New York Gov. Kathy Hochul is calling for term limits for statewide elected officials, following in the footsteps of California and many other states that have already adopted such limits. The American Jewish community, which has long suffered from its own crisis of entrenched leadership, should embrace the proposal, too.
Term limits are a safeguard against “the love of power and the love of money,” Benjamin Franklin wrote. He warned that without term limits, politicians would view elected office as “a place of profit, and they will move heaven and earth to obtain it.” Thomas Jefferson advocated term limits to curb what he called “office-hunters.”
Among the current leaders of American Jewish and Zionist non-profit organizations, there are at least nine who have held the same position for 32 or more years; at least seven more who have been in power for 21-29 years; and at least another six who have been in office for 15-19 years.
At least five other leaders of Jewish groups have in the past few years either passed away in office or retired after holding power for periods ranging from 35 to 40 years.
The president of one small American Zionist organization recently circulated a newspaper clipping from 28 years earlier, reporting how he first became head of the group. Is it really a source of pride for American Jewry if its leaders aspire to be presidents-for-life?
Term limits would improve the quality of Jewish leadership. Bringing in new faces would mean bringing in new ideas to keep Jewish organizations from growing stale and predictable. As younger women and men enter the Jewish organizational community, they will bring with them the technological skills and social media savvy needed to compete in today’s world.
When a single individual holds the reins of power for decades, some younger potential leaders are discouraged from becoming active. Why invest time and energy if power will always be concentrated in the hands of a privileged few? Programs to recruit potential leaders from diverse sectors of the Jewish community are badly needed—but how can they succeed if the road to leadership is obstructed by old-timers who want to preserve power for themselves?
Term limits would prevent self-interested individuals from viewing leadership positions as a way to enrich themselves or luxuriate in the other trappings of communal power—because there just wouldn’t be enough time to exploit their positions even if they were tempted to do so. Knowing the clock was ticking, they would have an incentive to keep their promises, do their jobs, and then step aside so others can have a chance.
In America today, there is a growing recognition that restricting political or civic leadership to a self-perpetuating old boys’ club is bad for democracy. Thirty-six states have term limits for governors. Fifteen state legislatures and numerous local municipalities have term limits, too. So do many non-profit organizations, including the American Red Cross, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Girl Scouts and Habit for Humanity.
Gov. Hochul’s wise proposal would bring New York State in line with this enlightened movement. American Jewry should follow in her footsteps.
Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and author of more than 20 books about the Holocaust and Jewish history.
Shulamit Magnus is professor Emerita of Jewish Studies and History at Oberlin College.
Dr. Medoff and professor Magnus are members of the steering committee of the Committee on Ethics in Jewish Leadership, www.jewishleadershipethics.org.
This article first appeared in the Jewish Journal.