edgar bronfman 88.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The world of Jewish diplomacy is about to lose one of its most prominent and successful practitioners. Edgar Bronfman, the globe-trotting ambassador for the Jewish people, is stepping down after more than two decades at the head of the World Jewish Congress (WJC). Whoever succeeds him will take charge of the flagship organization of world Jewry, representing Jewish interests and concerns to policymakers around the world. Who this person will be and what their views are, therefore, should be of great interest to Jews. But the vast majority of them will probably know nothing about this person. Isn't it time that they knew and had a greater say in deciding who will speak on their behalf?
Why should Jews care about who will be the next president of the WJC? After all, despite its lofty-sounding name, the WJC is just a tiny organization - it has only nine staff members in its New York headquarters and a budget far smaller than that of other Jewish organizations like the American Jewish Committee or the Anti-Defamation League.
The WJC, however, packs a lot of punch for its size. Under Bronfman and Israel Singer's leadership, it took on the Swiss banks over their role in the Holocaust and won billions of dollars in restitution, it successfully fought the Vatican to shut down a Carmelite convent at Auschwitz, and it exposed the former U.N. secretary-general Kurt Waldheim's secret Nazi past. These are only its most well-known accomplishments.
The WJC also works behind-the-scenes, quietly lobbying governments and international organizations on behalf of Jewish communities around the world and over issues of concern to world Jewry like anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial, and Israel's security.
The WJC has been engaged in this kind of Jewish diplomacy since its establishment in 1936 as a vehicle to unite and mobilize the Jewish people against the rise of Nazism. Today, as the only organization that represents Jewish communities and organizations from all over the world, the WJC lays claim to being the "global ambassador and advocate for Jewish people" (in the words of its Web site).
THE PRESIDENT of the WJC, then, is the self-proclaimed ambassador of the Jews, representing the interests of the Jewish people in capitals around the world. He (there has never been a female president) routinely meets with presidents and prime ministers, getting the kind of access that is normally only afforded to heads of states. Last November, for example, Bronfman met with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. Why did the Chinese premier sit down to talk with the head of a small NGO? The answer is simple: because Bronfman was seen as the preeminent representative of world Jewry - the "king of the Jews," as some have referred to him, only half-jokingly.
Many policymakers believe that it is in their country's interests to maintain or cultivate good relations with Jewish leaders. Behind such a belief often lies an exaggerated notion of Jewish power and influence. There is nothing new in this. More than a century ago, Theodore Herzl took advantage of the myth of global Jewish power to gain entry into the chancelleries of Europe and plead the Zionist cause. Chaim Weizman, another great Zionist diplomat, also traded on exaggerated ideas of Jewish power. The leaders of Jewish organizations today are doing much the same thing when they meet with policymakers around the world.
Jewish power, real and imagined, is what makes the position of WJC president so important and influential. It is not the few people who work for the WJC who lend it significance, but the millions of Jews in whose name it speaks and acts. For this reason, the election of a new president should be a significant event for the Jewish people.
But, the Jewish people will not be taking part in this election. Only a small minority of Jews will even be aware of it. Instead, the election will involve just a handful of WJC insiders. It will be conducted behind closed doors and most likely decided by secret deals and alliances.
There is nothing unusual in this. Organized Jewry as a whole operates largely beyond the control, or even the awareness of the masses of ordinary Jews it claims to represent. Only a select few - generally wealthy donors or longtime activists - are directly involved in its activities. Most Jews have little, if any, knowledge of these activities and virtually no say in them.
This disconnect between organized Jewry and the Jewish people, which is growing year by year, undermines the claims of Jewish organizations to represent Jewish interests and concerns. Without more popular input and involvement, Jewish organizations are in danger of completely losing touch with their constituents. To avoid this, they must make greater efforts to reach out to Jews and get them actively engaged in their work. Instead of being embroiled in boardroom politics, Jewish organizations should be finding creative ways to encourage a broad-based Jewish politics. Only by doing so, can they truly claim to be the representatives of the Jewish people.
The writer is an assistant professor of political science at Baruch College of the City University of New York. He is currently working on a study of Jewish foreign policy with Scott Lasensky, an adjunct assistant professor of government at Georgetown University.