WJC’s Leader Veers to the Right and Beyond

By J.J. Goldberg

Published June 29, 2011, issue of July 08, 2011.
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Consider this thought. It just might represent your future: “In political warfare, words are lethal weapons.”

So lethal, in fact, that when you look at today’s dangers, “It would behoove Israeli and Jewish leaders to avoid being the inadvertent ‘weapons suppliers’ of the country’s adversaries.” Translation: Watch what you say. You might be aiding the enemy.

I’m quoting from a February 13 Jerusalem Post opinion essay by Dan Diker, a journalist and policy analyst working at the time at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a right-wing think tank.

He was also, the Post noted, the secretary-general-designate of the World Jewish Congress. He was formally installed on June 20. The WJC, alert readers recall, is an international organization charged with defending Jewish rights and giving voice to the concerns of Jews around the world. Diker may have gotten that bit confused; he sometimes seems more interested in taking their voice away. But then, he’s not the only one making that mistake lately, as we shall see.

Now, you may be under the impression that words are not really lethal weapons but more like their opposite. That the ability to settle differences with words instead of bullets is what marks a civilized society. That the free, robust exchange of words is the bedrock of democracy, the thing that keeps a free people free.

Well, get over it. In today’s world, Diker explains, words aren’t simply a means of communication. They’re implements of death, or delegitimization, which apparently is the same thing. They need to be closely monitored, or somebody could get hurt. We can’t have people running around expressing the wrong opinions.

No, sir. When Jewish leaders get together to discuss “the line between ‘legitimate criticism of Israel’ [Diker’s quote marks] and the assault against its legitimacy,” they need to go a step further and “consider when self-criticism transforms into self-delegitimization.” If you’re not careful you could end up “Adopting the language of the Palestinians.”

And just what constitutes “self-delegitimization” for Diker? A few examples: Israel’s “constant readiness to part with territories for peace.” The “self-criminalizing” claim that “if Israel does not create a Palestinian state immediately, it will become either a binational or apartheid state.” If you’re keeping score, we’ve just identified Israel’s president, defense minister and every living ex-head of the Shin Bet as self-criminalizing self-delegitimizers.

I know what you’re thinking: Big deal. So this fellow Diker dismisses the broad Israeli-American-Jewish consensus — negotiated peace, territorial compromise, protecting Israel’s Jewish and democratic character — as tantamount to collaborating with the enemy. So what? So do scores of other right-wing cranks at the right-wing think tanks that dot Jerusalem’s cityscape.

For starters, Diker is hardly a crank. He’s a brainy, much-quoted intellectual, an essayist and lecturer, Harvard grad, former Jerusalem Post reporter and adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute, a conservative Washington think tank. His hard-line views put him well within the mainstream in current-day Jerusalem — and Washington, for that matter. He just doesn’t happen to be in the mainstream of Diaspora Jewish opinion — certainly not the American Diaspora, which is most of the ballgame.

Unfortunately, his new job makes him a leading spokesman for the Diaspora. That’s what it means to run the World Jewish Congress. It’s an odd fit at best.

The WJC is best known as the outfit that got the Swiss banks to cough up those savings accounts stolen from Holocaust victims. It was the group that exposed then-Austrian president Kurt Waldheim’s Nazi past. It’s led the protests against the Vatican’s plans to canonize Pope Pius XII despite his silence during the Holocaust. It used to be headed by Edgar Bronfman, a billionaire liberal. Now it’s headed by Ronald Lauder, a billionaire conservative. Bronfman had the liberal-leaning Israel Singer as his chief of staff. Now Lauder has chosen Diker. What’s the problem?

The problem is that the World Jewish Congress is more than a plaything of billionaires. It is a confederation of the central, state-recognized Jewish representative organizations in some 90 countries — just about every country with a Jewish community, in fact, except the United States. America doesn’t have a central Jewish representative body, because the Constitution bars the government from “respecting an establishment of religion.” Instead, we have an anarchic plethora of competing agencies. We’re represented in the WJC by a loose council made up of several dozen of those agencies, most of which never bother to attend. And, of course, by a conga-line of billionaires.

Despite the shaky grounds for its legitimacy, the congress has effectively walked a tightrope for a half-century, held together by nimble professionals with the wisdom to read the urgency of the times and the warm heart to understand their people. It’s not clear that a conservative ideologue whose views are 180 degrees at odds with his mostly liberal, tolerant constituency will be able to keep the balls in the air.

If it seems strange, don’t blame Dan Diker. We’re living in an age of anxiety and rage. Israelis feel the world closing in on them, what with boycotts, flotillas, war crimes indictments and United Nations votes on every front. The world is impatient for answers that Israel can’t give right now, and so Israelis dig in. They want — no, expect — their fellow Jews in the Diaspora to stand beside them. There’s no time for doubts and hand-wringing.

Those Diaspora Jews who have no doubts about the rights and wrongs are ready to mobilize in every direction, to storm every citadel. Those who hesitate, trying to sort out their doubts, are easily shoved aside, as hesitators always are. And so it goes, as one organization after another with a solid liberal majority — the World Jewish Congress, the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency and a dozen others — chooses a hard-line leadership, or approves hard-line positions, or withdraws a protest at the last moment, or stands silently while the committed liberals of J-Street and the New Israel Fund are hung out to dry. The conservatives insist it’s a matter of life or death. The liberals aren’t so sure, but who wants to take a chance?

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com


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