World Jewry needs to answer the tough questions

Over the past 50 years, American Jews have had an experience almost unique in Jewish history.

September 17, 2017 21:34
3 minute read.
US SECRETARY of State Rex Tillerson (from left), White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, National

US SECRETARY of State Rex Tillerson (from left), White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and chief economic adviser Gary Cohn leave notes at the Western Wall.. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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When we look at the state of world Jewry, we see many fantastic developments. Jewish organizations play a critical role in supporting Israel and advocating for Jewish communities. Jews can practice their religion freely and we have the ability to choose how we identify with our religion. However, if you scratch a little deeper we are facing huge challenges to maintain our unity and identity.

On key issues, the many Jewish organizations’ disjointed and sporadic opinions means that our messaging is unclear and we are all left feeling disconnected. Without positive intervention, there is a danger that in a generation world Jewry will look very different than it does today.

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Recently, I read the suggestion of my good friend Michael Fridman in The Jerusalem Post, where he discussed building an advisory council for the Knesset made up of influential Jewish leaders from across the world. This would bring together a group which debated significant policy and issues and provided the opinion of world Jewry.

Whether, as Fridman suggests, such a council should be bound to the Knesset or form part of a new and inclusive world body should be given thought. But we cannot afford to dismiss this suggestion. Without unity we are left with more questions than answers and the problems we are experiencing are worsening. It may be useful for world Jewry to have a body that will be able to influence policy, while speaking to and for an increasingly disenfranchised youth.

Over the past 50 years, American Jews have had an experience almost unique in Jewish history. We have been welcomed into all aspects of society and we have been able to make an immense contribution. We have established advocacy organizations and institutions that have the respect of decision-makers the world over. This is reflected by the largely bipartisan support of Israel across American politics.

However, there are still many significant challenges. The connection I have with Israel is not the same for many young Jews around the world, particularly in America. Israel is no longer seen as an integral part of their Jewish identity. Linked to this is the growing assimilation that we have witnessed among many young Jews, illustrating the need to redefine our traditional views of identity to reconcile them with a rapidly changing Jewish world.

The old model needs to redefine its role in a rapidly changing Jewish world. There are a number of organizations that define their role as being advocates of the Jewish Diaspora. Robert Singer, the CEO and executive vice president of the World Jewish Congress (WJC), in his response to Michael Fridman’s article, claimed there is no need for a new body as one already exists. He explained that the WJC “strives to defend global Jewry and the specific challenges they face.”

I would respectfully argue that the WJC does not meet the challenges Michael outlined. It is difficult to say that you are the foremost organization within the Jewish world, particularly in the Diaspora, when your focus is not on American Jewry. The WJC does some fantastic work, but it is not helpful to suggest that your organization reflects the entire Jewish world.

Even less influential voices such as The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) use unrealistic, headline-grabbing calls for publicity in an attempt to get traction in Washington. It recently caught the headlines when it asked for President Donald Trump’s national security adviser H.R. McMaster to be removed from his post.

It is completely acceptable to challenge his policy ideas but it is inappropriate to call for his removal when both sides hold legitimate points of view. To have the audacity to target someone of McMaster’s position within President Trump’s team would be wrong for any faith group without significant reason.

We need responsible leadership. Not all organizations represent the community as they should, and a few are self-prescribed leaders. This needs to change. The ZOA ’s type of reckless call is harmful to the Jewish community, as it means that legitimate mainstream voices get lost amid the noise created by minorities.

We need more of Michael Fridman’s creative thinking. Sadly, too few of us are willing and able to challenge the status quo and effect positive change. We should take a close look at the plan for an advisory council, but what is paramount is the need for more people to come forward with new ideas and initiatives. It is our duty as Jewish leaders across the world to look to come up with solutions and to ensure that Jewish identity is maintained for generations to come.

The author is president of The American Jewish Congress and chairman of the Council of World Jewry.

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