The history of Jewish democracy is scattered with congresses, parliaments, unions, councils, sejms, and kahals — all attempts to govern or speak for an unruly body of people who shared a common culture but lacked genuine political autonomy. Various groups claim to speak for the “community,” but they tend to be membership organizations that can only pretend to be broadly democratic.
Federations, the North American Jewish fund-raising umbrellas, stake a claim to this territory, with some justification: Like governments, they collect revenue (in the form of donations), provide for the “general welfare” (by supporting education and social service agencies), and even conduct foreign policy, in funding projects in Israel and around the world.
But federations are not and cannot be fully democratic, they can’t enforce consensus, and they run the risk of alienating donors — and subverting their mission — if they are seen as partisan.
Federations around the country are confronting that tension — between “governance” and nonpartisanship — as Congress begins to debate the Iran nuclear deal. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee is launching an all-out assault on the deal, spending millions on an ad campaign urging Congress to oppose the agreement. Their ads are running in heavy rotation in New York and New Jersey, where at least three of the four U.S. senators are still sitting on the fence. AIPAC would love every Jewish organization on board, including the federations.
But here and elsewhere, federation leaders — assuming that they agree with AIPAC, which is hardly a given now that even some senior security officials in Israel have spoken out in favor of the agreement — disagree about the role of a federation in partisan battles like these. In Boston and Miami, the federations are flat-out urging opposition to the deal. “We acknowledge that there are diverse views within our community, but ultimately this issue must remain above politics and reflect our collective determination to ensure moral clarity and absolute resolve in dealing with one of the world’s most dangerous regimes,” said the Miami federation in a statement.
(And by “above politics” they mean “it’s time to get political.”)
By contrast, the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ says it “welcomes the close scrutiny by Congress,” but did not go so far as opposing the deal. Instead, it says its community relations arm will “engage closely with our congressional delegation.”
“It is federation’s role first and foremost to help maintain civil discourse in our community,” Dov Ben-Shimon, the Greater MetroWest federation’s CEO, told me, and “to help educate our community by sharing some of the most thoughtful analysis and encourage our community members to express their views to members of Congress, making clear that whether you support or don’t support the deal, Israel’s concerns are legitimate and important.”
Ben-Shimon does not think federations should sit out issues that are critical to the Jewish community and emphasizes that “when nations or people declare their intent to wipe out Israel, we need to take them seriously.” But he also believes that AIPAC exists precisely for those who want to express their views to Congress.
In Middlesex and Monmouth counties, the Jewish Federation in the Heart of NJ didn’t endorse the AIPAC position, but did provide a forum for AIPAC’s New Jersey-area representative to make the case for opposing the deal. On a conference call it sponsored last week, the Heart of NJ federation invited AIPAC’s Sharon Goldman, centrist think-tanker David Makovsky, and U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, who is deeply critical of the deal.
Keith Krivitzky, the executive director of the federation, said the panel was “exceptionally balanced,” even though it lacked, as one listener complained, a full-throated supporter of the deal, like someone from J Street. That being said, “Our leadership looked at the agreement and said there are really lots of questions here,” said Krivitzky. “Our partners in Israel and at AIPAC said this is a really problematic deal.” The federation’s role, he told me, is “to put out there front and center the issues, and encourage people to get educated and take actions as they see fit.”
Someone who wants a high wall between federations and partisanship is Ami Nahshon, a former CEO of the East Bay federation in northern California. Writing in the Forward, Nahshon calls it a “mistake” for the Boston and Miami federations to take such “intensely political and largely partisan positions.” He supports advocacy for social legislation, like food stamp programs and anti-discrimination laws, but draws the line at “taking political positions on matters of U.S. government policy, particularly those divided along substantially partisan lines.”
I’m not sure I get the distinction between “social legislation” and “U.S. government policy.” The Soviet Jewry movement directly confronted U.S. foreign policy, and federations eventually hopped on board. Federations have been flying the “Stop Iran Now” banner for years, and it would be strange for them to declare “no comment” now that there is actually a deal in place and a congressional debate in progress. As for social legislation, I’ve seen federations lobby hard against cuts in the food stamp program — cuts supported almost exclusively by Republicans.
If I were asked to make the case against federations wading into partisan battles, I’d say this: It’s unfair to donors who think they are supporting social welfare, Jewish education, and Israeli infrastructure-building, and find themselves implicated in supporting a political position they might not agree with. But even that is not an air-tight case: Federations are always making “political” decisions, asking whether to fund pluralism activities in Israel, enable pro-Israel advocacy by clearly partisan groups, or lobby for legislation that benefits the agendas of its beneficiary agencies.
I agree with Nahshon and Ben-Shimon that there are plenty of other venues for partisan Jewish political advocacy. Still, whatever role federations choose, they should embrace it. Between acting as a “government” and as a “communal convener ” there’s plenty of room, literally, for debate. If they are going to advocate, advocate. And if they are going to educate, that means bending over backward to invite a real range of voices from across the political spectrum.