The annual meeting of Jewish federations kicked off exactly one year to the day before the 2012 general elections. But politics seemed to be an unwelcome guest at the event.
The 3,000-strong audience gave a tepid response to a call from top Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz for the Jewish community to speak out on behalf of President Barack Obama, a sign of the unease Jewish communal leaders felt when discussing politics at this setting.
Wasserman Schultz, the keynote speaker at the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, the umbrella organization of federations in the U.S. and Canada, dedicated most of her speech to praise of the community and its activism around legislation dealing with women’s health, assistance to Holocaust survivors, and Jewish military chaplains.
Applause turned decidedly weaker when Wasserman Schultz, a Florida congresswoman who also chairs the Democratic National Committee, turned to politics.
“Many of you received mails distorting the President’s record on Israel,” she said, referring to email blasts addressed to Jewish recipients.
Wasserman Schultz ticked off actions Obama has taken to strengthen Israel’s security and his strong stance against a Palestinian drive for statehood in the U.N. She called on the audience to “spread the truth” and speak out within the community against attempts to attack Obama on the issue of Israel.
“Israel should not be used as a political football,” she said. The appeal was greeted by unenthusiastic applause, but no boos, either.
The General Assembly agenda does not include any Republican politicians. The meeting is traditionally focused on issues relating to Jewish communal life and to internal debates within the federation system, not politics.
Israel is represented by relatively low-level officials. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was initially scheduled to speak but two weeks before the event his office had announced he could not attend. Instead, deputy prime minister Silvan Shalom was to deliver an address on behalf of the Israeli government, but he too cancelled. That left Israel represented by its ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, a handful of diplomats, and by opposition lawmaker Shaul Mofaz.
The main issue facing the General Assembly is the approval of a major reform in the way Jewish federations allocate their funds for overseas causes.
The federations operate under an existing agreement which provides the Jewish Agency for Israel with 75% of the overseas funds and the Joint Distribution Committee with the other 25%. This agreement was a source of disputes in recent years, since JDC argued that its share should be increased and also because federations had been seeking other ways to fund their overseas activity beyond the programs offered by JAFI and JDC.
The new proposal, known as the Global Planning Table, will distribute the funds based on a process of debate and discussions between the federations, their umbrella organizations, and the recipients in Israel, the former Soviet Union and other areas in need.
While JAFI and JDC had given their approval to the agreement, not all are pleased with the proposal. Several federation officials complained the new process is too cumbersome and will not be effective. Other federations argued they had been excluded from the discussion process. An anonymous email sent to federation officials and lay leaders titled “I love my federation” urged members to vote against the proposed reform, arguing that it would take away the collective power of federations to decide how their funds will be used.
A vote on the reform is expected Tuesday at the meeting of the JFNA board of trustees. Insiders said they expect the measure to be approved since it has already been debated in the past year on all levels and because it has the support of the two major overseas agencies, JAFI and JDC.
Another issue JFNA is highlighting in its conference is its fight against proposed changes in tax regulations which would cut tax exemptions for charitable contributions.
The measure was initially proposed by the White House as a means to increase revenue but was later taken off the table by Congress thanks in part to an aggressive lobbying effort by JFNA. The organization is calling on its members to remain active on the issue and to make sure the idea is not raised again. JFNA’s concern is that eliminating tax incentives for charitable contributions could result in an immediate drop in donations that would negatively impact federations’ ability to carry out their programs.
Contact Nathan Guttman at email@example.com
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.