heal the WJC which in Mr. Bronfman’s final years as chairman descended into scandal and intense internal conflict. It is sad how his fortune and fortunes have suffered.

On his watch, the WJC launched fundraising campaigns that exploited the continuing scourge of anti-Semitism. Mailings evoked the spectre of Naziism and played on our fears. These campaigns apparently raised significant funds, with much of the income going to pay the fundraisers who ran the campaigns and most of the rest being used to keep the WJC in business. From what I have accessed over the Internet thanks to small type in the WJC’s latest solicitation, it appears that the fundraisers took about 40% off the top.

We need not be reminded that anti-Semitism remains a serious concern, probably more threatening now than at any time since the Holocaust. Tamar Snyder’s front page article last week in this newspaper on “Anti-Semitism 2.0” is a frightening eye-opener on how the Internet is used as a breeding ground for spreading hatred of Jews and Israel. She details how organized Jewry is not equipped to deal with this new threat. In fact, despite our huge “defense” infrastructure, we do not understand how Google, Facebook and YouTube are being utilized to promote an anti-Jewish agenda.

Whatever needs to be done, fundraising and public relations are feeble antidotes to a social pathology that has caused us so much pain. This doesn’t stop our organizations from trying, witness the Anti Defamation League which raises tens of millions of dollars annually by playing on our fears. The WJC is far smaller; for all of its claims, anti-Semitism is impervious to its activities.

The WJC is now headed by Ronald Lauder whose great fortune came the old-fashioned way, namely by picking the right parents – in his case, the right mother. We must not fault him for this, nor for purchasing the top spot at WJC, in the same way that he has purchased an ambassadorship and hyper-expensive artwork, including $135 million for a Klimt portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. It’s his play money and who am I to grouch, although I will ask whether in view of claims that other artwork that he purchased was Holocaust-stolen, is it appropriate for him to chair the WJC.

Even with his money, the organization needs to shnorrer and it is employing once more the anti-Semitism gambit via a mail solicitation that asks us to contribute and sign a petition to the General Assembly of the U.N. beseeching it to condemn anti-Semitism. That and about two dollars purchases one ride on a NYC subway. If the WJC raises a zillion dollars, the practical results would be zero, whether measured by a U.N. resolution or the course of anti-Semitism.

The new campaign is conducted by the World Jewish Congress Foundation, with Mr. Lauder identified as the honorary chairman. The promotional activities say that the WJCF “was created to generate support from American donors.” Could this have anything to do with the organization’s legal problems or with the strife within the agency as Israeli and European branches are less than enchanted over what has transpired in recent years and also less than enchanted with Mr. Lauder’s leadership?

Perhaps the WJC once had a useful role in Jewish affairs, although this is increasingly a dubious proposition. Stephen Weiss’s statements and activity during the Holocaust have been scrutinized by historians and he has been severely taken to task on moral grounds. When he knew about the Nazi extermination of Jews, he was a Jew of silence. One of the lessons from this experience is that currying favor with world leaders dilutes the prospect for adequately representing Jewish interests.

Now the WJC is exploiting anti-Semitism. Isn’t it time to call it quits? I am certain that Mr. Lauder has much else on his plate. Although a determination to close shop likely would face opposition from machers around the globe who need the WJC, his great service to the Jewish people may well be to shut down an organization that is not needed.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Jewish Education, Inc.

It is not possible to stop the run-away process that I call Jewish Education, Inc., the ever-expanding roster of projects, research and grants that feeds heavily off our communal commitment to day schools and other educational initiatives. It is not even likely that our instinct for entrepreneurship can be slowed down because those who profit from this lucrative “non-profit” activity are adept at marketing their services and products and there are plenty of takers who believe that the optimum way to improve what happens in schools and classrooms is to turn to the expensive experts who have zero responsibility for what transpires in schools and classrooms.

If this trend seems odd, it is, although there are ready explanations, including our community being influenced by the larger and more potent trend in the same direction in the general society. More parochially, the outsiders we turn to are identified as experts, our schools need improvement, the experts have suggestions, and they are confident that they are pointing in the right direction. Those who provide the funding can take comfort in the illusion that rather than attempting to fix the shortcomings in individual schools, by turning to the educational entrepreneurs there is the prospect that an entire field may be impacted in a beneficial way.

