General Assembly Offers U.S. Jewry 'A Time to Heal' After Bitter Iran Debate

While the nuclear deal pushed Jewish federations into political minefield, GA co-chair Alan Solow says annual gathering will be a chance to return to community-building, fundraising.

DLA Piper

After the turbulent summer of friction and divisiveness that gripped the American Jewish community because of the Iran deal, the General Assembly of Jewish Federations in North America that opened in Washington yesterday has been touted as the perfect venue to create a calm after the storm.

“It was an important debate that sparked hard feelings and generated unhappiness throughout the community,” says Chicago lawyer and former Conference of Presidents chairman Alan Solow, who is co-chairing this year’s gathering. “But the overwhelming majority is now ready to move on. So it’s the right time for the community to come together, a time to heal, as Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) said.”

More than 3,000 delegates from the U.S. and Canada, representing 151 Jewish Federations and 300 other communities without formal federations, will converge on the Washington Hilton, where the GA is held. Their first order of business won’t be politics but rather the strategy, tactics and mechanics of fundraising, community care and “making our world better,” as Solow promotes it.  

No less importantly, he adds, is the opportunity for Jewish functionaries from different communities to meet in person and exchange news and views. “‘Schmooze Central,’” I suggest, and he concurs.

Nonetheless, while they are kvetching (complaining), kvelling (gushing) and otherwise schmoozing (schmoozing) at the Washington Hilton, many delegates will be casting a wary eye on the nearby White House, where Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama are scheduled to meet Monday morning. Though all indications are that both sides are interested in putting on the best face possible on their meeting, given their history of bad relations, which have only gotten worse in recent months, things could easily go awry. And a bad meeting could very well cast a dark shadow over the JFNA’s confab and its efforts to restore unity.

Solow, who is a bankruptcy attorney and partner in DLA Piper, the world’s second largest law firm, is known in the community for his close ties to the President, who he first met in Chicago before Obama was elected as U.S. Senator from Illinois in 2004. Solow has maintained close contact with the White House throughout Obama’s two terms in office and is often portrayed by others as the Jewish community’s “go-to” Jewish leader on issues concerning the U.S. president. Solow supported the Iran deal and tried to dissuade the Chicago Jewish Federation from taking a public stand against it, but as GA co-chairperson – along with the New York UJA-Federation’s Sandy Lenger – he chooses his words carefully.

He describes the Jewish community’s Iran-deal faceoff as a kind of perfect storm, markedly different from other confrontations in the past in the past. “It was unique among the issues that I’ve dealt with in my 30 years as a Jewish communal activist. Even people who ordinarily would not be interested in entering this kind of fray were completely engaged.”

Solow elaborates the different elements that came together to create the furor: first, the fact that the danger of Iran’s nuclear program had been at the forefront of American Jewish activism for two decades; second, the “strong position,” as Solow says diplomatically, taken by the Israeli government; third, the direct confrontation between Israel and the U.S. government over the deal; and finally, the fact that the Iran debate was concurrently a hot button issue at the center of the hyper-partisan debate inside America.

This “unique” conflagration spread throughout the Jewish land, ultimately embroiling not only national Jewish organizations but scores of local Jewish Federations as well. The normally apolitical Federations were consumed by sometimes-bitter internal debates, both about the justification for taking a public position on such a divisive issue and about the position itself. About 25 federations, including larger ones such as Boston, Los Angeles and Solow’s Chicago, ultimately came out against the deal, but the overwhelming majority, including New York, the biggest of all, refrained from taking sides. 

The debates among Jewish activists and the statements put out by some of the Federations sparked harsh internal criticism and protest from both sides. While Jewish public opinion seemed split down the middle, most of the national organizations and local groups that took a public position were overwhelmingly opposed. Many highlighted the growing influence of right wing donors, an increasingly prominent and controversial topic in the community overall.

“Some Federation leaders would say that irrespective of what position they took, they would be subjected to criticism by their donors, and they were probably right about that,” Solow says. “My personal position was that Federations should stay away from this issue but I don’t begrudge those who came out in a different place; it certainly didn’t have any impact on my ability to work with colleagues in Chicago who thought otherwise.”

I ask him about the perceived disaffection of the liberal wing of American Judaism, with which he is identified, with today’s Israel. “Living a Jewish life based on Jewish values has always been complicated,” he sighs, very Jewishly. “And it’s as complicated today as it’s ever been.”

Solow, who has been active in Jewish communal affairs for over 30 years, says he has a tremendous allegiance to the Jewish people and a strongly held belief in the importance of having a Jewish state. But, being Jewish, “I want to make sure that Israel remains a Jewish and democratic state.”
“Sometimes I see things that concern me,” he adds, “but that doesn’t decrease my allegiance. It engages me to do what I think is appropriate to exercise my Jewish values and strengthen the Jewish people.”
“But it’s a struggle,” he concedes.

Solow does warn Israel against losing the “broad spectrum of support” that it enjoys among Diaspora Jews, which, in the United States at least, plays a significant role in influencing the policies of the government as well. “All the Israeli governments I’ve dealt with could have done a better job on this,” he says, though he commends the “important signal” conveyed in Netanyahu’s decision to address the liberal Center for American Progress (CAP) tomorrow.

“But our main topic here at the GA is to talk about how Federations can do a better job fundraising and creating the kind of innovative programs that they are already engaged in.”

He dismisses my journalistic gripe about the non-political focus of the GA’s agenda: “Politics and foreign policy have never been the main business of the GA,” he says. “We discuss how to make our communities better. This is one of the great gatherings of Jewish people anywhere, and we hope to have a great program that will make even more people attend in 2016.”