The shifting plate tectonics of Jewish life
By Yosef I. Abramowitz
“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
The Holy Land is trembling. And so, too, should world Jewry.
Defying conventional physics, tremors from a July earthquake in Israel were felt thousands of miles away in North American Jewish communities already battered by a series of shock waves coming out of earthly Jerusalem.
“Today we heard there was some sort of earthquake,” Shas party MK Yinon Azoulay declared from the Knesset plenum this summer, after one of dozens of minor quakes that hit Israel this year. “Perhaps we should consider that this earthquake was because someone is trying to get at what is holy to us,” said Azoulay, the son of David Azoulay, the Minister for Religious Affairs.
“They aren’t Jews,” Azoulay was speaking of the pluralistic groups representing the majority of American Jewry involved in the compromise deal at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site. “What do you care about antiquities and the stones of the Kotel? Take the money you are investing in the country and build yourselves a Western Wall in the US.”
True story. I would give that about a 6.3 on the Jewish Richter Scale, even though the measurements of the epicenter in the north of Israel registered 4.1, according to the US Geological Survey. In Israeli society, however, the venomous speech only registered about a 2.0 – due to the yawning apathy of most Israelis.
And then – BAM! – came a second quake in the form of the Nation State Bill, widely considered to undermine the equal status of non-Jewish citizens of Israel. About a 5.1 on the Jewish Richter Scale but a 7.0 in Israeli political life, as the Druze, who serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), rallied with dignity at Rabin Square, forcing coalition politicians Naftali Bennett and Moshe Kahlon to publicly backtrack. (American Jewry has yet to achieve that kind of public back-peddling from Israeli government leaders.)
The only member of the governing coalition to vote against the Nation State Bill was Likud’s Benny Begin, a level-headed geologist. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked warned the Supreme Court not to invalidate the law or else it would lead to – you guessed it – a political earthquake.
“Israel used to be the great unifying force in Jewish life,” says a director of major gifts for a large Federation. “No more. This year we have had to pivot to emphasize local needs.”
With the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) General Assembly (GA) coming to Tel Aviv October 22-24, Jewish leaders and donors will find that the sacred ground beneath their relationship with Israel has moved. “It has been a hell of a year,” says one Federation executive. “The conversion bill, freezing the Kotel deal and the Nation State Law. The Israeli government couldn’t have done more to undermine the relationship with American Jewry if they had tried.”
The theme this year, instead of lofty platitudes like “We Are One,” is “We Need to Talk,” in recognition of the widespread angst. At last year’s General Assembly, which took place in Los Angeles, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chose not to attend and video-linked in, as he received a polite but unenthusiastic welcome because of his back-tracking on pledges of religious pluralism and freezing the Kotel compromise.
The timing of Netanyahu’s appearance this year at the General Assembly coincides with his calculation on whether or not to call early elections. The elephant in the room stomping on American Jewish sensibilities will be on full display – the Prime Minister’s proclivity to give in to political blackmail by ultra-Orthodox parties in his coalition coupled with his strategy to out-flank his more chauvinistic political rivals to his right.
It’s all about the money. Last year, the Federation system sent $113.4 million to Israel via the Jewish Agency, covering about a third of its operating and program budget, compared to the $116 billion 2019 state budget. (In 1950, the UJA provided half the state’s budget, and Charlton Heston and Cecil B. DeMille led the campaign.) But the dirty little secret of organized Jewish life is that the massive endowment funds under the Federation’s umbrella are paying more in fees to outside financial managers than Federation donations to Israel. And other than some symbolic Israel Bonds and Blue Star Index investments, Jewish communal money stays so far away from investing in Israel it is as if it were managed by Jewish Voices for Peace, a pro-BDS group.
The crisis management that dominated the conversations between American Jewish leaders and the government of the State of Israel this year have relegated key partnership issues – like the aliyah and absorption of Ethiopian Jews, helping Israel’s most vulnerable communities, employment in the Arab and ultra-Orthodox sector, and more – to the back burner.
While JFNA is right to focus on the theme of “We Need to Talk,” these damage-control discussions will divert attention from three other substantive issues: First, choosing a successor to JFNA head Jerry Silverman, who is stepping down after two five-year terms. Second, updating the visions for the future of Jewish life in North America. And third, defining the leadership role of Federations in a rejuvenated vision of Jewish life. Without a bold mission to reignite US Jews, the umbrella organization for the Federations will wilt into “a trade organization,” confided a former national chair of the body.
“The Federations achieved greatness over our history when we’ve taken on collective challenges,” reflects Silverman. “We need a Kennedy-esque goal, the way he said we are going to send a man to the moon in a decade even though we didn’t know how at the time. It should be a worthwhile project of the Federations and the State of Israel working together, enhancing both.”
