columnU.S.-Israel Relations

The perils of politicizing Jewish philanthropy

As the debate about Netanyahu and judicial reform heats up, the umbrella group of Jewish Federations is showing less restraint about intervening in Israeli politics. That’s a mistake.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, April 10, 2023. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, April 10, 2023. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

The last thing that most of those who run the umbrella Jewish fundraising organizations known as Federations want to do is play politics. Raising money for charitable causes and necessary services for Jewish communities is hard enough without these groups being dragged into the partisan warfare that has seeped into virtually every sector of American life. But it’s growing harder for these groups to stay neutral, both about political battles in the United States as well as those in Israel.

That’s the dilemma that the leadership of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) finds itself in this month as it prepares to convene its annual General Assembly (GA), which is being held in Israel to coincide with the celebration of Israel’s 75th birthday. Though it was intended to be a feel-good event for the organized Jewish world, this particular GA has predictably become another battlefield on which the conflict over Israeli judicial reform is being fought.

To its credit, the JFNA resisted efforts by some on the left to withdraw its invitation for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak at the group’s plenary session in Tel Aviv. Opponents of the efforts to rein in the unaccountable power of the Israeli Supreme Court and the judiciary over the Jewish state were angry that the event’s organizers wanted the GA to repudiate the Israeli government that was elected last November. They demanded that the JFNA deny Netanyahu and Knesset member Simcha Rothman—one of the main architects of the legislation—the right to speak at the GA, or at least to only do so as part of panels where they might be confronted and refuted by their opponents.

In the end, the protesters got their way. Rightly fearing that his speech would be disrupted or otherwise sabotaged and understanding that the only coverage given his remarks would focus on those smearing him as a would-be dictator, Netanyahu decided that discretion was the better part of valor. His office issued a statement about scheduling conflicts that no one believed and pulled out of the event.

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This is a triumph for the Jewish left as it now establishes a precedent by which Israel’s political opposition has shown the ability to declare a supposedly non-partisan venue like the Federation’s GA as a no-go zone for a prime minister who was elected by the country’s right-wing and religious voters.

The anti-Bibi resistance has taken to the streets, claiming that the country’s democracy would be imperiled if the judicial reform passed. But the real agenda behind this unprecedented campaign was to reverse the election results. Israel’s secular liberal population was appalled at the fact that a coalition of right-wing and religious parties had won a clear majority in the Knesset. More than that, the prospect that Netanyahu’s government would, as it had promised to do in the election campaign, reform the judiciary and establish some checks on the courts’ power sent them into a panic.

They were egged on by members of the country’s legal, academic, business and security establishments who view Netanyahu’s nationalist and religious voters with haughty disdain, abetted by an Israeli media that leans even harder to the left than its American counterparts. As a result, those who voted for the losers in the fall have shown their willingness to do anything, even sabotaging the Jewish state’s economy and security, to stop the prime minister.

At this point, it almost doesn’t matter anymore that judicial reform would actually make Israel more democratic rather than less. The left’s false narrative that Netanyahu, who just won an election, is an authoritarian, and that the goal of Rothman and the Knesset majority is to transform Israel into a theocratic tyranny along the lines of Iran, has been mimicked by the corporate press in the United States and largely accepted by liberal Americans and the Biden administration. So, it’s hardly surprising that many, if not most, of those who take part in the organized Jewish world represented by the JFNA and its GA would buy into these canards, too.

Federation General Assembly in Jerusalem 2023. Source: Jewish Federations of North America.

Americans weighing in on Israeli politics

That is why although the JFNA is more inclined to weigh in on divisive American political issues such as abortion than to do so on the topics that divide Israelis, they have tilted towards Netanyahu’s opponents in its recent statements.

Contrary to the claims of groups that are critical of Israel, American Jewish groups have often spoken up about security issues like territory, settlements and peace negotiations with the Palestinians. That’s despite the fact that there is a strong argument to be made that those are topics Americans should defer to Israelis on—or at least recognize that they are not the ones whose lives are put at risk by disastrous schemes to trade land for peace that have inevitably turned out to be swaps of territory for terror.

Israelis should indeed listen more to the Diaspora on issues relating to Jewish unity, such as religious pluralism or worship at Jerusalem’s Western Wall. But the idea that Americans should be intervening on questions concerning the balance between legislative and judicial power in Israel is absurd. Or at least it would be if so many people hadn’t bought into the big lie about Netanyahu being a tyrant rather than someone who has won more elections than any other Israeli politician.

