The failure of the mainstream leaders of American Jewry becomes more evident by the day. Those leaders have failed to find any solutions to the greatest internal threat to that community – its literal disappearance through intermarriage and assimilation. Equally great has been their failure to represent the community in dealings with the American government.
Those twin failures have, in many cases, a common source: the lack of Jewish knowledge and commitment of many leaders themselves.
Charles Bronfman, chairman of United Jewish Communities, can serve as an emblem the double failure of the American Jewish leadership, despite his leading role in such important initiatives as Project Birthright.
On September 8, 2000, Mr. Bronfman addressed the young leadership of the Indianapolis Jewish federation. In the course of that meeting, according to a local Jewish journalist Josh Hasten, he was asked for his views about intermarriage. Bronfman responded by describing a wedding he had attended the week before between a non-Jewish woman and a Jewish man, at which at which a Jewish clergyman had co-officiated with a Catholic priest.
It was, Bronfman said, ``one of the most beautiful weddings I every attended." He emphasized how it important it was that the non-Jewish bride be accepted by the community. Intermarriage is inevitable, he said, so ``What the hell, we might as well accept them in the community."
Thus spake the leader of American Jewry’s most powerful organization to an audience that included many college students. Surely Bronfman knows the grim statistics. There are more children under ten being raised in homes with one Jewish parent than two. Of those children less than a quarter will be ``raised Jewish", according to even the feeblest definition.
Bronfman was present at a tragedy – albeit a commonplace one – and yet could pass nothing more than a favorable aesthetic judgment on the floral bouquets, the orchestra, the bride’s gown. Only one for whom Judaism itself has no meaning could have so cavalierly failed to see what was before him. He conveyed to his young listeners the unmistakeable message that Judaism is trivial -- ``What the hell" if it plays any part in the life of this couple or their children.
For the apathy of American Jews to their Judaism, however, Jewish leadership bears a relatively small share of the blame. No leader could be expected, after all, to find some magic cure-all for the failures of Jewish parents and religious institutions.
With respect to their representation of the Jewish community in the corridors of power, however, their role has been disastrous. During the Clinton years, Jewish leaders confused access with influence, allowing themselves to be easily coopted by an administration far more politically savvy than they. They became more played upon than players.
David Wurmser, a Middle East expert at the American Enterprise Institute, points out in a devastating critique of American Jewish leadership published in the Israeli paper Makor Rishon, that when access becomes the primary objective of a special interest groups those groups become vulnerable to political blackmail. Rather than influencing administration policy, they are transformed into vehicles for the administration into the community.
The relationship of the Clinton White House with major American organizations demonstrates how the process works. Once the administration linked its Middle East policy exclusively to the Israeli Left, Jewish organizations were forced to choose between similarly linking their own positions or losing access.
Most caved and became Oslo’s enthusiastic supporters. The UJC, headed by Charles Bronfman, for instance, sought to award Yasir Arafat its 1999 Isaiah Peace Award, until the plan was exposed by the Boston Jewish Advocate. In return for invitations to the Lincoln bedroom and similar perks, Jewish leaders were only too eager to proclaim the master of the house ``Israel’s greatest friend ever." .
Today Oslo lies in tatters, Clinton is gone, and the Israeli electorate has move sharply to the Right. Those Jewish organizations that identified completely with Oslo are out in the cold, with neither access nor influence.
Wurmser further scores American Jewish leaders for having undermined the bedrock support for Israel in America: Christians who take the Bible seriously. Lacking a strong connection with their own religion, they are unable to connect to Christians of strong faith or to understand how those Christian supporters of Israel are left puzzled by Israel’s lack of attachment to its own heritage.
What Americans have traditionally admired about Israel was its doughty determination to defend itself. Since the beginning of Oslo, by contrast, they have heard endless proposals for American peacekeepers to ensure peace on the Golan, in Lebanon, and on the West Bank, as if Israel now sought to become an American protectorate.
Americans viewed themselves as linked to Israel by a core set of values rooted in the Bible. During the Barak government, those American supporters were astounded by Israel’s casual approach to its own patrimony and most important national symbols, culminating in the willingness to transfer sovereignty over the Temple Mount. Predictably, American Christian supporters of Israel have grown disenchanted with with a people that seems to be signalling that there is no core principle or beliefs for which it is worth fighting.
Nearly twenty years ago, Rabbi Emanuel Feldman wrote a satire in which one of the World’s Greatest Jewish Leaders is expelled from an organization of the same name after being caught in a compromising position – i.e., attending synagogue on Shabbat, even when there was no Bar Mitzvah, and participating in a ``daven minchah ceremony." Unfortunately, the satire still rings true today.