The word “agenda” has come to be seen as so negative – sinister, almost – that when I describe The David Project’s work to students, I do my best to avoid it altogether.
“Agenda” is plural of the Latin word “agendum” which means that which has to be done. A meeting agenda, for example, is a list of things that have to be discussed. More relevant, though, is a Webster dictionary definition of agenda as “an underlying often ideological plan or program.”
Ideology can be good or bad; plans and programs to execute them too. Why then has the word been tarnished so? Why has “having” an agenda” become the ultimate slur? It is generally expected of politicians to have an agenda, but it seems as if non-profit organizations, educational institutions and even Israel advocacy groups can no longer have “agendas.”
This is, of course, unrealistic and quite impossible. Naturally, every non-profit group has an underlying ideological plan or program, for if not, what is its raison d’être? The core of the agenda is often stated in an organization’s mission statement. Greenpeace, for example, “acts to change attitudes and behaviour, to protect and conserve the environment and to promote peace.”
Education groups have an agenda too. No education is value neutral. A good educator will stay away from moral equivalency. Just consider an extreme example of a teacher explaining to students there are two sides to murder (relieving extreme aggression, and eliminating a foe as positives; pain caused to the deceased and his/her family and the missed opportunities of a life lived in full as negatives). No. Murder is wrong and we expect the teacher to instill this value in his students. A society’s education system is little more than a socialization method of instilling its core values in the next generation. In other words, education has an agenda.
Presumably, a Jewish father not interested in his daughter becoming an observant, Zionist Jew will not send her to a school whose mission statement includes, “A commitment to Torah, mitzvot, Ahavat Yisrael, and love and support for the State of Israel.”
Israel education too is agenda-driven. In the words of David Bernstein:
Israel education, in nearly every Jewish context, is not value neutral. While Jewish educators seek to encourage critical thinking about Israel, as they would on any topic, they generally do so within a Zionist framework. They want students to believe in the justness of Zionism and encourage a strong connection with Israel. A headmaster at one Jewish day school said that Jewish educators seek to balance critical thinking with the need to instill a strong Jewish identity. In other words, Israel education involves a measure of advocacy on the part of the educators to the students.”
Israel advocacy, like Israel education, is also agenda-driven. By definition, it will always include, to some degree, the building of stronger support for the Jewish state and what it stands for. There’s nothing wrong with that.
So why do so many Jewish professionals, especially in our field, get hit with the, “what is your agenda?” (or, “you don’t have an agenda, right?”) question so often?
Agendas can be good and students know it. But when students ask about agenda they are worried about something else completely.They want to know three things-
- Is your organization (or are you as a speaker) being upfront about its agenda?
- Are you nonpartisan?
- If you are partisan, what are your politics?
The most important question to answer is the first. Are you being upfront about your agenda? Integrity is key. The easiest way for an organization to lose trust of potential stakeholders is by declaring one thing and doing another. Many non-profits, especially in the advocacy world, develop mission statements which are far more subtle, or completely different, than their real goals and everyday actions. That’s a big no no. In other words, while having an agenda is no way sinister, concealing one can be.
The second question to answer is are you non/bipartisan or not? Often times when students ask me if we have an agenda, what they really want to know is are we partisan. Bipartisan groups, like The David Project, will not promote a political candidate on either side of the aisle or openly prescribe government policy.
(But bipartisanship is only binding in political races that stakeholders hold dear. Since our stakeholders care, generally speaking, about U.S. and Israeli politics, I will never openly support Kadima or Likud, Obama or Romney, but I can still explain to students why the current Iranian regime has got to go, especially because this has become a nonpartisan issue in Israel and America.)
Last, and this is where the first two questions meet: if you are not claiming to be bipartisan, you must disclose what your politics are. If your agenda, or part of it, is educating why a certain presidential candidate is good or bad for Israel so that people who care about Israel will vote, or not vote, for him, that’s fine. Just be upfront about it.
Does AIPAC have an agenda? Absolutely. The organization’s website states it quite clearly: “AIPAC’s mission is to strengthen the ties between the United States and its ally Israel. As America’s leading pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC works with Democrats, Republicans and Independents to enact public policy that enhances the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
While certain organizations brand AIPAC as “right-wing,” this is far from the truth. The organization’s agenda is exactly as stated in the mission statement: to support the U.S.-Israel relationship. AIPAC is bipartisan, a fact simply proven by decades of working equally with Republicans and Democrats (in Congress and the White House) alike, and by supporting every elected Israeli government, formed by right or left-wing coalitions.
If The David Project had a “right” or “left wing” agenda that would be OK too, as long as we were upfront about it. But we currently are nonpartisan and try to work with students across the political spectrum.
If an agenda is “an underlying often ideological plan or program,” as long as you buy in to a given ideology, one would hope you would be happy to see a plan, program or organization put it in place to promote it.
As long as we, the agenda-driven professionals, are clear about what our agenda is, we need not fear the word.
So next time I’m asked about having an agenda, I hope I can respond by saying: “Yes we do, and we’re proud of it. Let me explain to you clearly what it is, and if you support it, I hope we can find a way to work together!”