More on the AJ Congress - and the perils of progressive domestic activism
08/06/2010 - 10:57
James Besser

The other day I blogged about the sad demise of the American Jewish Congress and laid much of the blame for its protracted demise on its decision to turn away from the progressive domestic focus that was its traditional bread and butter.

A caller with long connections to the group took me to task.

The organization, he said, had little choice but to move away from domestic issues, for the simple reason that it's almost impossible to raise money on those concerns from a confident, secure and prosperous American Jewish community.

I don't buy his whole argument,  but it does raise some interesting and important issues.

It is a given in the Jewish philanthropic world that two issues trump all others when it comes to opening Jewish wallets: a threatened Israel and overt anti-Semitism.

Actually, anti-Semitism isn't a big factor for most American Jews, so if you're a Jewish fundraiser, it's all Israel, all the time.

Jews whose primary interest is Israel tend to be highly focused and motivated, with a narrow range of concerns; Jews whose primary focus is domestic tend to be all over the map, focusing on domestic abuse, church-state separation, poverty, the environment, women's issues, civil rights....the list is pretty much endless.

AIPAC can raise money like crazy because it focuses on a single issue that has a strong emotional charge; multi-issue domestic groups have a much harder time because there are so many issues, and so many other organizations specifically devoted to those issues.

My caller also made the point that church-state separation, long the meat and potatoes of the American Jewish Congress, is not a compelling issue to most American Jews, a factor that undercut its fundraising base.

The community is more divided than it used to be on issues like government funding for religious institutions. And many believe the biggest church-state battles have already been won; Jewish public students don't have to recite the Lord's Prayer in public schools, the way my parents did.

These struck me as valid points, but it doesn't change my bottom line: one reason the AJ Congress failed is that it became just one more Jewish organization saying the same things about Israel and its critics and about anti-Semitism. It no longer could distinguish itself from the alphabet soup of Jewish agencies putting out almost identical press releases and using identical talking points.

But his argument does point to a growing communal problem.

Most Jews remain liberal, and most focus more on domestic concerns than on Israel.

But multi-issue organizations like the AJ Congress have a harder and harder time raising money on these issues in today's intensely competitive philanthropic climate.

That's probably why the most successful groups – the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League come to mind – spend more and more of their time on Israel, the philanthropic mother lode.

Among groups with a strong progressive domestic focus, probably the most successful is the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism – and the RAC depends mostly on the Union for Reform Judaism for funding, not on endless fundraising.

I wonder: do the things the multi-issue groups have to do to keep up economically put them more and more out of touch with the concerns of the average American Jew – still progressive in politics, still much more focused on a range of domestic issues than on Israel? Does the AJ Congress' sad demise serve as a warning for other groups with a traditional domestic focus?

Comments

Very thoughtful, succinct analysis. I've let the leadership of our organization - Jewish Labor Committee - know about it, as they are scattered across the map, and many undoubtedly do not read Jim's Political Insider items religiously ...

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