Still Redundant After All These Years?

National organizations press their cases for relevancy anew.

Wed, 01/06/2010
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A report has been commissioned by the national policy-making body on Jewish community relations to study the relationship between and among the top national defense agencies — including the American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress and Anti-Defamation League — specifically dealing with longstanding complaints about their “duplication, excessive competition, lack of coordination and actual conflict.”

But before you breathe a sigh of relief and think to yourself, “it’s about time,” let me point out that the report in question was commissioned in January 1950, exactly 60 years ago this week.

The fact that few today have heard of The MacIver Report, the thorough study undertaken by a prominent Columbia University sociologist, Robert MacIver, underscores the unpleasant but instructive tale of its history and findings — namely that its call for the groups to put the overall common cause of Jewish advocacy above their particular interests and to devise a new system of allocating communal funds caused an irrevocable divide among them.

In the fall of 1952, almost two years after the report was commissioned and four months after it was submitted to the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council (NJCRAC), the precursor of today’s Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), it was opposed most vocally by the ADL (then part of B’nai B’rith) and the American Jewish Committee.

They charged that the proposals would create a centralized authority — namely, NJCRAC — and, according to a news story in The New York Times of Sept. 6, 1952, “violate the autonomy of the organizations and the voluntary character of the Jewish community.”

As a result, the ADL and American Jewish Committee split from NJCRAC for years over the report’s findings.

In the end, as a result of the bitterness the report generated — half of the six key national groups approved of the findings and half did not — nothing came of the extensive study, and it has remained a footnote of 20th-century American Jewish life.

Now, six decades later, one wonders how much, if any, of those findings is relevant today, especially at a time of economic crisis and calls for communal consolidation; in an era when younger Jews find establishment organizations irrelevant; and amid renewed complaints of duplication, competition and conflict between and among our leading Jewish defense groups.

Clearly much has changed over the last 60 years in terms of the communal landscape and priorities in the organized Jewish community. The six groups surveyed by MacIver included the Jewish Labor Committee and Jewish War Veterans, no longer first-tier policy leaders on the national scene, in addition to the ADL, American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union of Reform Judaism).

There is hardly mention in the MacIver Report of advocacy for the State of Israel, then in its infancy and now the major focus of communal activity.

In the ensuing years we have seen a proliferation of national Jewish organizations; two key groups that came into being after MacIver are AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which was formed after President Dwight Eisenhower’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles tired of meeting with various Jewish organizations and insisted they form an umbrella group.

The JCPA has 14 national member groups today, and the Conference of Presidents alone has 52.

Still, even after all this time, there is much in the report that is eerily relevant, from the charges of excessive duplication and waste, to the insistence by each of the national organizations that its work is unique and cannot be consolidated or shared, and that fundraising cannot be pooled.

Defying Corporate Logic

Essentially, the MacIver report was compelling in its logical proposals, but since it was written by an outsider with little grasp of the workings of Jewish organizational life, it was doomed from the outset.

“The organized Jewish community defies any sense of corporate logic,” says David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “Because otherwise, over the years and especially during this economic crisis, some organizations should either have been closed or, more realistically, consolidated or merged.”

Ones that come to mind include the Jewish Labor Committee, much reduced in size and scope since its heyday fighting Nazism; HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society which no longer rescues and resettles Jewish immigrants; the World Jewish Congress, a shadow of its former self and essentially a one-man show for president Ronald Lauder; B’nai B’rith, which over the years has lost from its portfolio the ADL, B’nai B’rith Women, BBYO and Hillel, all now independent groups; and the American Jewish Congress, whose agenda and budget have been greatly diminished, and now is best known for the church-state legal work of Marc Stern, its acting co-executive director.

Not surprisingly, Stern does not agree with critics who say his organization has outlived its usefulness. He points to its highly respected legal briefs and its advocacy style, which he describes as distinctively aggressive. He also emphasizes the need for the community to have a wide range of voices and positions.

Stern readily acknowledges that “there is duplication” among the national agencies “and sometimes wastefulness,” but he contends that there is “less duplication than many people think.”

He says that in fact, the national groups do work together on foreign policy causes like advocacy for Israel and sanctions against Iran — primarily through the Presidents Conference — and respect each other’s areas of expertise and try to avoid repetitive efforts.