This is, of course, a seductive proposition. Whether it is true is another matter, one that is scarcely explored because the employment of experts is usually regarded as self-fulfilling, as an achievement of a useful goal. The contrast between the critical examination of the educational experience as it transpires in schools and the absence of any meaningful evaluation of the efficacy of outside experts is remarkable. Indeed, if what the experts suggest or attempt meets with failure, the ready explanation is that this is further evidence of failure at the school level.

While those on the educational firing line, whether educators or lay officials, are routinely engaged in the assessment of the institutions for which they have responsibility, those who are adept at pinpointing the deficiencies of schools and educators exempt themselves from self-examination. We do not read in their documents acknowledgement of their failures, of goals not met and, more importantly, of the conditions that they purported to address being unchanged despite the grants that have been received. Rather, the failures of others are presented as proof that additional and generally larger grants need to be made.

The process accelerates, in part because competent educational leaders have an inducement to abandon the firing line and seek the greener pastures of Jewish Education, Inc. Is it not possible to assess what has been accomplished over the past decade as a consequence of the countless projects that promised educational improvement? If such an initiative were undertaken, my strong hunch is that the conclusion would be that the rain in Spain still falls mainly on the plain.

Perhaps the effort should be forward looking, using 2008 as the starting point for trying to figure out the impact of what is being supported in the name of educational improvement. My bet is that ten years hence the pickings will be slimmer than slim, that in 2018 despite the infusion of tens of millions of dollars into our educational entrepreneurial ventures, the situation will be scarcely improved and that, in some respects, it is likely to be worse.

I focus on the day school world because this is the world that I care most about. Similar points can be made throughout our communal infrastructure, whether they be supplementary schools which for a generation has been mined for self-benefit by a cadre of pseudo-experts who as yet have not produced anything of lasting benefit. Another field where similar tendencies abound is Jewish camping which quickly has proven to be a profit center for non-profits. We can add to the list the over-indulgence in the quantitative analysis of nearly everything Jewish, with reports being issued nearly nonstop, with nearly all of them being dead on arrival.

One modest proposal for improvement that aims for a higher standard of accountability by the grant-seekers is for those who pursue funding to indicate and briefly describe the grants that they and their institutions have received and the ones that they are applying for. Hopefully, this may bring a measure of discipline, although I am not overly confident.

In criticizing the imperialism and largely inadvertent cynicism of Jewish Education, Inc., I do not mean to dismiss all research or outside projects. I received the other day the draft of a terrific report on supplementary schools, a document that when published will add importantly to our knowledge of an activity that still continues to play a part in the lives of more than 200,000 children. I also admire the painstaking and admittedly expensive efforts to create curriculum modes, for both Judaic and secular studies, that are creative and can enhance the education of thousands of day schoolers.

What I do not admire is the lack of empathy for day schools by persons who are being enriched by these institutions whose struggle is a daily experience. I do not admire their refusal to look in the mirror, to even briefly reflect on whether they are improving our schools or, as in fact happens, making the road more difficult for institutions that already live a difficult existence.

Most of all, I do not admire the expansion of Jewish Education, Inc. at the expense of our most vital institutions. As I have advocated for far more years than I can recount, education occurs in schools and classrooms.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Where Have All the Jews Gone

I must have missed mention of our flock when the major candidates described their rainbow coalitions. Whites and Blacks were included, as were Latinos and gays and straights, women and men, old and young, liberals and conservatives, Evangelicals and others of assorted ethnic and ideological identification. But I recall no mention of Jews, doubtlessly because I wasn’t paying sufficient attention. Certainly, serious presidential aspirants would not leave us out.

I also must have been napping when the candidates spoke about Israel being a bastion of democracy, America’s most reliable friend and the other stock and trade phrases that have been part of our political rhetoric for sixty years. I guess I missed the slew of ads in the Anglo-Jewish press importuning readers to vote for this or that candidate.

I know that I must have missed all of these messages because, after all, we Jews are a critical voting bloc, if only because we have convinced ourselves that we are, especially in this past Tuesday’s super something or another states.

