A Heritage Lost: The Federations and Iran

iran-micro-mapBy Jeffrey R Solomon

In his classic work, A Heritage Affirmed: the Jewish Federation Movement in America, Harry Lurie provides the classic text on the role and functions of Federations. Many Federations like to use the metaphor of “community” in self-describing their activities. For others, “central address” is the key metaphor. Lurie explains this through offering a history of the Jewish communities’ development over the millennia and how it was organized as the Federation movement in North America. He describes two main categories of functions. The first pertains to the necessary activities for the support of the “welfare and cultural programs and to enlisting the cooperation of individuals and group for communal actions for a broad range of interests and problems.” He describes the role of fundraising, communal planning, allocation, fiscal policies, etc.

The second set of functions “are those undertaken by the beneficiary agencies or other organizations affiliated with or related to the Federations,” such as agencies engaged in health, welfare, civic, educational or cultural services.” He indicated that this is true both domestically and with regard to those organizations which serve the Jewish communities overseas.

An analysis by Henry Zucker, the highly regarded executive of the Cleveland Federation outlines the basic Federation Functions as:

  1. Joint fundraising for the Federation agencies.
  2. Coordination of the work of the federated agencies and of the other communal agencies and organizations.
  3. Community Planning – an overview of the need of the community, discovery of lacks and gaps in program, and action to meet those lacks and gaps.
  4. Public relations to further the discharge of the three basic functions.

I believe that there has been healthy ongoing debate about the role of Federations in this publication, led off by an article by an anonymous author which, in my view, distorted the aspirational goals and the incredible achievements of Federations over the past 120 years. However, those achievements and aspirations are under threat by a new factor that is having undue influence and distorting the very communal institutions that had been built in this context. The tyranny of the mega donor distorts many organizations and, sadly, is undercutting the very definition of these communal institutions. As the unrestricted annual campaign strategy continues to result, for the most part, in declining revenues along with declining number of donors, a major offset has been a far greater reliance on the highest tier of donors. Obviously this is a more efficient form of development than other strategies. A price of this greater reliance is an expectation on the part of these mega donors that the institutions they support will be aligned with their views. For a number of demographic reasons, these views tend to be more conservative than those of the overall Jewish community.

Among the many facets of the current tragedy is the fact that the Israeli Prime Minister has violated the original agreement of mutual noninterference worked out in the early days of the State between David Ben Gurion as Prime Minister and Jacob Blaustein in behalf of the American Jewish Committee. Views of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Iran Agreement) focused largely on the threat that Iran poses to the State of Israel, rather than those broader global issues that led to the JCPA and should be driving American policy. AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League are but three of the many organizations that can adequately represent the leadership of the Jewish community on issues of national security policy. The important educational and social welfare activities and the countless domestic, Israeli and international agencies dependent on the 151 Federated communities in North America rely on the Federations’ ability to build community. Those Federations who have taken a position opposing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action are in the process of dividing community. As a loving participant-observer of the Federation movement for close to 50 years, I find this to be a tragic mistake and urge the Federations and their leaders on both sides of the Iranian issue to think about the day after and a healing process that will ensure that every aged and disabled person who relies on the Federation for support will continue to receive that support. The core Jewish principles that underlie Kehilla and the Federation movement are about the infinite value of human life and about our responsibility to help repair a broken world. Those Federations that have submerged those principles for a political position, often driven by their unenlightened major donors, need to consider that decision as some donors will treat it as a plebiscite on whether they should continue to use Federations as the vehicle as they were intended.

We need a healing process that helps us to educate all donors to the respective roles of the organizations in our communal fabric. Shame on us for not doing this effectively to date and congratulations to those Federations that placed their core mission and the Jewish values underlying that mission over the political pressure of the moment.

Jeffrey R Solomon is President of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies.