A Looming Jewish Leadership Crisis

by Isi Liebler

The diaspora is undergoing a Jewish leadership crisis. In the United States, where the vast majority of Jews outside Israel reside, the key professionals dominating the scene are close to retirement, yet failing to groom successors. With a few notable exceptions, the situation in most of the smaller Jewish communities is even worse. In most of these communal umbrella bodies, professionals occupy a lesser role than in the U.S. and talented younger people are even more averse to accepting leadership responsibilities.

In the U.S., the pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC is the exception to the rule. It remains a structured organization, operated by a competent professional team, backed by wealthy donors and enjoying widespread support at the grass-roots level.

However, the three major public political organizations – the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations (the Presidents Conference) – are currently headed by talented professionals, all of whom are nearing or have reached retirement age.

The AJC, headed by the youngest of the trio, David Harris, has a sophisticated infrastructure and is probably the best equipped to survive when he steps down.

Despite a huge staff and branches throughout the country, the ADL is perceived as a one-man band. Its chairman, Abe Foxman, is highly charismatic, media savvy and will undoubtedly leave a colorful legacy. But when he retires, there is no certainty that continuity will be maintained. Should the ADL board fail to appoint a worthy successor, one of American Jewry’s most powerful Jewish public bodies could easily crumble.

The Presidents Conference is effectively controlled by Executive Vice President Malcolm Hoenlein. He has succeeded in recruiting competent lay leaders to head the organization and skillfully retained the affiliation of competing Jewish agencies that encompass the broad political mainstream of American Jewry. But when Hoenlein retires, it is very likely that in the absence of his skilled and delicate balancing of the disparate affiliates, this umbrella body will simply implode.

Another factor jeopardizing the long-term future of these organizations is the fact that the current professionals also occupy the role of key fundraisers. To maintain the flow of contributions, their successors will be at a distinct disadvantage if they lack personal relationships with the primary donors.

On the global level, the World Jewish Congress is confronted with a similar problem. Donors to the formerly successful mail fundraising campaigns lost confidence in the organization as a consequence of the scandals associated with financial irregularities under the former management. Thus, today the WJC is almost entirely reliant on the financial largesse of its president and benefactor, billionaire Ronald Lauder, who provides the bulk of the funding required to run the organization. Should he retire or curtail his funding, the WJC would face financial collapse.

Many of the smaller Jewish communities suffer from a dearth of funds and frequently have difficulty recruiting qualified voluntary laymen to assume communal roles.

This applies especially in Europe where demonization of Israel has morphed into anti-Semitism reminiscent of the 1930s. During such tough times, strong and courageous Jewish leadership is of immense importance to maintain morale.

One exception is the French Jewish community, which is effectively serviced by CRIF – Conseil Représentatif des Institutions juives de France – an umbrella organization that is reasonably well-funded and has succeeded in attracting capable and devoted Jewish leaders. Another is the dramatically expanding German Jewish community, now overwhelmingly dominated by Jews from the former Soviet Union, which enjoys substantial government funding enabling it to recruit competent professionals.

However, in the U.K., the Board of Deputies of British Jews has declined in status and influence over the years. The more talented British Jews are not attracted to the organization and it remains desperately short of funds.

To make matters worse, the Anglo-Jewish community has recently become dominated by a few unaccountable billionaires whose financial power enables them to virtually dictate policy to the mainstream Jewish organizations. These tycoons include a number of individuals who are notorious for publicly condemning the Israeli government and threatening to withhold financial grants from communal organizations harboring critics or unwilling to endorse their policies.

The West Europeans are federated into the European Jewish Congress, an umbrella organization that, after undergoing a funding crisis, was taken over by Moshe Kantor, a Russian oligarch alleged to have close relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. While Kantor does effectively promote Jewish interests, it is somewhat bizarre for a Russian Jewish oligarch to head a West European regional Jewish organization.

The situation in the former Soviet Union also reflects a dearth of authentic leadership. The individual communities are, for the main part, funded and dominated by oligarchs, many of whom have scant Jewish backgrounds and lack an understanding of the problems confronting the Jewish people. Some uninhibitedly exploit their positions for commercial and political self-promotion. Yet their absence would undoubtedly create a massive void in Jewish organizational life.

The crucial challenge facing leadership is the ability to raise funds in order to operate community organizations. Philanthropists and foundations are loath to finance umbrella organizations unless they are directly involved.

As a consequence, in recent years there has been an ever-growing trend of Jewish billionaires “adopting” organizations or assuming “leadership” in return for providing the funds to meet budget requirements. Although far from democratic, this has become a reality of life.

There are numerous precedents where wealthy Jewish individuals contributed to the benefit of the community. For example, the 19th century British patrician Sir Moses Montefiore was totally unaccountable but in his role as a “shtadlan” – an independent Jew who interceded with the authorities on behalf of his people – he made important contributions to the welfare of the Jewish people.

Today, Sheldon Adelson, the bête noir of Jewish Democrats, who strongly opposes U.S. President Barack Obama, will undoubtedly be recorded as the premier Jewish philanthropist of this era and the greatest individual donor to Birthright and many other crucial apolitical Jewish institutions such as Yad Vashem.

Billionaire Edgar Bronfman, the former head of the WJC with whom I had major political differences, unabashedly imposed his views on the organization. Nevertheless, he also left a positive legacy and must be credited for his major and indispensable personal contribution toward bringing to fruition the historic campaign to achieve restitution payments for the Jewish people.

The challenge confronting Jewish organizations today is that, despite being desperate for funding, they must resist being turned into personal fiefdoms of unaccountable billionaires who may promote personal political agendas which run counter to mainstream Jewish interests.

Israel has a vested interest in encouraging the maintenance of a healthy, democratic Jewish Diaspora leadership with the capacity and courage to resist anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli onslaughts. This should be the primary role of the Jewish Agency, but alas, it too has fallen under the control of a small number of wealthy donors who are undoubtedly well-meaning but fail to display an awareness of what is required.

It is therefore the obligation of the Israeli government to set up a coordinating body, together with Jewish community leaders – particularly those outside of the United States – to provide guidance and assistance in this critical deteriorating arena of Diaspora Jewish life.

Isi Liebler is a veteran Australian and global Jewish leader now resident in Israel where he has emerged as a leading Jewish commentator.