Upstart Jewish Activists Push Aside Establishment Leaders

Does Hobby Lobby Fight Point to 'End of the Macher'?

Macher No More? Establishment Jewish leaders like Abe Foxman used to be gatekeepers for most activism. Not any more.
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Macher No More? Establishment Jewish leaders like Abe Foxman used to be gatekeepers for most activism. Not any more.

By Ron Kampeas

Published November 05, 2013.
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(JTA) — The conservative political blogger Ken Berwitz was enraged last month, but not by Democratic malfeasance, his favored bugbear. No, he was irked by the policies of an Oklahoma-based chain of craft stores.

Berwitz was bothered not only that Hobby Lobby was keeping Hanukkah tchotchkes off its shelves, but that a clerk at a New Jersey outlet had accounted for the omission by explaining that the store doesn’t “cater to you people.”

“I will never set foot in a Hobby Lobby. Ever,” Berwitz seethed on his blog. “I will be sure to tell everyone I know and, obviously, everyone who reads this blog, the reason why.”

The story quickly went viral. Within a week, Hobby Lobby had apologized and announced that in time for the holiday season, it would be stocking dreidels and menorahs in certain locations. The Anti-Defamation League posted the apology on its website while noting that not stocking Jewish items did not indicate bigotry.

A swift victory in the Internet age?

Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, isn’t so sure. In fact, the whole experience left him uneasy.

“In the good old days, when someone said something critical or nasty, you could ignore it,” Foxman said. “Now everyone has a megaphone. Your supporters come and say, ‘Did you hear?’ You’re forced to deal and engage.”

From matters of state to determinations of what should and should not offend Jews, the major Jewish organizations have been forced to contend in recent years with individuals or small activist groups that increasingly determine which issues dominate the communal agenda.

Recent controversies over religious freedom in the military and American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital have been driven not by the country’s largest Jewish groups but by individuals who bypass traditional channels of Jewish advocacy.

One of the more consequential recent examples was a lawsuit brought by Nathan and Alyza Lewin on behalf of Menachem Zivotofsky, an American citizen born in Jerusalem. The father-daughter legal team sought to force the U.S. State Department to hew to a 2002 law allowing Jerusalem-born Americans to list their country of birth as Israel – a law ignored by both President Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush, citing presidential prerogative in shaping foreign policy.


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