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Jewish Journal

A Debate on Focus

November 4, 1999 | 7:00 pm

Jewish community leaders across the country are buzzing nervously these days about a family feud within the Jewish philanthropic world that could help shape the political profile of American Jewry for years. It's one of those spats where both sides are a little bit right and a little bit wrong, and everyone else wishes they'd just cool off before they break something and get us all in trouble. So far, sadly, there's no sign of temperatures dropping.

The feud pits the nation's two biggest and richest Jewish welfare federations against a little-known agency that serves as a sort of public-policy think-tank for Jewish federations nationwide. The agency, the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, or JCPA, is supposed to coordinate the federations' policies with those of national Jewish organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and Hadassah. The federations in New York and Chicago think it's actually off pursuing its own liberal agenda. They want to shorten the leash.

The council claims to be the most broadly representative group in American Jewish life. Its members include a dozen of the biggest national Jewish organizations, Orthodox to Reform and left to right, plus 120 local Jewish federations and community-relations councils. Its annual policy statement, hammered out through a year-long process of negotiation among the groups, ranges from Israel to school prayer to abortion, welfare reform and the environment. What results is an astonishingly broad consensus across the Jewish spectrum.

The problem, say New York and Chicago federation leaders, is that the consensus isn't genuine. They say the council operates through a flawed process that leaves too many Jews outside. "There is a portion of our community who question if it is even appropriate for an organization to speak on behalf of the Jewish community on some of these issues," wrote the president and executive director of New York UJA-Federation, James Tisch and Stephen Solender, in a June 30 letter to the council. The Chicago federation endorsed most of the New Yorkers' complaints in its own letter Aug. 6.

The New Yorkers want the JCPA to prune its agenda and focus on things "germane" to federations, like aid to immigrants and care for the Jewish elderly, plus no-brainers like Israel and anti-Semitism. They particularly want the council to abandon subjects like affirmative action and school vouchers, where they say the old Jewish consensus of the 1960s and 1970s has collapsed.

Jewish conservatives are hailing the tiff as evidence that Jewish liberalism is finally in retreat, something they've prayed for since the Nixon administration. But insiders on both sides say conservatives have little to celebrate. The issues the two federations want the council to focus on -- increased federal aid for immigrants, seniors and the poor -- are big-spending liberal ideas, not right-wing causes.

In part this is just local politics, especially in New York. The federation there has long been at odds with its local Jewish Community Relations Council, which is dominated by a poorer, more conservative population and often resents federation's "Park Avenue liberals." Not surprisingly, the community council doesn't have much use for national JCPA, either. Some say the New York federation is leaning on JCPA in a machiavellian bid to bring its own community council closer.

But many outside New York and Chicago say the dispute's causes run deeper, and may actually be more worrisome than any simple ideological shift. Some say it's about money: a bid by federations and their donors to control Jewish public policy and make it serve fundraising needs, rather than the wishes of average Jews. "Every poll shows the majority of the Jewish community cares about the prophetic charge to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and heal the sick," insists Marcia Goldstone, outspoken director of the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council. But money talks. Federation leaders concede money is a factor, but deny it's a power-grab. They just want to make every dollar count when cash is tight. "The question is whether the issues that JCPA is tackling are germane to the UJA-Federation mission," says New York's Tisch, son of Laurence and CEO of Loew's Corp.

Beyond money, the dispute reflects an alarming decline in the Jewish community's ability to take positions of any sort with credibility. More and more, it appears, Jews are simply unwilling to agree. Federation leaders call it "lack of consensus." But that's only half-true. Jews aren't more divided than they were three decades ago. Dissenters haven't become more numerous. They're simply less willing to defer to the majority.

This comes in many forms. Orthodox Jews are more defensive, more fearful of a liberal majority that seems ever further from tradition. Republicans are more defiant, less willing to let their money be used to advance a liberalism they consider bankrupt.

As for federation leaders, they're more dependent each year on smaller numbers of bigger donations. Each gift becomes more important, and each threat to withhold a gift more frightening. Each time another conservative complains about "JCPA liberals," supporting the council seems more like an expensive habit.

In part JCPA's problems are of its own making. Over the last decade it's abandoned part of its mandate. It was born to juggle the different needs of its two constituencies, national agencies and local federations and councils. The local councils wanted it to be their voice on the national stage. The agencies -- especially the fiercely competitive ADL, American Jewish Committee and American Jewish Congress -- wanted it to keep low and not compete with them. Balancing them was JCPA's key to survival. In recent years, under executive director Lawrence Rubin, JCPA has tilted sharply toward the local councils. Three years ago it changed its structure, downgrading the power of the national agencies. Some agencies responded by dowgrading their role in JCPA. "They became de facto another defense agency," said ADL national director Abe Foxman. "That turned us off." The result, ironically, was to reduce JCPA's visibility and clout. Given all those troubles, it's a wonder the New York and Chicago federations haven't received more support from other cities. The reason is that most communities realize clipping the JCPA's wings is more expensive than supporting it.

"JCPA doesn't merely take positions for the sake of it," said Burt Siegel, director of the Philadelphia Jewish Community Relations Council and dean of local council directors. "Black politicians stood with us on Soviet Jewry because we stood with them on poverty and health care. JCPA offers an opportunity to help shape society in many ways that make life better for most Jews."


J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.

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