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For Whom Does The "Jewish Establishment" Really Speak?

Allan C. Brownfeld
Winter 1997

The American Jewish community, in recent years, has been defined far more by the political activities of its organizational spokesmen than by any religious sensibility or enterprise.  

Ironically, while most Jews do not believe themselves to be part of a politically influential community, "organized" Jewry is increasingly powerful, what J.J. Goldberg, the author of the book Jewish Power: Inside The American Jewish Establishment, calls "a serious player in the great game of politics, able to influence events . . . to reward its friends and punish its enemies."  

Among the successful political crusades of the organized Jewish community to which Goldberg points is the Jackson-Vanik amendment of the early 1970s, which linked trade benefits for the USSR to Jewish emigration. Later, Jewish groups secured U.S. Government funds for the repatriation of Soviet Jews and the transportation of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Most of their energy and funding has gone to promoting the interests of the State of Israel. Any criticism of Israel has been sharply challenged and funds were mobilized to secure huge grants of U.S. foreign aid to Israel and to deny assistance to Arab states.  

Mr. Goldberg, the son of Supreme Court Justice Arthur J. Goldberg, is a contributing editor of the Israeli news magazine The Jerusalem Report and has written for The New York Times and the New Republic. He won the Corporation for Public Broadcasting Award for his history of Jewish popular music.  

Jewish Influence  

In this book, he performs a notable service, taking a frank look at Jewish influence in America today. He dispels Jewish myths of helpless Jewish victimhood and, at the same time, the myths of others about overwhelming Jewish power. He describes the people, institutions, money and ideas that make up Jewish political influence in the U.S. Perhaps most important, he shows how the Jewish establishment represents largely itself and the interests of a narrow group of the "organized" community rather than the six million American Jews in whose name it claims to speak, its "presumed constituency." He shows how dissent from the position of total support for Israel and its policies has been harshly repressed.  

"American Jewish organizations," he writes, "span a broad spectrum of views on Israel-Arab relations, Palestinian rights, and trading land for peace. But they share a long tradition of refusing to question Israeli government decisions. The Presidents Conference had agreed at birth to put its internal divisions aside, on the grounds that the duty of American Jews was purely and simply to support Israel . . . The rule had been tested in fire in 1977, when Israel ended decades of Labor Party rule by electing the nationalist militant Menachem Begin as its prime minister. The man who chaired the Presidents Conference at the time was the arch-liberal Rabbi Alexander Schindler, leader of Reform Judaism. Yet he embraced Begin without a moment’s hesitation, thus ensuring an unbroken relationship between American Jews and Israel."  

As Jewish organizations have increased their influence, the vast majority of American Jews have gone their separate way, clearly not sharing the obsession with Israel which characterize these groups. "During the same quarter-century in which the Jewish community was transformed from a weakling into a powerhouse, the individual American Jew underwent a metamorphosis no less sweeping," writes Goldberg. "Fewer Jews were joining synagogues or donating to Jewish charities. Growing numbers were marrying outside the faith. Community leaders interpreted the statistics in cataclysmic terms, warning that Jews were on the verge of disappearing, of melting into the general American population . . . This doomsday prediction is almost certainly wrong . . . Year after year, the vast majority of American Jews — the ones who are supposedly disappearing — continue to attend synagogue once or twice annually, join their families for Passover or Hanukkah, and send their children for Bar and Bat Mitzvah training. Jews are not disappearing. What they are doing is losing interest in the institutions of organized Judaism."  

Set of Feelings  

Like much in contemporary American society, Goldberg point out, "Judaism is turning into a free-floating set of feelings, interests and occasional actions, which the individual Jew feels free to adopt or discard at will. But — this is crucial — it remains an attachment. Jews remain Jews in their own minds. And they continue to insist that it matters to them . . . they no longer pay attention to organized Jewish community life. For most American Jews, Judaism has become a private matter."  