For those of you who don’t follow inside Jewish baseball with its alphabet soup of organizations, the General Assembly and the group that convenes it is The Jewish Establishment – the old United Jewish Appeal (UJA) rebranded and merged as the umbrella of all 148 Jewish Federations, large, medium and small. It is where Golda Meir received standing ovations and raised $50 million to buy much-needed arms in the precarious months leading up to the War of Independence. The Jewish Establishment’s embrace of the cause of state-building also translated into post-World War II transformations of local communities, as each year the ever-increasing annual central campaign divided allocations between overseas (Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency for Israel) and local, mostly social service institutions. But it was so establishment that the food wasn’t kosher, there was barely a hint of Judaism at events, and no funds were flowing to Jewish education, outreach, youth movements and the like.
Inspired by the activism of the era, in 1969 Jewish students staged a takeover of the General Assembly in Boston. Hillel Levine, then a young rabbinical student, took the stage and delivered on behalf of the group a manifesto for Federations to support Jewish education and identity programs. While it doesn’t sound radical in today’s terms, the takeover sent shockwaves through the system as the student’s passion and message resonated in the post-Six Day War glow of awakened Jewish possibilities and optimism.
My first recollections of a Jewish Federation were the fundraising walk-a-thons for Israel of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) in Boston, as we sought sponsorships for each mile we would walk in order to raise funds for Israel in the immediate aftermath of the Yom Kippur War. I loved the collective action, the feeling that everyone can participate and make a difference, and that our cause was simple and just. So I was thrilled when my dad, Dr. Martin Abramowitz, several years later joined CJP as its second-in-command, a role he served in for a quarter of a century in a Federation considered one of the most activist, Zionist and innovative.
After participating in the Young Judaea Year Course during the First Lebanon War, I returned to Boston for college and attended my first General Assembly, in Atlanta, as a student delegate. I remember the excitement I felt at the sessions, got the chills at singing Hatikva with thousands of others at the main plenary and quickly joined the student activists pressing the Establishment on Ethiopian Jewry – before Operation Moses. Now a veteran of nearly two dozen General Assemblies, I’ve found myself over the years in dialogue with their leaders, from the inspiring Rabbi Brian Lurie at UJA, to the practical Marty Kraar, Stephen Hoffman, and Irving Kessler, and gutsy lay leaders such as Shoshana Cardin, Joe Kanfer, Charles Bronfman and others. I was part of the student group that forced the GA one year in Washington, DC, to allow Avital Sharansky to address the plenary to demand the release of her husband, Anatoly (Natan) from a Soviet prison, and a decade later engineered with Myra Kraft of Boston the 180 degree Federation turn in favor of the aliyah of the remaining Jews and Falash Mura of Ethiopia, despite fierce opposition at the time from the Joint and the Israeli Foreign Ministry.
As a young man, I was ultimately turned down from being hired as the director of the UJA Young Leadership Cabinet since I had recently penned a column in Moment Magazine suggesting a boycott of Federation campaigns until they backed a radical idea of free trips for young people to Israel. This was a decade before Marcella Kanfer and I launched Birthright Israel for Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman, when they created what is billed today as the world’s largest Jewish organization, which has brought over 600,000 young people on free 10-day trips to Israel.
So the Jewish establishment and its annual gathering is coming to Tel Aviv, as much to be reinspired by “Start-Up Nation” as to kvetch thoughtfully with mostly like-minded Israelis about the disappearance of the Israel they thought they knew and loved and thought loved them but, ultimately, doesn’t know them. The gathering comes five years since the GA ascended to Jerusalem after my wife, Rabbi Susan Silverman, and daughter, Hallel, shook things up with their arrest at the Kotel for the crime of being women wearing prayer shawls. In Tel Aviv this year, a good time will be had by all, as some of the more enlightened elements of Israeli society – including two impressive co-chairs, Danna Azrieli and Marius Nacht – have conversations with American Jewish leaders on pluralism and equality in what is being billed as “dialogue dens.” There will be a Koolulam sing-a-long with participants in the Masa Israel programs, and sessions on a wide range of topics. New themes will be tested out, like from “Start-Up Nation” to “Caring Nation,” highlighting the life-science advancements and start-ups.
But lurking just beneath the surface of the festive gathering are the cracks and fault lines that Israeli leaders will try to paper over with faint excuses – “you don’t understand domestic politics” – and warm words, such as “we are all one family,” “Israel is the spiritual home for all Jews,” and “we must stand together” against BDS, Hamas, Iran and the antisemites. Speakers will dazzle participants with metaphors on how to redefine the relationship between Israel and Jewish communities, from “parents with grown children” to “Babylon and Jerusalem” to “a married couple that needs therapy.
