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.