What I did not see or hear wasn’t there. There was no highlighting of Israel or Jewish-oriented ads or even a modest effort to reach out to Jewish voters. What was evident was a mirage, the ethnocentric imaginings of the media that somehow the Jewish vote remains critical and attention is paid. Before the recent Nevada primary – or was it a caucus? – there were articles about the Democratic candidates working hard to reach out to Jewish voters. That was a fairy tale. On a bit more solid ground, there were the pre-Super Tuesday musings about how numerous and important are the Jewish voters in key states. Hank Sheinkopf, always billed as a Democratic consultant and always good for a quote irrespective of whether it makes sense, told this newspaper’s reporter, “there may be more Jews voting as one group on Super Tuesday than at any time in history.” To say that this is nonsense is to be terribly unfair to that which is nonsense.

Mr. Sheinkopf who is capable of political insight also appeared this past Sunday in a meandering and meaningless New York Times article on the Jewish vote. The message was simple and errant: Although there are fewer of us who identify as Jews and Israel and other Jewish issues scarcely resonate in the minds of many, the band plays on because it is a useful cliché to write about the importance of the Jewish vote.

It’s true that ethnic groups are ethnocentric – aren’t they supposed to be? – believing that the world revolves around them. They exaggerate their numbers and importance, at times to good effect as politicians eager for votes lap up the misinformation. Excluding Blacks and Latinos, at the national level American politics are primarily in a post-ethnic phase. Political messages are couched in ideological and policy terms and not in ethnic terms.

We Jews no longer know how many of us there are, but we are certain that we constitute a formidable voting bloc. What is beyond dispute is that the number of Jews who care about being Jewish has decreased enormously, a process that continues. Candidates reach out to Jewish voters and other ethnic voters in terms of other identities and orientations. Even on Israel, there is a heightened tendency to say little of consequence, if only because as campus surveys show without exception, younger Jewish voters look at Israel through far less friendly eyes than previous Jewish generations.

I am certain that before November rolls around, there will be some Jewish-oriented ads, though fewer than in other presidential elections. Somehow, Israel will make it into the party platforms and policy statements. Overall, what we will get is a pale shadow of what once was.

What will expand and not diminish is the severe disconnect between the American Jewish reality and how we imagine ourselves as a vital part of the electorate. We will speak as if the past generation or more did not happen, as if we are still back in the 1950s when Jews voted in large numbers and were united in their allegiance to Israel and on vital social issues. This disconnect from reality is comforting because the reality is unsettling. Make-believe is functional, which is why many make believe. Unfortunately, there are those who can count, those who can distinguish between that which is real and that which is imagined.

The domestic implications of our sharp decline as a voting force are small, especially since most politics are local and where there are Jews, we will have an impact. What about Israel? Does it make a difference whether we are two-percent of the U.S. population or about half that number? If our votes are crucial in the U.S.-Israel relationship, there is what to be worried about. I believe that American support is largely predicated on other factors. On the quantitative side, there are the Evangelicals who are far more numerous than we are. They strongly support Israel and they aren’t assimilating. Qualitatively, there are geopolitical considerations affecting the Middle East and underpinning U.S.-Israel friendship. These considerations are not at all based on a calculation of the number of Jewish voters.

One reason why Israel does not figure in the 2008 election is that there is a consensus among the top candidates in either party. This consensus can be referred to as the road map or peace plan. There isn’t much of an argument regarding the details, no matter what American Jews think. Our next president is certain to follow the path taken by President Bush and Condoleezza Rice and they certainly have followed the path taken by their predecessors. The main open questions concern the actions of the Palestinians and, to a lesser extent, the Arab states.

Friday, February 01, 2008

In Support of the Yeshivah of Flatbush

It’s a wonderment that Orthodox Jews who are modern in their orientation remain Orthodox. They live in a deeply compartmentalized world that offers abundant and attractive intellectual and social stimuli that pull them powerfully in the direction away from religiosity. There is, additionally, a drumbeat of media messages – Jewish and general – telling of Orthodox abuse and other wrongdoing. We are fundamentalists and intolerant, untrustworthy in financial matters, hypocritical about religion and steeped in all manners of abuse. It is nothing short of remarkable that we have survived on these shores and astonishing that there are persons who were not born observant who have embraced a religious life.

