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Our Ownership Society

It seems like eons ago, but there was a time — in living memory — when Jews in America and around the world had leaders who stood up before their people and the world and actually led, and were followed.

They seemed like giants in their day, and perhaps they were. Most of all, they were men and women of vision, passion and integrity who knew what they believed and knew what the people believed, because they lived among the people and listened to them, and the people listened to them when they spoke. We remember the names: David Ben-Gurion, Stephen S. Wise, Henrietta Szold, Abraham Cahan, Moshe Feinstein, Golda Meir, Menachem Begin, Alexander Schindler. No, none was flawless, but they were genuine and eloquent and wise in their own ways, and we knew who they were, and they were loved.

Look at us now. Look what we have become.

We have become a community of unprecedented affluence and influence, and yet we have barely a clue where to go or what to do with our bounty. We know we have an ancient mandate and mission, but we do not know how to decipher it, and so we quarrel among ourselves and chase after the foolish and false, like the Israelites waiting in the darkness at the foot of Mount Sinai.

Instead of vision, we have fear-mongering. Instead of leaders, we have major donors, and the bureaucrats, lobbyists and hired rabbis who scurry to do their bidding. Few of us can name any of them, much less say what they believe.

And integrity? We used to think we had a bit of that left. But look, look at what we have become.

It is tempting to say that quite enough has been made of the crisis at the World Jewish Congress. We have learned more than any of us wanted to know. We know that things are a mess over there. We know that the organization’s financial affairs were badly mismanaged. We know that the organization, once a fearless voice for Jewish rights, respected around the world, has been turned into a laughingstock. We know that a blizzard of accusations was unleashed, mostly against Israel Singer and Edgar Bronfman, the duo that wrought the WJC’s great achievements of the last quarter-century, mostly by the right-wing Australian-Israeli activist Isi Leibler, who supposedly was acting to end the rule of self-appointed billionaires and bring some sunlight into WJC operations.

It seemed reasonable to assume that once the backstabbing and backroom dealing had been exposed to the light of day, honest people would step up and set things straight. And indeed, the old leadership appears to be stepping aside, and a new leadership is to be chosen in the next few days by the assembled heads of the world’s Jewish communities.

And yet, as Nathaniel Popper reports on Page A1, the backroom dealing continues unabated and seems, incredibly, to be reaching new heights of shamelessness. Instead of ending the rule of billionaires and inaugurating an era of openness and accountability, the result of the reform crusade — indeed, we suspect, its goal all along — has been to end the rule of the liberal billionaire Edgar Bronfman and replace him with the deeply conservative billionaire Ronald Lauder.

Even more incredibly, opposing political leanings have not prevented the two rival dynasties from joining forces in the end, with Lauder agreeing to install another Bronfman, Edgar’s son Matthew, as his number-two and heir apparent. Even ideology, it seems, cannot withstand the irresistible forces of ego and entitlement.

Under the circumstances, it seems almost irrelevant to examine the qualifications of either man for the position seen in the eyes of the world as leader and spokesman of the world’s Jewish community.

Of Matthew Bronfman’s qualifications, not much can be said. He is of royal birth and has pots of money. If that’s what is meant by world stature, zay gezint. As for Ronald Lauder, he is a more serious figure. Since he began taking interest in Jewish affairs a decade or so ago, he has donated millions to rebuild Jewish life in eastern Europe. He has served as treasurer of the WJC and head of its art restitution commission, charged with winning back artwork looted by the Nazis. He has now taken up Leibler’s call for transparency, and vows to clean up the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, against which no credible charges have been made. In any case it’s an odd role for Lauder; as the Forward reported last year, he himself has been less than forthcoming about the provenance of his own vast collection of prewar European art. As for depoliticizing the WJC, the original impetus for Leibler’s campaign, Lauder should know a thing or two. He chaired the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the supposedly consensus-driven voice of American Jewish support for Israel. In that capacity he flew to Jerusalem in January 2001, as the Forward reported, to address — in the name of American Jews — a “United Jerusalem” rally that was a transparent protest against the peace policies of then-prime minister Ehud Barak. Lauder said he did not regard the rally as political; if that’s true, he was the only person in the crowd who did not.

Insiders have been complaining for years, often in fearful whispers, about the steadily rising importance of wealth as the chief criterion of leadership in the Jewish community in the past generation. Money speaks, and all others cower. Organizations pack their boards with wealthy donors to fund their growing bureaucracies, and then trim their agendas carefully to avoid losing the donations. The wealthiest, impatient with anything resembling process, create their own organizations to pursue their personal visions, such as they are, without the annoyance of hearing differing opinions. Rabbis and scholars hire themselves out as courtiers to the mega-donors, hoping they will spend their money wisely before they get bored and walk away.

We have not begun to calculate the corrosive effect of all these dollars — on the personal lives of the scholars who serve at the barons’ pleasure and whim; on the tawdry politics and public life of the Jewish community in this country and in Israel; on the public image of the Jewish people in the eyes of an ever more skeptical world.

We think nobody notices, but they do. Worse, most of us have stopped bothering to think about it at all, and no wonder. The mud-wrestling of the mega-donors at the World Jewish Congress is a tragedy for the Jewish people, but it is also a warning sign. All the recruitment strategies and leadership training institutes in the world cannot replace integrity and vision as the raw stuff of a people’s future.

Once we were a community governed by wisdom and supported by the generosity of tzedaka, of open-handed giving for the welfare of others and the sake of heaven. Now we are an ownership society — a society governed by those who own it. Alas, it doesn’t work. A voluntary community can’t be managed that way. When the smell gets too obvious, folks just walk away.

A nation wandering in the dark must have beacons of light to lead it on its journey. That can’t be faked or bought.


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