What happened to America’s national agencies?

If there is a major change in the Jewish organizational world over the past 50 years it is that the center of gravity of American Jewish organizational life has shifted from “national” to “local.”

Abraham H. Foxman adl 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Abraham H. Foxman adl 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
New York – In 1983, I was asked by an Anglo-Jewish magazine to ponder the following question: Which agencies have an impact (whatever that means!) in the national public-affairs arena? I identified five. In no particular order, they were: The Conference of Presidents, the (then) Council of Jewish Federations (the CJF), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and the New York Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC). (This last, while indeed a local group, was directed by Malcolm Hoenlein, who accurately understood that New York, with a third or more of America’s Jews, was “national” and Hoenlein ran it as a national agency.)
Thirty-five years later, I would be hard-pressed to come up with a similar list. With all respect to national Jewish groups, the five that I identified in 1983 (and most of the others) have limited impact today on the body-politic. Whatever their visibility, which remains significant, they are not today what they were a half-century ago. The lone exception is AIPAC, which in 2019 is arguably stronger than it ever was. AIPAC is strong today because of a change in direction. AIPAC had, since its inception, been effective working the halls of Congress; in recent decades the lobby understood that changing circumstances insisted that AIPAC work the Administration as well.
So what happened to the national agency “system”?
If there is a major change in the Jewish organizational world over the past 50 years – and there are several – it is that the center of gravity of American Jewish organizational life has shifted from “national” to “local,” from the highly-visible and once highly-effective national agencies to local groups, the community federations. (We will recall that, historically, the federation is the arm of the local community that, by contractual (“federal”) agreement with the Jewish social-service agencies in the community, is responsible for the fund-raising and allocations roles on behalf of the agencies. Over the years, these roles have expanded to include social-planning as well, and fund-raising on behalf of Israel and Jewish communities in other countries.)
What has happened is that in the 1990s well-organized, well-funded, federations with strong professional leadership began addressing challenges that historically were the province of national and international groups. The pauperization of the Jewish elderly in the Former Soviet Union; the economic crisis in Argentina, which devastated the Jewish middle-class; the plight of the American Jewish poor. Three or four large-city federations saw a vacuum – the perception was that national and international groups were not adequately addressing these matters – and the federations stepped up to the plate. Doubles were hit, and some home-runs.  The local agencies, not the national and international organizations, had the impact.
A second major change in the Jewish communal world is the tectonic shift in the relationships between the federation system and the community-relations agencies – what used to be known as the “defense” groups – in which there was a formal arrangement, going back to the agreement that was hammered out in the 1941 CJF General Assembly. The agreement was for the federations (coordinated by the CJF) to manage issues having to do with social welfare, particularly the delivery of social services; and for the local community-relations councils (CRCs), together with the national community-relations agencies, to do “defense” work:  interreligious relations, counteraction of antisemitism, Israel and other international affairs. (A third sphere, education and culture, was reserved for specialized agencies. The federations, for their part, have not done a hot job in funding Jewish education – but that’s another story!)
Some decades ago the federations discovered that Israel and antisemitism, at home and abroad, were “naturals” for fund-raising. The federations were missing the boat, and the system got into the community-relations and defense business, aggressively, in violation of the decades-old agreement. This move on the part of the federations inevitably led to the decline of the community-relations agencies, especially the local CRCs and to some extent of the national defense agencies as well. Some agencies (the American Jewish Committee is a good example) recontoured their missions and programs, and are doing well. Other groups: agenda as usual, PR as usual, programs as usual.
Plus – and this is the contemporary moment – some groups (most notably, the ADL under its current professional leadership) are now part of the Trump resistance, many see fundraising opportunities in reported rise of antisemitism – even an antisemitism that may not be there!
It’s not clear to anyone what precisely the role of national Jewish groups is today. The old ethos of the “defense agency” has not existed in decades. The “defense” agenda of exogenous threats – dangers to Jewish security from external factors, such as antisemitism and existential threats to Israel (and BDS, serious though it may be is not an existential threat) – have diminished with the significant diminution of antisemitism (notwithstanding recent events in Europe) and the enhancement of Jewish security that has marked the last 50 years. The threat to Jewish continuity over the past 30 years is from within, endogenous dangers of Jewish functional illiteracy, shrinking demographics and distancing from Israel.
So where are the community-relations, the defense, agencies today? The American Jewish Committee, until 1980 regnant amongst Jewish organizations, has all but jettisoned its national-affairs agenda – for decades the core of AJC – and adopted some 30 years ago an “internationalist” persona. (The AJC does have a semi-autonomous department that devotes itself to internal Jewish concerns.) The Anti-Defamation League, still useful, has yet to chart its direction, a new path, under a new (in fact not-so-new) exec. (One point that observers have noted is a lessening of ADL’s focus on Israel, a reflection of the often toxicity of the Israel debate.)
But do the ADL and others still have national impact? In the words of public-affairs analyst Hank Sheinkopf, one of the more canny observers of American Jewish political life, “The job of the national agencies in 2018 is to protect Jews who think that their job is to protect Jews.”
Agency activity on the international agenda has changed radically as well. An example of the new contours of the agenda on the international front is the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (the JDC or the “Joint”). The Joint, funded in large measure by the federations, was traditionally responsible for social services for Jews in foreign countries. The Joint has not jettisoned its classic mission, but – following the federations’ use of antisemitism for fundraising – has articulated an aggressive line on European antisemitism, sometimes justified, sometimes irresponsible.
Another noteworthy example: The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), which has completely recontoured itself. This venerable agency, under pressure to change because of population shifts – there are simply no more Jewish refugees en masse – and experiencing declining support from the federation system, now views itself as being the Jewish voice at the larger immigration table.
And the World Jewish Congress (WJC), whatever the antics of its execs over recent decades – setting off small bombs, often to good effect – was always viewed by our European brethren as a legitimate, indeed effective, voice. Today? Jewish communities in European lands are facing challenges unknown to previous generations. Perhaps a new set of structures is called for. The WJC may no longer be the effective vehicle to address European Jewish needs.
And the great coordinating bodies of an era past – the National Jewish Community Relations Council (NJCRAC) – now the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and the old Council of Jewish Federations? Yes, they do a job, but they are mere hints of what they once were.
The center of gravity is no longer national; it is local. One might ask, “So what?” In an era of shifting agendas, both domestically and internationally, of troubling data from a gaggle of Pew studies, our policy-makers need to take a long, hard look at the our communal-affairs system.
Jerome Chanes is the author of four books and hundreds of articles on Jewish communal affairs, and arts and letters. He was the national affairs director of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council (NJCRAC, now the Jewish Council for Public Affairs), and is a senior fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies of the CUNY Graduate Center. His current project is a book setting a context for 100 years of Israeli theater.