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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The American Jewish Committee initially opposed the lawsuit, considering it dangerous to bring the issue of Jerusalem before the courts. But pressure from donors and right-wing activists ultimately persuaded the AJC and other major Jewish groups to sign on.

The lawsuit backfired. In July, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld the president’s exclusive power “to determine whether to recognize a foreign sovereign,” enshrining in legal precedent the president’s preeminence in foreign policy matters over Congress, which has historically proved a pro-Israel bulwark at moments of tension between Israel and the White House.

“How far Congress has the power to rein in the executive is not trivial,” one regretful senior official at a group that backed the lawsuit said at the time of the ruling. Freelancers “do a lot things that make short-term sense for the cause and long-term very little for the Jewish people as a whole.”

Alyza Lewin disputed the suggestion that the Zivotofsky case had done long-term damage to Jewish interests, telling JTA she is petitioning for a Supreme Court review and is confident her position will prevail.

Steven Cohen, a sociologist who directs the Berman Jewish Policy Archive, said the pressure on Jewish organizations has increased in part because of the convergence social media and a resurgent activist temperament that has been dormant since the 1970s.

“There’s the decline of mainstream Jewish organizations as the non-Orthodox committed Jewish population shrinks,” Cohen said. “There is organizing in the postmodern age, the ability of social media to link people and to push issues that have resonance to the forefront very quickly. It’s not much different from the Arab Spring in Tunisia.”

Two top establishment figures speaking on background noted the case of Mikey Weinstein as another example of the ways major groups have lost unfettered control over the communal agenda. A former military lawyer, Weinstein founded the Military Religious Freedom Foundation after hearing reports from his sons that they had been exposed to Christian proselytizing as cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Several establishment groups took up the gauntlet and negotiated reforms with the Pentagon, but the reforms did not go far enough for Weinstein, who now derides establishment groups as milquetoasts. Weinstein remains influential, scoring his own Pentagon meetings.

Whether the phenomenon results from failures by establishment groups or is a symptom of larger shifts in the culture is in dispute. What is clear is that the landscape has dramatically changed.

“We are confronted more to take positions we’ve never taken before, things we’d ignore or phase out, but now it’s harder to do so,” Foxman said.


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