There are, of course, those who jump ship, an inevitability in an open society. Many more remain true to their heritage, often strengthening their commitment to our community. We read little about these Jews or about the quiet glory of ordinary Orthodox life. Nor do we know much about the help provided to persons in need or the blessing called Shabbos or the exhilaration in Torah study or the beauty of religious family life or the dignity that is inherent in a modest lifestyle.

We rarely read of the Yeshivah of Flatbush, of its 2,000 or more students and tradition of academic excellence. We know next to nothing about its tens of thousands of alumni and their contributions to America, to Judaism, to Israel. The school has been in the news, frontpage in both this newspaper and the Forward, because an alumnus who is a medical doctor and also gay was told that he cannot bring his partner to a class reunion. One more Orthodox sin.

May I offer a modest suggestion: In view of the proliferation of Orthodox wrongdoing and widespread reader interest in the subject, it is time for this newspaper to give the bad news the prominence it deserves via a weekly feature detailing how the Orthodox are harming Judaism. It could be called, “Tales from the Orthodox Darkside.” There clearly is enough material for a weekly story and on those more than occasional weeks when the Orthodox outdo themselves and sin in multiple ways, it should be possible for editors to find the space for additional stories.

The Yeshivah of Flatbush articles were overblown. Gayness is a reality in Orthodox life, as it is elsewhere. There are observant gay Jews in synagogues and in all other expressions of our communal life. This is not a surprising phenomenon, nor is it a development that merits special attention. Those who are gay and those who are not have an easy relationship in which sexual orientation is not a topic.

When schools like the Yeshivah of Flatbush sponsor reunions, gay alumni show up, at times bringing not their spouses but friends of the same sex. They are there to see classmates and old friends, to listen and to tell familiar stories and to have a good time. Gayness does not figure in the equation. The point is well made in a letter to the Forward, following its article, by a gay man who signed his name:

“I had the pleasure of bringing my partner, a nice Jewish doctor, to my 25-year reunion at the Yeshivah of Flatbush in 1999. Out of respect to the institution and to the religious sensibilities of some of my classmates, I introduced him as my friend and didn’t make a fuss over it. I allowed for plausible deniability. I spoke of us naturally as ‘we’ but we didn’t dwell on it. Those who wanted to ‘get it’ did so and those who chose to ignore it did. We had a wonderful time, and it was great seeing my old friends and teachers and sharing fond memories.”

This letter and collateral evidence casts strong doubt on the veracity of a point made in this newspaper’s Yeshivah of Flatbush article that a decade ago another gay alumnus had gone to the school reunion with his partner “and was forcibly escorted out by a security guard.” I am told that this did not happen and I do not think that it happened.

What distinguishes the recent episode is that the gay alumnus was determined to transform his personal preference into school policy, to force on the institution an acceptance of his life choice. Yeshivah of Flatbush has the responsibility to maintain its institutional halachic standards and it did so after the alumnus informed the school that he was planning to bring his gay partner. In a way, the situation is parallel to the “don’t ask, don’t tell “credo that for years has guided Pentagon policy toward gays in the military.

It is noteworthy that while the Yeshivah of Flatbush is on the spot, serving as a target for a Facebook horde, the doctor apparently remains anonymous. He is entitled to keep his name out of the newspapers. He is not entitled on halachic or moral grounds to coerce the school he once attended to affirmatively accept his life choices.

Though less celebrated than the Noah Feldman affair of last year, there is much common ground between the two episodes, as each involves a respected Modern Orthodox institution that is being castigated for adhering to a religious standard. In each situation, critics insist that a religious Jewish school should substitute societal standards for its own. As always, their arsenal of arguments includes the claim of tolerance. Curiously, however, there is no recognition that true tolerance consists of accepting the religious choices of institutions and persons that are guided by their and not society’s religious teachings.

Inadvertent or not, the message conveyed by the newspaper articles is that intolerance toward the Orthodox is not only justified, it is the only appropriate response.