At the same time, a smaller group of American Jews "is traveling in the opposite direction. They are steadily becoming ‘more Jewish’ than before. More Jewish, in fact, than any large group of American Jews ever was; more traditionalist, more observant of Jewish ritual, more attentive to Jewish group interests, and steadily more alarmed over the backsliding ways of their . . . ‘assimilated’ brethren. And, not coincidentally, ever more suspicious of Gentile intentions toward Jews. This committed minority provides much of the professional leadership for the broader Jewish community. Not surprisingly, then, the non-communication between the Jewish leadership and the Jewish majority grows steadily more pronounced as the two subcommunities drift further apart."  

The emergence of the American Jewish community as an independent power, Goldberg points out, turns Zionist theory on its head: "The basic idea of Zionism, the moving vision behind the creation of Israel, was that a Jewish state would give voice to a voiceless people and return Jews to the stage of history after centuries of helplessness. American Jewish power has turned the Zionist idea on its head. In August, 1987, for example, when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin paid a state visit to Romania, his agenda included bilateral trade, tourism, Romanian assistance to Soviet Jewish emigres, and Romanian mediation in the Israeli-Arab dispute. In return, The Jerusalem Post reported, Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu planned to ask Rabin to use his influence with the American Jewish community to improve Romania’s ties with Washington. A month later, Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres, in New York for the U.N. General Assembly, met with the foreign minister of Turkey to help Israel improve its ties with the Islamic world, and the Turks wanted Israel to put in a good word for it with the American Jewish community."  

Focus on Israel  

By focusing their attention on Israel and its interests and concerns, Goldberg shows, Jewish organizations — from the Anti-Defamation League to the American Jewish Congress to the United Jewish Appeal to the synagogue groups — are representing largely themselves, not the larger community in whose name they speak. One detailed poll conducted by the American Jewish Committee asked respondents to rank twelve selected Jewish symbols in order of importance to their "sense of being Jewish." Israel came in seventh — behind the Holocaust, the Day of Atonement, anti-Semitism, God, the Torah and Passover. The same survey asked respondents how important it was that their children engage in various Jewish activities. They were offered 14 choices, from "feel good about being Jewish" to "support social justice cases." "Care about Israel" came in 12th. Only two choices ranked lower: "Practice Jewish ritual" and "date only Jews." Another survey, conducted in 1988 by The Los Angeles Times, asked a national sample of American Jews to name "the quality most important to their Jewish identity." Half chose "a commitment to social equality." The other half were evenly divided among religion, Israel, and "other."  

The division between self-proclaimed Jewish "leaders" and those in whose name they speak, Goldberg declares, is growing: "‘Leadership’ is a dubious word for it, though. The two groups of Jews are deeply estranged, and becoming more so . . . The community of committed, traditional Jews is becoming ever more ingrown, ever more suspicious of outsiders, and ever more incomprehensible to the majority of their fellow Jews . . . The estrangement works both ways. The very anxiety that committed Jews feel over the perceived decline in affiliation may well help fuel the disaffiliation process. In interviews with Jews around the country during the early 1990s, moderately or nonaffiliated Jews regularly reported that they would like to be closer to Judaism but are repelled by the angry, hectoring tone of Jewish community life. ‘Every year or so I go back to synagogue hoping I’ll feel something, but all they ever talk about is politics and Israel,’ says Tara Framer, a New York graphic designer in her thirties, in a comment typical of Jews of her generation. ‘If it were a more spiritual experience, I’d probably want to go back.’ These turned-off Jews, in turn, abdicate the institutions of Jewish power to the traditionalists."  

Exactly how unrepresentative the Jewish establishment is, Goldberg notes, can be seen in its defense of Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard: "Over the past few years, the leaders of the major Jewish organizations were confronted by pro-Pollard activists wherever they turned. One by one, the organizations cautiously began speaking up on the Pollard case . . . One top leader, former Presidents Conference Chairman Seymour Reich says he became an active Pollard advocate after becoming convinced that it was the overwhelming sentiment of grassroots American Jews. ‘It’s the one thing I hear about wherever I go,’ he says. How widespread was this view? The one poll conducted on the topic, a 1991 survey by the American Jewish Committee, found only 27 percent of all Jews agreeing that Pollard had been sentenced too harshly. Even fewer, just 22 percent, agreed that Jewish organizations should press for his release . . . But only one side was making itself heard."  

