Unelected ‘leaders’ can’t represent American Jewry

Among the current leaders of prominent American Jewish or Zionist nonprofit organizations, there are 10 who have held the same position for 30 or more years.

‘WHAT ARE the effects, in Israel, in the US, and the rest of the world, of the perceived opinions of American Jewry?’ (photo credit: REUTERS)
‘WHAT ARE the effects, in Israel, in the US, and the rest of the world, of the perceived opinions of American Jewry?’
(photo credit: REUTERS)
For the past several years, a group of Wexner Foundation alumni have been drafting a new “covenant” to redefine the relationship between the State of Israel and North American Jewry. The idea is to update the 1950 agreement between Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion and American Jewish Committee president Jacob Blaustein. Unfortunately, the idea of a new covenant suffers from the same basic flaw as the original: The proposed American Jewish signatories cannot legitimately claim to represent US Jewry.
Wexner alumni Ezra Padan and Deborah Housen-Couriel outline the progress of the covenant project in the latest issue of Justice, the journal of the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists. They begin by summarizing the 1950 agreement, noting that it acknowledged American Jews were loyal only to the United States, and Israel could not speak in their name. The 1950 document was signed by Ben-Gurion, “on behalf of Israel,” they write, and by Blaustein, “on behalf of US Jews.” Yet Blaustein was never elected to represent the US Jewish community in that or any other endeavor.
Padan and Housen-Couriel risk repeating that mistake when they propose that their updated version of Ben-Gurion/Blaustein would be signed by “the leaders of the North American Jewish Community” since they, “as a whole, represent the community’s interests.”
In the absence of democratic elections, how can it be said that any of the current leaders of the various Jewish organizations genuinely “represent” the American Jewish community?
American Jews cherish the principle of democracy in American society, yet democratic elections have been a rarity in US Jewish communal life. Nationwide elections have been held in the American Jewish community only twice, in 1917 and 1943. Seventy-seven years is a long time to go without democracy.
Most of today’s American Jewish and Zionist organizations do not hold any elections for their leadership positions. Their leaders are appointed, often on the basis of their wealth or political connections. Other groups hold sham elections, in which the incumbent runs unopposed, or enjoys so many built-in advantages that a rival candidate has no realistic chance of winning.
As a result, a crisis of entrenchment afflicts the organized Jewish community. Among the current leaders of prominent American Jewish or Zionist non-profit organizations, there are 10 who have held the same position for 30 or more years, and eight others who have been in power for 20-29 years. There are also numerous other senior officials of Jewish organizations, large and small, who have been in office for 10-19 years.
Some Jewish officials will go to extraordinary lengths to hold on to the reins of power. The chairman of one US religious Zionist organization held that title for 11 consecutive years, from 2005 to 2016, even though his organization’s constitution stipulates that a chairman can serve for a maximum of only six years. When critics questioned his status, he changed his title to “co-president” in an “election” in which there were no opposition candidates. He remains in power to this day.
SOME OFFICIALS treat their leadership positions almost as a family business. The president of a major Jewish federation in the Midwest recently retired after holding that position for 39 years. Who succeeded him? His son. Neither man was elected to his position. In fact, the son previously held an unelected position in the leadership of another Midwestern Jewish organization.
Many leadership positions come with an array of perqs and benefits: enormous salaries; golden parachutes; the thrill of being feted at gala dinners and quoted in the newspapers; and opportunities to mingle with foreign dignitaries, which can lead to lucrative business deals.
As a result, many Jewish leaders have a strong vested interest in perpetuating their power. The fact that so few of the organizations have term limits ensures the incumbents’ ability to hang on indefinitely.
Many of America’s founders supported term limits, including Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Wary of “the love of power and the love of money,” Franklin warned that without term limits, politicians would view elected office as “a place of profit, and they will move Heaven and Earth to obtain it.”
Jefferson likewise advocated term limits to curb what he called “office-hunters.” He argued that term limits were needed “to prevent every danger which might arise to American freedom by continuing too long in office,” and as president he refused to run for a third term because of that principle. But for some reason, American Jews have shown little interest in applying that principle to their own communal life.
A notable exception on American Jewry’s dismal undemocratic landscape is the American Zionist Movement, which periodically holds elections for delegates to the World Zionist Congress. One such election is now underway. However, the number of participants often has been minuscule; only 56,737 voters cast ballots the last time around.
All of which brings us back to the problem inherent in the Wexner alumni’s project: How can “North American Jewry” sign a new “covenant” with Israel when there is nobody who has been democratically chosen to represent North America’s Jews?
American Jewish organizations need to undergo substantial reforms before they can claim to serve as the legitimate representatives of any substantial segment of the community. Leaders will have to be democratically elected. Term limits will have to be imposed, to bring in fresh blood and discourage perpetual power-seekers. Salaries will have to be significantly lowered, and perqs minimized, so there will be fewer material incentives to cling to the throne.
Only after such changes are instituted will it be possible to identify genuinely representative American Jewish leaders to address the Israel-Diaspora relationship.
The writer is coauthor of The Historical Dictionary of Zionism, and a member of the steering committee of the Committee on Ethics in Jewish Leadership. jewishleadershipethics.org.