U.S. Jewish Organizations: Too Weak to Be Their Brother's Keeper?

Forget the window-dressing of local rallies and hashtag activism: The major American Jewish organizations’ lack of an urgent, concerted, and effective response shows how weak they’ve become.

Aviad Friedman
Aviad Friedman
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Gilad Shaer, Naftali Frenkel and Eyal Yifrach.
Gilad Shaer, Naftali Frenkel and Eyal Yifrach.
Aviad Friedman
Aviad Friedman

The crisis involving the three kidnapped boys is a test case that accentuates the weakening status of global, and particularly American, Jewish representative organizations. It’s become clear that many are becoming increasingly passive, if not irrelevant, a realization with difficult and unfortunate implications. Not least in the United States, one would have expected to see a community and its institutions swing into full action, assisting the State of Israel and the families of the kidnapped during this time.

Indeed synagogues and some Jewish schools, those who are not yet on summer vacation, have held special prayer services and in a few places have taken steps to actively demonstrate their support, in the form of local rallies or online activism. However, these small events only highlight the lack of concerted and influential action by the major Jewish organizations.

In the past, such an event would have entailed lobbying for huge political pressure on the Palestinians in Congress and the Senate, global activity by Jewish political leaders and solidarity missions by the various federations. We all remember the mobilization for the release of Natan Sharansky, as part of the wider struggle for freedom of Soviet Jews; we remember the efforts to return Ethiopian Jewry to Israel; the struggle for restitution of Jewish property stolen or lost during the Holocaust and even the support for residents in Israel’s north during the Second Lebanon War. All of these efforts were organized by the American Jewish community for the benefit of their brothers and sisters in Israel.

Now, with the abduction of three innocent boys, one of whom is an American citizen, we could have expected a much more significant mobilization by American Jewry.

Some believe that this can be attributed to the decline in the sense of solidarity between two parts of our people sitting in "Jerusalem and Babylon". Others argue that the political debate between the Left and the Right among American Jewry and perhaps the reluctance of left-wing organizations to act on behalf of children kidnapped in Judea and Samaria, also affects this lack of significant activity, but I do not believe this to be the case.

Those who spend time and follow posts on online social networks will ascertain that there is a deep individual identification between the Jews in the Diaspora and those in Israel, especially after a tragic event that affects innocent children who were certainly no threat to their kidnappers.

The problem lies elsewhere, and not through a loss of solidarity or political debate. The problem lies in the accelerating weakness of the establishment Jewish organizations, and begs the question whether this disempowerment is reversible or not.

AIPAC has been experiencing a crisis of White House access during the last few years, the American Jewish Committee (AJC), although an organization still enjoying considerable capabilities and influence, does not seem now to be able to focus on the important issues. The World Jewish Congress has also lost its standing and influence in recent years under the Obama administration, losing its relevance, and internal disagreements in the Conference of Presidents (not least over J Street) have rendered it incapacitated.

This decline in influence of the Jewish establishment organizations has left a gaping hole at the center of Jewish public activity that has been filled only in the small-scale and symbolic way by individuals such as actress Moran Attias and singer Matisyahu, who have made their own, privately organized demonstrations of support for the kidnap victims. To round off the picture, there is indeed sizeable activity on social networks, where everyone, regardless of institutional affiliation or weight, has a voice and presence.

It is a depressing reality for both Israel and the organized American Jewish community that just at a time when we need a strong Conference of Presidents and an influential AIPAC to push for American presidential pressure on Mahmoud Abbas or to lobby the Senate and Congress to cease funding the Hamas-supported government, as well as to agitate in every other relevant arena, we see organizations that are feeble and tired, with an ageing leadership that focused so much effort into explaining why there is no place for newcomers in their closed club. They have failed to perform at precisely the moment of truth when we desperately need them. The kidnappings have become a litmus test of decline, of power and leadership, of organizations that have no answer to the critical challenge of Jewish solidarity and activism: “If not now, then when?”

Aviad Friedman is a businessman, CEO of Energy Way and currently serves as chairman of the Israel Association of Community Centers. He was previously Director-General of the Ministry of Diaspora and senior advisor at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Absorption and the Prime Minister's Office.

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