Plea For Pollard  

On Valentine’s Day, 1994, Rabbi Haskell Lookstein, spiritual leader of Congregation Kehillath Jeshurun in New York, rose to the pulpit to welcome Attorney General Janet Reno. She was in New York for a community forum sponsored by the local congresswoman, Rep. Carolyn Maloney. Lookstein’s synagogue was merely holding the event. Before handing Reno the podium, Lookstein reprimanded his guest. He declared that, "No issue unites American Jews more," than the unfair sentencing of Jonathan Pollard. "Nearly every national Jewish organization has spoken out on the topic," Lookstein said. "American Jews would remember it gratefully" if Reno would reopen Pollard’s case and free him.  

The fact is, Goldberg reports, that most American Jews do not share that view at all. Indeed, after the sentencing, Morris B. Abram, the civil rights attorney who chaired the President’s conference, called Pollard’s espionage "inexcusable" and voiced approval of Pollard’s life sentence. Nathan Perlmutter, then national director of the ADL, criticized Israel’s "stupidity" in betraying American trust. Over time, however, Goldberg shows how the pro-Pollard minority has come to set the agenda for Jewish organizational statements on the subject.  

Another element separating those in charge of Jewish organizations and the majority of American Jews is the rise of Holocaust awareness in recent years which, Goldberg declares, "did not break any shroud of silence muffling public awareness of the Nazis’ war against the Jews. There had been no such silence. What the new wave did accomplish was to change the ‘lessons of the Holocaust,’ so that it matched the new mood of anger and isolationism that had come to dominate the American Jewish community. Before 1968, the Holocaust taught Jews that people do one another great wrong when they lost sight of their common humanity in a world that could and should be better. After 1968 (marking Israel’s victory in the Six Day War) the message was that Jews should never let their guard down in a world that couldn’t be much worse . . . Driven by fear of anti-Semitism, by guilt over past Jewish timidity, and by suspicion of Gentiles, liberalism and coalition politics, the new particularists simply took over the machinery of American Jewish politics . . . The opinions of the majority of American Jews became largely irrelevant to the process of policy-making. The Jewish community became the preserve of a passionate minority, driven by a terrible vision . . . A small minority of Jews had been allowed to take over the Jewish organizational infrastructure and turn it into an instrument of defensive nationalism."  

Zionist Orientation  

The Zionist orientation of the Jewish establishment, Goldberg argues, not only does not reflect the views of most American Jews but, beyond this, is hardly the ancient Jewish tradition it presents itself as being. He writes: "If Zion is an ancient Jewish tradition, Zionism is not. Zionism began as a movement among secular intellectuals who were rebelling against traditional Judaism. The rabbinic legacy taught that the Jews had been exiled from Jerusalem as divine punishment for their sins. Only God could restore Zion, the rabbis taught, by sending the anointed Messiah to usher in the End of Days. The first Zionists were late 19th century modernists who insisted that history was shaped by human will, and that Jews need no longer accept the cruel fate God has chosen for them. The Zionists urged Jews to take their own destiny in their hands and strive for normalization. In America, Zionism began as a tiny fringe group. Its main appeal, as a solution to the crisis of anti-Semitism, meant little to American Jews; they had solved their problem by coming here. The established voices of America’s old line German Jewish community — the Reform rabbinate and the American Jewish Committee — flatly opposed the dangerous nationalism."  

Even those Americans who were drawn to Zionism, such as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, rejected its notion of "exile" and eventual "return" to the Jewish "homeland." "Brandeis had been drawn to Zionism," Goldberg writes, "not as a nationalist rebellion but as a philanthropic gesture. Unlike Zionism in other countries, he argued that supporting Zionism did not require a Jew to emigrate or take up a foreign loyalty. ‘To be good Americans we must become better Jews, and to be better Jews, we must become Zionists,’ he told a cheering Boston crowd in 1914. Brandeis’s corn-fed, all-American Zionism evoked derision among the World Zionist Organization’s European leaders. During the 1920s they worked furiously to force him out of movement leadership. Yet his philanthropic version of Zionism captured the imagination of the broader Jewish community . . . Israelis said the Zionist’s task was to persuade American Jews to pack up and move to Israel, but most American Jews had never accepted that job to begin with."  

