The Diaspora is undergoing a Jewish leadership crisis. In the United States,
where the vast majority of Jews outside Israel reside, the key professionals
dominating the leadership scene are close to retirement, yet failing to groom
successors. With a few notable exceptions the situation in most of the other,
smaller Jewish communities is even worse. In most of these communal umbrella
bodies, professionals occupy a lesser role than in the US and talented younger
people are even more averse to accepting leadership responsibilities.
the US, the pro-Israeli lobby group AIPAC is the exception to the rule. It
remains a structured organization, operated by a competent, professional team,
backed by wealthy donors and enjoying widespread support at the grass roots
However, the three major public political organizations, the
American Jewish Committee (AJC), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the
Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (Presidents
Conference) are currently headed by talented professionals, all of whom have or
will soon reach retirement.
The AJC, headed by the youngest of the trio,
David Harris, has a sophisticated infrastructure and is probably the best
equipped to survive when he steps down.
Despite a huge staff and branches
throughout the country, the ADL is perceived as a one-man band. Its chairman,
Abe Foxman, is highly charismatic, media savvy and will undoubtedly leave a
colorful legacy. But when he retires, there is no certainty that continuity will
be maintained and should the ADL board fail to appoint a worthy successor, one
of American Jewry’s most powerful Jewish public bodies could easily
The Presidents Conference is effectively controlled by Executive
Vice President Malcolm Hoenlein. He has succeeded in recruiting competent lay
leaders to head the organization and skillfully retained the affiliation of
competing Jewish agencies which encompass the broad political mainstream of
American Jewry. But when Hoenlein retires, there is every likelihood that in the
absence of his skilled and delicate balancing of the disparate affiliates, this
umbrella body will simply implode.
The long-term future of these
organizations is further threatened because the current professionals also
occupy the role of key fundraisers. To maintain the flow of contributions, their
successors will be at a distinct disadvantage if they lack personal
relationships with the primary donors.
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On the global level, the World
Jewish Congress (WJC) is confronted with a similar problem. Donors to the former
successful mail fundraising campaigns lost confidence in the organization as a
consequence of the scandals associated with the financial irregularities under
the former management. Thus today the WJC is virtually entirely reliant on the
financial largesse of its president and benefactor, billionaire Ronald Lauder,
who provides the bulk of the funding required by the organization to
Should he retire or curtail his funding, the WJC would face
Many of the smaller Jewish communities suffer from a
dearth of funds and frequently have difficulty in recruiting qualified voluntary
laymen to assume communal roles.
This applies especially in Europe where
demonization of Israel has morphed into anti-Semitism reminiscent of the 1930s.
During such tough times, strong and courageous Jewish leadership is of immense
importance to maintain morale.
The French Jewish community is exceptional
and is effectively serviced by CRIF, an umbrella organization which is
reasonably well-funded and has succeeded in attracting capable and devoted
The dramatically expanding German Jewish community, now
overwhelmingly dominated by Jews from the former Soviet Union, enjoys
substantial government funding which enables it to recruit competent
However, in the UK, the Board of Deputies of British Jews
has declined in status and influence over the years. The more talented British
Jews are not attracted to the organization and it remains desperately short of
To exacerbate matters, the Anglo-Jewish community has recently
become dominated by a few unaccountable billionaires whose financial power
enables them to virtually dictate policy to the mainstream Jewish
Among these tycoons are several notorious for publicly
condemning the Israeli government and threatening to withhold financial grants
from communal organizations harboring critics or unwilling to endorse their
The West Europeans are federated into the European Jewish
Congress (EJC), an umbrella organization which, following a funding crisis, was
taken over by Moshe Kantor, a Russian oligarch alleged to have close relations
with Russian President Vladimir Putin. While Kantor does effectively promote
Jewish interests, it is somewhat bizarre for a Russian Jewish oligarch to head a
West European regional Jewish organization.
The situation in the former
Soviet Union also reflects a dearth of authentic leadership. The individual
communities are, in the main, largely funded and dominated by oligarchs, many of
whom have scant Jewish background and lack an understanding of the problems
confronting the Jewish people. Some uninhibitedly exploit their positions for
commercial and political self-promotion.
Yet their absence would
undoubtedly create a massive void in Jewish organizational life.
crucial challenge facing leadership is the ability to raise funds in order to
operate community organizations.
Philanthropists and foundations are
loath to finance umbrella organizations unless they are directly
As a consequence, in recent years there has been an
ever-growing trend of Jewish billionaires “adopting” organizations or assuming
“leadership” in return for providing the funds to meet budget requirements.
Although far from democratic, this has become a reality of life.
are numerous precedents in which wealthy Jewish individuals have contributed to
the benefit of the community.
For example, the 19th century patrician
British leader Sir Moses Montefiore was totally unaccountable, but in his role
as a “Shtadlan” – an independent Jew who interceded with the authorities on
behalf of his people – he made important contributions to welfare of the Jewish
Today, Sheldon Adelson, the bête noir of Jewish Democrats who
strongly opposes Obama, will undoubtedly be recorded as the premier Jewish
philanthropist of this era, representing the greatest individual donor to
Birthright and many other crucial apolitical Jewish institutions such as Yad
Billionaire Edgar Bronfman, the former head of the WJC with whom
I had major political differences, unabashedly imposed his views on the
Nevertheless he also left a positive legacy and must be
credited for his major and indispensable personal contribution toward bringing
to fruition the historic campaign to achieve restitution payments for the Jewish
The challenge confronting Jewish organizations today is that,
despite being desperate for funding, they must resist being transformed into
personal fiefdoms of unaccountable billionaires who may promote personal
political agendas which run counter to mainstream Jewish
Israel has a vested interest in encouraging the maintenance of
a healthy, democratic Jewish Diaspora leadership with the capacity and courage
to resist anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli onslaughts. This should be the primary
role of the Jewish Agency, but alas, it too has fallen under the control of a
small number of wealthy donors who are undoubtedly well-meaning but fail to
display an awareness of what is required.
It is therefore the obligation
of the Israeli government to set up a coordinating body with Jewish community
leaders – particularly those outside of the United States – to provide guidance
and assistance in this critical deteriorating arena of Diaspora Jewish
life.The writer’s website can be viewed at www.wordfromjerusalem.com. He
may be contacted at email@example.com
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