“MacIver was right about some things,” Stern said, like the need for the organizations to work more closely together. But he added that MacIver’s call for consolidation would give more power to a shrinking number of funders today, who in turn could determine the agenda for the whole community.

“Let’s face it,” Stern continued, “we are all depending on fewer large givers.”

The result is an implicit push for the organizations to focus on the same issues, with much the same approach, as they woo these donors. This leads to duplication and reluctance to take divergent positions.

Stern said that while NJCRAC was established as a consensus organization, seeking coordination among the national agencies, it “does almost none of that now.” Instead, it primarily has its own agenda, he said, focusing on a domestic agenda that highlights poverty in America and environmental concerns, in addition to advocacy for Israel and calling for sanctions against Iran.

Steve Gutow, executive director of the JCPA, disagrees with the assessment, asserting that “the rationale for the JCPA as a consensus finder and builder is more important than ever, and that is a role we play.”

Some of that coordination is done behind the scenes, he notes, “but much of it is public,” like passing resolutions on a range of issues, including some controversial ones in recent years: endorsing the principle of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and calling for divestments from companies doing business with Iran.

Other national leaders say the JCPA does not have the clout it would like to in achieving consensus.

Independent Streak Remains

And so it goes. Conversations with the principals in various national organizations result in each one casting his organization in a key role, and describing other groups as performing a lesser service.

And maybe that’s the point. Each of our national organizations has its own culture, constituency and outlook. And for better or worse, the logical proposals of a MacIver Report are never going to happen in today’s American Jewish community.

Marc Stern of the American Jewish Congress credits the MacIver Report with raising important issues, and says that “de facto, some of the specialization he called for did happen.” In that sense, he said the report was “more than a footnote.”

Indeed, there was a time in the 1950s when the ADL and American Jewish Committee conducted a joint appeal, a reality that observers agree would be unthinkable today.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents, notes that “there will always be institutional distinctions, and different groups have different areas of expertise and some top professionals, which is a great asset.”

AJC’s David Harris says that “it is almost painful to read the MacIver Report today” in light of “all the wasted effort and energy in the community I see, resulting from unproductive competition and attempted duplication that should instead be focused on compelling policy issues, from Jewish security to continuity.”

Harris, paraphrasing the late businessman Sy Syms, says “a sophisticated consumer is our best customer,” asserting that the Jewish community requires more knowledgeable leaders and donors who can distinguish among the many organizations seeking their support, and recognize “those that are especially efficient and productive and those too often running largely on past history or institutional and personal ego.

“MacIver was on to something,” Harris said, “but he underestimated the degree of institutional resilience, stubbornness and protectiveness that allowed the Jewish community, for all its successes, to, in effect, defy the obvious, which would have meant rationalizing and distributing its finite resources more strategically.”

Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL, says it was not wrong to reject MacIver’s recommendations six decades ago, or to do so now.

“My view is let the marketplace decide,” he said. “The community is best served by many voices rather than a homogenized group that would represent the lowest common denominator. And the world would only hear one voice.

But, he added, “the spirit of MacIver remains” in that “he made us aware of the community’s concerns about cooperation and coordination. So his work had a positive, if indirect impact. The organizations have tried to live up to it, short of merging.”

Jerome Chanes, a social scientist and author who was national affairs director of NJCRAC for 15 years, suggests that though far less relevant today, our national agencies “came out of particular ideologies,” and the MacIver report underestimated the significance of that fact.

Chanes is less impressed with complaints about duplication, though he says it exists, and more focused on “celebrating the pluralism” of the American Jewish community.

In the end, the idyllic vision of a unified voice for American Jewry, as MacIver pointed toward, was not in the cards. And in truth, the reality of our national organizational landscape is reflective of the community it represents — diverse, passionate, sometimes cantankerous, but for the most part united when it comes to core issues like support for the State of Israel and opposition to racism and bias, particularly anti-Semitism.

These groups may echo each other at times, but as long as they can manage to support themselves, their voices will fill the air, whether we — particularly the members of the younger generation — are listening or not.

To read key excerpts from the MacIver Report, courtesy of JInsider.com, click on www.jinsiderblog.com

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