That the unrepresentative leadership of American Jewish organizations have made themselves into what is, in effect, a subsidiary of Israeli government policy is sharply criticized by Mr. Goldberg. When American Jewish groups campaigned for the right of Soviet Jews to emigrate, for example, they began by arguing in behalf of free choice for the immigrants — that they should be able to make their own decision about where to live. Israeli government officials, however, demanded that they be sent to Israel, whether they wished to go or not. The chairman of the Jewish Agency, Aryeh Dulzin, issued thunderous warnings that the American Jewish community was joining the crusade against Zionism by advocating freedom of choice for Russian Jews. In the end, the American groups capitulated to Israeli pressure.  

In another instance, under Israeli pressure prominent American Jewish leaders lobbied Congress to keep the mass murder of Armenians by Turkey out of the Holocaust museum. The reason: Israel’s relations with Turkey would be damaged if the Turkish assault on the Armenians was recognized in the Washington museum.  

Jewish Dissent  

Those Jews who dissented from Israeli policy were harshly dealt with. "The right of Jews to dissent from Israeli policy is the most sordidly painful issue to arise in Jewish community life in the last generation," declares Goldberg. "Paradoxically, for a group that prides itself on its feisty independence, the Jewish community came down solidly against its own members’ freedom of expression during the mid-1970s . . . The full weight of community wrath was brought down firmly on a few who tried to speak their own minds."  

In early 1974, Yasser Arafat began putting out feelers to Israel, suggesting that he might be ready to consider some sort of coexistence between Israel and the Palestinians. "A few Jewish community activists called for a response," writes Goldberg. "Israel came down hard on the wayward doves. The test case was Breira (meaning ‘alternative’), a tiny group of intellectuals formed in the spring of 1973 to promote ‘open discussion of Israel-diaspora relations.’ After the October war, it became a vehicle for the Israeli left to promote its views on Israeli-Palestinian ‘mutual recognition’ among American Jews. With a budget of less than $50,000 and a membership that never topped 1,500, Breira posed no threat to the major Jewish organizations . . . Yet Breira provoked a national furor . . . Leaders of virtually every major Jewish organizations spoke out against it. The president of the Reform rabbinate, Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld . . . announced that groups like Breira ‘give aid and comfort . . . to those who would cut aid to Israel and leave it defenseless before murderers and terrorists.’ The president of the American Jewish Congress, Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, refused to speak at meetings where a Breira member was to appear. B’Nai B’rith was pressured to discipline Hillel rabbis who joined the dissenters."  

In a clear interference in American Jewish life by the government of Israel, Goldberg reports that, "Breira members were invited to visit the local Israeli consulate for tongue lashings by ranking diplomats. By 1976, members were resigning from Breira in droves. In 1977, the battered organization finally gave up and dissolved itself."  


Any Jews who challenged Israeli policy were, in turn, harshly attacked. Literary critic Irving Howe, who in May 1976 signed an ad opposing Jewish settlement in the occupied territories, complained that the signers were "subjected to unseemly pressures in their communities and organizations." He called it "heimishe (homelike) witch-hunting." The Presidents Conference and the Synagogue Council held public inquiries into the limits of dissent and concluded that American Jews had the right to discuss issues freely, but only outside of public view. They followed the advice of Israeli ambassador Simcha Dinitz who told one gathering that, "I am for an exchange of views between American Jews and Israel, but The New York Times and The Washington Post do not have to be the first channel of dispute." Airing disputes in public, he said, conveyed weakness and division.  

