The traditional way for Israeli reporters to cover American Jewish events, such as this week’s General Assembly (GA) of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), is to wax cynical about the legions of unproductive functionaries - “machers”, in our jargon - who make a good living out of selling a ridiculously idyllic version of Israel to gullible American Jews.
And while one can’t deny that there were intermittent flashes of this time-honored Israeli narrative at the GA held in Denver this week, the majority of the 3000 or so participants appeared to this observer to be intelligent, hard-working Jewish professionals and volunteers who are genuinely concerned about Israel and about their own Jewish communities and who are truly troubled by the tectonic shifts that are rocking the foundations of both.
Though the plenary sessions at the GA featured much of the rah-rah, rally round the flag rhetoric that is customary at such conventions, it was in the numerous and far more intimate sessions, forums and round tables that the distress of the fundraisers and community leaders became readily apparent. On the fundraising level, they are faced with the double challenge of younger donors who are increasingly hesitant to contribute to Jewish causes, in general, and to Israel, in particular - and with the growing demand for control and supervision by those that do. On the community level, they are at a loss to cope with the divisive internal debate which has, in some cases, effectively shut down meaningful discussion of Israeli affairs altogether.
Perhaps the most poignant manifestation of this distress came before a hushed audience participating in the session “Israel: Have we lost that loving feeling” that featured the controversial former editor of the New Republic Peter Beinart, when a young female student recounted in a quivering voice how she felt “betrayed” by the inexplicable discrepancy between the idealized vision of Israel that she had been raised on and the reality on the ground that she sees today.
It is the two extremes of this divergence, the glorified past and the perplexing present, the Leon Uris vision of yore and the Avigdor Lieberman image of today, that American Jews are finding hard to reconcile; and it is between the two commensurately opposing camps - “Israel right or wrong versus Israel always wrong”, billed by some as AIPAC vs. J-Street - that the moderate mainstream of many communities, to which most of the GA participants belong, finds itself torn.
In so many sessions, professionals and activists young and old expressed both weariness and wariness from an Israel-centered acrimony in their communities that has spun out of control - a fact that may explain the complete absence from the GA’s agenda of any remotely controversial Israeli topic, including relations with the Palestinians, the social movement protest or the assault on democracy taking place inside Israel’s parliament. And it is thus symbolic that, with the much-appreciated exception of Knesset Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee Shaul Mofaz, there was no Israeli minister or other senior representative who took the trouble to come Denver to speak to the Jews.
At the organizational level, the so-called Global Planning Table, the new strategic arm of the Jewish Federation of North America (JFNA) established at the GA, which will collectively “prioritize the true needs of the Jewish community” for its 157 member Federations, can also be seen as a structural manifestation of the shifting ground under the fundraisers’ feet. Not only have Israel’s needs diminished and those of local communities grown, but at a time of rapid, Internet-induced decentralization and globalization, the Jewish fundraising effort must also adapt to let “a thousand flowers bloom”, as Mao once wrote, instead of remaining captive to rigid formulas that no longer work.
Evolving from the original United Jewish Appeal (UJA), the fundraising apparatus established in 1949 that raised money in the name of Israel, for its’ exclusive benefit and to use as it sees fit - the JFNA has now adopted a mechanism in which all bets are off and all options are on the table, not only in the already diminished appropriation of funds for Israel but also in the demand for much greater supervision of how such funds are spent. The glum faces of the officials of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), once the epitome and the exclusive beneficiary of Israel-focused fundraising, were a clear indication not only of their own organization’s potentially terminal condition but also of the dangers facing other time-honored institutions – including the centrality of Israel itself in American Jewish life - as the tremors build up and the earthquake approaches.
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