Perhaps it’s understandable that American Jews—most of whom trace their origins back to Europe—should be siding with Israel’s liberal Ashkenazi establishment. But few seem to understand the implications of actions that reinforce the contempt that Israeli elites have for Mizrachi Jews who came from the Middle East and North Africa, but who now comprise the majority of the Jewish population and are still disproportionately represented at the lower end of the economic spectrum. Many Americans fail to understand that the battle over judicial reform and the future of Israeli politics is inextricably bound up with this ethnic, social, nationalist and religious divide.

Yet JFNA issued a statement in February opposing one element of the reform package by which the Knesset could overturn Supreme Court decisions by a bare 61-vote majority. That particular part of the legislation was the most debatable of its proposals. This sounds scary to American Jews who have grown up in a country blessed with a written constitution in which the three branches of government can check and balance each other.

Israel’s parliamentary democracy has always worked differently, and few Americans have ever previously cared or noticed that 61 votes in the Knesset have always been enough for Israel to engage in war or, more crucially, surrender territory in dubious peace agreements that were equally divisive. When the Rabin government passed the Oslo Accords by a similarly narrow margin, liberal American Jews cheered. Now, they jeer the notion that the majority should rule.

And when Netanyahu—battered by the demonstrations and by the efforts of opponents to use the military and the economy to topple the state—waved the white flag on judicial reform, the JFNA welcomed this along with the rest of the prime minister’s foes. But just as the ceasefire didn’t stop the anti-Bibi resistance’s demonstrations and threats, those elements within American Jewry were similarly willing to continue the battle by wanting to deny Netanyahu and members of his government their customary invitations to speak to the GA.

Who represents American Jewry?

Those who attend the GA should also remember that although they might feel that their views are representative of American Jewry as a whole, Federation leaders shouldn’t pretend that they have the legitimacy that Netanyahu has earned at the ballot box.

Jewish Federations are vital organizations. In past generations, they had more prestige and power since American Jews had no other options for taking part in civic life. They were largely prevented by prejudice and custom from being accepted by secular groups, charities and social organizations, so they formed their own agencies to deal with specific Jewish needs, as well as to provide their donors with the honor they were denied elsewhere.

That has changed dramatically in the last few decades, and Jews and their money are now welcomed with open arms at institutions that once snubbed them. Moreover, wealthy Jews now prefer boutique philanthropies devoted to specific causes and which give them more decision-making power rather than community-wide umbrella groups like Federations that take on the hard but necessary job of allocating resources where they are most needed, regardless of local politics and the egos of the big givers.

As important as they are, their leadership is entirely self-selected since these are voluntary groups. To the extent that they represent anyone, it is those who are actively involved in Jewish life and concerned about Israel. That often puts them at odds with the growing number of cultural Jews who have opted out of affiliation of any kind, whom demographers have labeled “Jews of no religion.”

However laudable their activism and philanthropy, Federation leaders don’t have any standing to lecture those elected by the Israeli people about “democracy.” That is why any steps taken by the JFNA to take sides in the political brawls going on in Israel are particularly ill-advised. Going down the same road as liberal groups like the Anti-Defamation League—and allowing the partisan leanings of many of their members to cause them to prioritize liberal politics over the needs of the Jewish people—would be disastrous. In doing so, they would be failing to fulfill their stated mission of serving their communities and reinforcing the ties that bind them with Israel.

They also need to take into account that the future of the Jewish world, both in the United States and Israel, does not lie with the strictly secular or who want Israel to be less of a Jewish state, as the leftist majority of the Israeli Supreme Court clearly intends. Current polling about judicial reform notwithstanding, the coalition Netanyahu leads represents the demographic future of Israel. To some extent, that is just as true of American Jewry, which will inevitably trend more towards religious and politically conservative elements as the secular left assimilates.

The 2023 GA should be a nonpartisan celebration of Zionism and 75 years of a proud Jewish state made up of those from every political, ethnic and religious background. But the ability of the left to ensure Netanyahu’s absence has turned it into just another political venue for the anti-Bibi resistance. In the long run, efforts by liberals to join forces with the left will do grave damage to the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora. Jewish Federations and other American Jewish philanthropies should stay out of Israeli politics and seek to bring the two communities closer together, rather than helping to drive them farther apart.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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