Again at the direction of Israel, the Presidents Conference and other American Jewish groups, writes Goldberg, "working closely with Dinitz and his staff . . . began to develop a set of baseline principles to govern behavior within the organized Jewish community." Among these principles was that "American Jews must stand publicly united with Israel and air disagreements only in private . . . These rules were quickly taken up by the Jewish leadership as sacred writ from Jerusalem. Jews who disagreed found themselves unwelcome in community forums, asked to leave governing boards, shouted down at meetings. Even luminaries like Nahum Goldmann and Philip Klutznick, the founders of the Presidents Conference, began to find themselves ostracized after they endorsed Middle East compromise."  

As Washington pursued the Middle East peace process during the Bush Administration, the Shamir government bitterly denounced, in particular, the State Department’s Jewish Middle East specialists, the very individuals now being hailed for their role in bringing Israelis and Palestinians together. Secretary of State James Baker’s "Jewish peace team infuriated Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir," writes Goldberg, "and his American Jewish loyalists. Furious at Bush for pressuring Israel to freeze Jewish settlement of the occupied territories and trade land for peace, Shamir and his aides regularly referred to the foursome in private as ‘self-hating Jews’ and ‘traitors.’ Some voices were even harsher. The Jewish Press, the mass-circulation Orthodox weekly in Brooklyn, regularly carried attacks on ‘Baker’s apostates,’ comparing them to those baptised Jews who joined the Inquisition in the Middle Ages." (The U.S. officials being discussed were Dennis Ross, Daniel Kurtzer, Aaron David Miller and Richard Haass.)  

Pro-Israel PACS  

Much of the Jewish establishment’s energy goes into electing political candidates who will advance Israeli interests. Pro-Israel political action committees (PACs), Goldberg reports, "are particularly mysterious because their names do not reflect their goal. A list of 74 pro-Israel PACs . . . includes names like Americans for Better Citizenship, Citizens Organized PAC and the largest National PAC. Not one name refers to Israel." These PACs reward those who follow Israeli policy and challenge those who do not. Among those they successfully targeted for defeat were Rep. Paul Findlay (R-Ill.) and Senator Charles Percy (R-Ill.), because they had departed from Israeli policy in one particular or another, in Percy’s case by refusing to sign a letter demanding an end to Henry Kissinger’s "reassessment" of U.S.-Israel policy and supporting President Reagan’s AWACS sale to Saudi Arabia.  

Philip H. Stern, author of the 1987 book The Best Congress Money Can Buy and its 1992 sequel Still The Best Congress Money Can Buy, reports that during the 1990 election campaign some 50 pro-Israel PACs gave a total of over $4 million to federal candidates. That, he notes, compares with $914,000 contributed by PACs on both sides of the gun control question and $747,000 from PACs on both sides of the abortion issue. Moreover, he declares, the $4 million figure understates the magnitude of the pro-Israel PACs influence, since another $3.5 million was given directly to candidates by individual donors who had given to the pro-Israel PACs.  

The undemocratic nature of Jewish organizations is discussed in some depth by Goldberg. The Presidents Conference, for example, "avoided open discussion and almost never voted. It consisted of a single staffer, director Yehuda Hellman, who contacted member groups to line up endorsements for his steady stream of pro-Israel policy statements. When a rare disagreement arose, he tried to coax stragglers along or simply found a more acceptable phrasing . . . Al Chernin a former staff member of the National Community Relations Advisory Council (NCRAC) states: ‘In domestic areas we made policy, but in Israel affairs the policy was a given. Our job was to communicate it to the communities. We saw the Presidents Conference as the public voice of the Jewish community, especially to the President and the administration. And for the public record, at least, it represented the community’s policy-making body on Israel. In reality it was a vehicle through which Israel communicated its policy to the community."  

Opposition To Peace Process  

While Jewish groups have faithfully followed Israeli government policy in the past, when it comes to the peace process at the present time, a different story can be told. Now, those who oppose the peace process seem to be in control of some key organizations, although the vast majority of American Jews welcome territorial compromise as the best chance for a lasting peace.  

