Who Speaks for the Jews?

January 2, 2008 at 6:22 pm | Posted in Announcements + Events | Leave a comment

(JCPA Blog) So I was thinking this morning about what to write as my blog entry today…but Eric Alterman already wrote it.  So I decided to save myself some time and energy, and probably a hefty plagiarism lawsuit and merely suggest that you read his recent article in The Nation – not because it’s called “Bad for the Jews”, and not because it comments on the American Jewish Committee’s 2007 Survey of American Jewry, but because Alterman touches on an issue that institutional restraints – and fear — prevent those of us who work for Jewish non-profit organizations from addressing.  How in touch are our communal organizations with the people we claim to represent?  Alterman’s focus is the media – that the people the media turn to “speak for Jews and Jewish values,” such as Charles Krauthammer and David Horowitz, are not at all representative of the Jewish mainstream, based on what the AJC survey found.

In the Jewish communal organizational world, we wrestle with this issue.  Who is it that decides what is “good for the Jews?”  Is our leadership in touch with the sentiments of American Jewry?  The JCPA, which as an umbrella organization claims to represent that spectrum of American Jewry represented by our member organizations — 14 national Jewish organizations and 125 local Jewish communities, genuinely does reflect the consensus of that spectrum.  And if you look back through our policies over the last 60+ years, you’ll find that they typically reflect that which the AJC survey shows – that American Jews, as a group, fall left of center.

Yet we are frequently criticized – dare I say threatened – by Jewish communal leadership who disagree with our policies or who, while claiming to agree with the specifics of our policy, accuse us of spending Jewish resources on things that are not “Jewish issues.”  And the fact is, they get to have their say because they provide the funding.  If not for that leadership, our organizations would not exist.  And therein lies the rub.  If we irritate the major donors, we can’t do the work.  But if the work is compromised by the opinions of a few elite, how good is the work?

A few years ago the JCPA wrestled with this exact question.  Our board took a position that a major donor to the Jewish Federation system (our primary funder) was opposed to, and he threatened to have our funding pulled.  So our executive committee asked themselves the following question:  do we change our position to remove the threat?  And if we do, what does that say about us?  Is that the kind of organization we want to be?

Thankfully, in my opinion, their answer was no.  We’re not going to change our position.  Our board represents our constituency and made their decision.  And we don’t want to be the organization that changes its position because one donor doesn’t like it.  So how, you may ask, did we stay in business?  We still have the position on the books, but we don’t turn to that page very often.

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