PostScript: When big becomes too big

Sometimes Jewish organizations have to know when to stop growing, or at least diversify in meaningful ways.

March 16, 2012 06:37
4 minute read.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at AIPAC

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at AIPAC 390 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

I take this opportunity – with the entire pundit community obsessed with Iran or pontificating on Gaza (or both) – to raise a question about when big becomes too big, success too successful, and purpose of mission clouded by both.

What brings this to mind, but not only, is the fabulously successful AIPAC conference in Washington earlier this month, which was so big that people had to wait for three hours to get a sandwich, and go “quack, quack” if wanting to be identified with Israel’s cause.

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I am not questioning the conference, a massive and major show of support for Israel from across the political board, and not only from Jews. It has become a platform unequaled in the purpose of message of those who appear at it. I am not questioning AIPAC or the organization’s immeasurable contribution to Israel’s security and economy via Capitol Hill and the administration.

But what I am questioning is the seemingly jingoistic simplicity with which serious, intricate and existential questions facing Israel today were dealt with; the whole “rah, rah” mood that seemed to vibrate in and emanate from the audience, especially on the issue of Iran, as if nothing short of an all-out and immediate attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities was the right and only thing to do.

It was painful to watch 15-year-old machers-in-the-making running around the corridors of power with talking points on the Iran issue, as if they knew where it was on the map. No doubt the organizers were thrilled that the story made The New York Times (more for the publicity folder and wonderful with the donors), but the little boy with the big black kippa delivering the talking points on Israel’s behalf does sort of trivialize the issue, to say the least.

AIPAC has become a mammoth among Israel-oriented organizations. Because of its success, people who care about Israel and want to see their money effectively spent give generously. But they also give because, like our 15-year-old, they too like to walk the corridors of power, shake hands with the president (if they pay enough to get onto the stage), and are able to take part in an organization that uniquely allows them to combine their American political desires with their support for Israel.

That said, one wonders whether the AIPAC leadership should not listen to a message sent by their keynote speaker, the American president, quoting a previous president about the wisdom of carrying a big stick while talking softly. The posing of AIPAC officials with VIP speakers, arms raised to the cheering thousands, seemed neither consistent with the issue, nor appropriate. The hugs were too familiar, the smiles too broad and, given the gravitas of the subject, the near-carnival atmosphere we glimpsed from here was troubling.

Sometimes Jewish organizations have to know when to stop growing, or at least diversify in meaningful ways.

A case in point is The Israel Project that started off with a very specific niche, very discreetly and very effectively. It gauged public opinion on key Israel-relevant issues, and worked out appropriate answers. It also provided helicopter tours over Israel for visiting journalists, which I can attest is one of the most sophisticated and smart ways of explaining Israel’s strategic problems to fresh eyes.

Now, because it has been so successful, and its leadership so energetic in raising funds, from its website one can assume it is the forefront of the fight against global anti-Semitism, a major player in the UN, a key articulator of Israel’s foreign policy, a replacement for the Israel Government Press Office and, apparently, for Israel’s diplomats abroad. It claims credit for CNN doing this, and for the New York Times doing that, and claims to have the last word on what Israel’s message on Iran should be.

But instead of fighting anti-Semitism now, it seems, from its own promotional materials, that this once fast, smart, different and niche Israel-action group is fighting the Anti-Defamation League, AIPAC and indeed the Israel government itself over turf and resources, thus creating needless animosity along the way.

By the very nature of things, how can it not get dirty when all of these organizations, with basically the same cause in mind, are fighting for the same philanthropic dollars? And this can only become aggravated when justifying new money, more often than not, means duplicating to some degree what is already being done.

Many years back I was almost fired from this paper for writing similar thoughts in a magazine piece titled “Wasted Dollars” after a two-year stint in America. I had failed to take into account that the largest shareholders in the paper were the very people I was talking about.

I meant it as constructive criticism then, and I mean it in the same vein now. Remarkably, some of the leadership in the major Jewish organizations from back then are the very same people who head them now; the type of folks who can say they have pictures with seven Israeli prime ministers and three popes.

But then, who am I to criticize others when my very own prime minister, smiling more broadly than anyone else and more jingoistic than our 15-year-old emissary, did his unforgettable walk-like-a-duck routine, as if the domes in the sands of Natanz were toxic eggs of some sort, and the question of whether to bomb Iran or not would have been more appropriately addressed to the characters in Animal Farm than participants in what was supposed to be a serious event.

The writer is a senior research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies and the author of The Anatomy of Israel’s Survival, the winner of the 2011 National Jewish Book Award.

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