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Memo to Nathan Cummings Foundation: Don’t Abandon the Jews!

The decision by the Nathan Cummings Foundation to fire its well-known CEO, Simon Greer, sent shockwaves throughout the Jewish nonprofit world. Greer is a bit of a celebrity in his own right, and had been shepherding the NCF’s strategic realignment.

At first, some speculated that the NCF board was rethinking that change in strategy, which effectively ends the foundation’s investments in Jewish organizations in favor of a focus on fighting climate change and income inequality. Had the board thought better of its new direction?

Alas, no. Although unconfirmed, early reports suggest that Greer’s ouster was based on familiar reasons: clashes among leadership, an executive director being too assertive, and so on. It looks like Jill-Abramson-in-Reality, not Jill-Abramson-as-Hyped-by-Media.

Nonetheless, the Cummings Foundation’s board now has a new decision on its hands, and an opportunity to rethink how its overall objectives may be achieved. In brief, to meaningfully address climate change and inequality, don’t abandon the Jews.

First, no one doubts that the NCF’s departure from the Jewish funding world will be a disaster for progressive Judaism. Yes, organizations which happen-to-be-Jewish will be funded as long as they work on inequality or climate change. But the core funding for progressive Jewish causes, as such, has ended.

The loss of five million progressive dollars slants the Jewish funding field even further to the right. Already, Sheldon Adelson and his ilk have greatly distorted the Jewish organizational universe. The Jewish community consistently, and in line with predominant Jewish values, leans toward the moderate left when it comes to American and Israeli politics. But the Jewish philanthropic world leans hard right.

As I’ve written about in these pages before, this is the result not of a vast right-wing conspiracy but of simple self-selection. If you’re a progressive, pluralistic Jew, you likely spread your philanthropy across Jewish and non-Jewish causes. If you’re conservative, you’re more likely to be particularist in your worldview and your philanthropy.

This is why there’s Birthright Israel — but no Birthleft. By which I mean, there is no progressive program on a financial par with conservative ones (and Birthright has towed a right-wing line on Israel even before the Adelson foundation’s involvement). NCF’s strategic realignment exacerbates this phenomenon.

Because of the misfit between conservative philanthropists and liberal Jews, much of the right-wing effort to transform the Jewish community is a stealth effort. There are right-wing propaganda mills in Israel and the United States, masquerading as legitimate newspapers or “culture” magazines. (Journalistic etiquette bars me from mentioning these outlets directly.) There are right-wing Jewish “institutes” at prominent universities, churning out scholarly work of a decidedly conservative perspective. And of course, there are gag rules at federations and Hillels across the country which effectively disenfranchise Jews whose views are too far left for Jewish donors to tolerate.

For years, my progressive friends have clucked their tongues at the likes of the Republican Jewish Coalition. But the dismissal is unwarranted. Historic Jewish ties to the Democratic party are weakening, and the right-wing money is continuing to flow. Do we really think that conservative Jewish donors are just throwing it away? What if they’re right? What if they win?

If the American Jewish community shifts rightward, fighting climate change and inequality (among other things) just got a whole lot harder. There’s some weird liberal myth out there that we just need to “wake up” to the threat of global warming. Hello? We’re awake. The problem is that billions of industry dollars are forcing us to stay in bed rather than get up and do anything.

Like it or not, both climate change and inequality are partisan issues, political issues, and left/right issues. It doesn’t matter what your carbon footprint is if the United States doesn’t sign onto massive, systemic greenhouse gas reduction — and that takes political power.

Likewise with income inequality. This is not a problem that can be solved outside the political process. Republicans think inequality is a natural result of the market functioning properly — and better to have that than to have any kind of regulation or redistribution of wealth. No amount of spare change is going to accomplish social change. You need politics to do that — and Republican politics are dead set against it.

Jews are only 2.2% of the U.S. population. But we vote, and we wield influence. If the organized Jewish community is only funded by conservatives, we will gradually but steadily move rightward. The results will be disastrous for the Nathan Cummings Foundation’s priorities.

Finally, there’s the NCF itself. This is a foundation with unparalleled expertise in the Jewish community. I have worked in the foundation world myself — I know firsthand the importance of long-term relationships, deep roots in a community, and experience working with complex community dynamics. As a progressive funder, NCF will do a good job. As a progressive Jewish funder, NCF has been, and could be, outstanding.

Imagine the leadership NCF, and its new executive director, could demonstrate here. Its grantees could not just affirm but reinforce Jewish progressive values — fighting inequality and climate change primarily, but pursuing justice and sustainability more broadly as well. They could provide social services to ultra-Orthodox Jews who leave the fundamentalist fold, thus fighting poverty and transforming the Jewish community at the same time.

And in an age of intersectionality, in which the links between liberation struggles are increasingly forged by activists, they could build a broad, progressive movement that does more to combat inequality and climate change than more focused efforts could hope to accomplish.

The Cummings Foundation’s board did not ask for this transition, and having just completed an exhaustive strategic planning process, this would not be a time they would have chosen. But the transition is here. Will the board seize this moment to affirm the importance of a vibrant progressive Jewish community as part of a national movement toward economic, racial, and climate justice? Or will they leave the Jews to Sheldon?

Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor to the Forward.

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