One militant opponent of the peace process, Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, declares that, "The Jewish community is split fifty-fifty on the issue." While a number of Jewish groups lobby against any territorial concessions and mainstream groups are largely silent, Goldberg notes that, "In fact, polls showed that American Jews supported the peace accords by an overwhelming margin. A survey conducted by the American Jewish Committee . . . found that American Jews supported the Israeli-PLO accords by a margin of 9 to 1. Fifty-seven percent were even prepared to see Israel take the next step and permit a Palestinian state to rise next door. In another sense, however, Klein had his numbers exactly right. It was true that only one Jew in ten was opposed to the peace accord, but only one Jew in four or five participated regularly in the affairs of the organized Jewish community. And that one fourth included most of the peace accord’s opponents . . . The Presidents Conference and its sister organization, AIPAC, both had been founded for the explicit purpose of supporting Israel’s elected government whatever its policies. But this principle only held as long as the Israeli government chose policies that the American Orthodox community (less than one tenth of American Jews) was willing to support. The Rabin government lost that support once it began actively seeking to end Israel’s conflict with the Arabs on the basis of territorial compromise . . ."  

J.J. Goldberg laments the unrepresentative nature of Jewish organizational life, its narrow focus and its willingness to permit Israel to set its agenda. If this continues, he believes, fewer and fewer American Jews will find any reason to join such groups or participate in activities which have placed religion and spirituality far in the background.  

Post-rescue Era  

Many other observers share Goldberg’s concerns. He quotes a number of them, such as journalist David Twersky, editor of the weekly Metrowest Jewish News in suburban New Jersey, who states that, "There is a widespread sense that we’ve entered the post-rescue era of Jewish life. There’s a sense that the central organizing principles of Jewish life outside the synagogue — rescue, defending Israel, creating an open society, have played themselves out. For close to a half-century, in the absence of a strong non-Orthodox religious leadership, everybody outside the Orthodox community has deferred to Israel. In the vacuum, we have a class of social workers and a group of rich people running our institutions. There’s no arena for serious leaders to emerge."  

World Jewish Congress president Edgar Bronfman, Sr. warns that the American Jewish community is on the verge of collapse because it is paying too much attention to defense from enemies and not enough to affairs of the soul: "We North American Jews are in grave danger of losing our Jewish identity. For a couple of generations our Jewishness has been expressed by our devotion to the State of Israel and our checks to the UJA." But now that Israel is moving toward peace, "it will not command the same attention." The great challenge facing Jews now, Bronfman said to the 1994 general assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations, is to find a new way to give young people the sense of spiritual mission their grandparents abandoned a century ago.  

J.J. Goldberg concludes that, ". . . the community leadership must make its choice. It can return to its old role as mouthpiece for Jerusalem, silencing dissenters and ruling over a smaller, more cohesive Jewish community. Or the leaders can finally take the fate of American Judaism in their hands and reach out to the dissatisfied Jew with a message that makes sense, a traditional American Jewish message of compassion at home and hope abroad. This will require the courage to confront Israeli leaders head-on, to insist on an Israel-Diaspora partnership of equals."  

No Future For Chauvinism  

Mr. Goldberg understands that a narrow, chauvinistic Judaism which fears freedom and fears the open society and its challenges, which has contempt for those or other faiths and which has transformed itself into a political action committee in behalf of a foreign government, has no future in America.  

The overwhelming majority of American Jews believe in our free and open and diverse society. They are Americans in precisely the same sense as are their fellow citizens of other faiths. If Judaism does not speak to their spiritual needs, they will find other outlets for their religious expression. They are less concerned, as Goldberg shows us very well, with Jewish "power" than with the Jewish understanding of man’s relationship with God and his proper role in the world. It is Jewish "meaning" and "purpose" which they seek from an establishment whose interests are quite different and which, as a result, does not represent either their views or their interests and concerns.  

To the question, "For whom does the Jewish Establishment really speak?" J.J. Goldberg answers: only for itself.  
JEWISH POWER: INSIDE THE AMERICAN JEWISH ESTABLISHMENT by J.J. Goldberg Addison-Wesley Publishing Co. 422 pages $25.00  

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