A highlight will be a moving pledge ceremony at the Knesset of Renewing the Covenant between the State of Israel and the Federations, beneath the Chagall tapestry, and hosted by Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein – a rare voice of decency in Israeli political life who, nonetheless, always votes in favor of the very bills that are so troublesome to most of American Jewry. The cabinet, in a preemptive surprise strike, may even vote to add a non-binding preamble to the Nation State Law that uses the controversial word “equality” to try to stave off further protests by Druze, Israeli Arabs, the opposition and especially those pesky American Jews with money and liberal values.
Indeed, the surveys leading up to the General Assembly reveal that while 50% of American Jews self-identify as liberal, only 8% of Israelis do. The Anglo-Jewish press will be filled with op-eds and new surveys around the GA that Israelis, too, are sick of the stranglehold of the Rabbinate on aspects of their lives and would appreciate the help and intervention of American Jewry on the matter.
And then the North Americans will go home, the coalition will decide on a date for elections that will likely yield results anathema to a vision of a pluralistic Israel, the November U.S. Congressional elections will take center-stage, and we may even see the Trump peace plan, which will be surprisingly detailed, thoughtful and balanced.
The fate of the Federation system as a system is not going to be determined at the General Assembly but mostly by the CEOs of the largest 19 Federations, which raise 80% of the funds. The real question, in the weeks and months following the GA, is can they coalesce around new visions, collective actions with greater impact, a more mature and nuanced relationship with Israel, and a national messaging and branding campaign that speaks to younger potential donors?
You can tell the General Assembly is coming to Israel. Netanyahu announced on October 7 that he is bringing 1,000 Ethiopians to Israel who are related to Ethiopian Jews here, as a response to a racist incident in Kiryat Gat. This is an applause line that will be appreciated by the Federations.
And it is part of a painful sham that the American Jewish community always lets the Israeli government get away with, even though they have the power and mandate to help finally complete the aliyah and soften the klitah (absorption). The Federations just don’t seem to have the attention span, since to resolve this peoplehood challenge with dignity takes long-term stamina. Few Federation leaders I spoke with for this article had an updated picture of the aliyah and klitah challenges or knew that the two principal Ethiopian Jewish advocacy organizations – the Association of Ethiopian Jews and Tebeka – are woefully underfunded, even though they provide the best leadership, leverage, information and advocacy for changes in government policy and budgets.
The aliyah of Ethiopian Jewry in Operation Moses (1984) and Operation Solomon (1991) is heralded as one of the accomplishments of the State of Israel and the Federation movement working together. The Hollywood version will be hitting theaters shortly, as Ben Kingsley, Haley Bennett, Michiel Huisman and Chris Evans star in “Red Sea Report,” which dramatizes one of the Mossad rescue operations of Ethiopians Jews in 1981 from Sudan. The secret operation was partially in response to earlier secret rescue missions by American Jewish activist groups, who shamed into action the Mossad and the political leaders in Israel.
Then American Jewry, represented by Federation stalwarts like Max Fisher and Gordon Zacks, provided the political fire-power for the CIA to team up with the Mossad for Operation Moses several years later. In the final airlift, in 1991, the Federations quietly organized a $35 million bribe to Ethiopian dictator Colonel Mengistu in the waning days of his rule, in order to coerce the ceasefire for 36 hours when 34 El Al planes swooped in and airlifted 14,324 Jews into the flag-waving, Zionist history books. (The rebels, by the way, found the uncashed check on Menigstu’s desk and called United Israel Appeal in New York to ask what to do with it; Irving Kessler, then the top executive, told them to cash it, supplying the new government with much-needed foreign currency in the days after Addis Ababa fell to the rebel army.)
The story always makes me cry, representing the raison d’être of the Jewish state and fulfillment of the ingathering of the most ancient of exiles as an expression of Jewish peoplehood and world Jewish action.
The Federations were also instrumental in the aliyah of Russian Jewry, through a special fundraising campaign for Operation Exodus, also in 1991, which helped resettle a million Jews in the Jewish state, forever changing the demographics and supplying many of the engineers that powered Start- Up Nation. The aliyah of post-Soviet Jewry continues under Israel’s Law of Return, rolling out a red carpet for anyone with one Jewish grandparent – so long as they are white.
Following Operation Solomon, the State of Israel has tried several times to definitively close the aliyah gates and files of Jews and their descendants from Ethiopia, even those with at least one Jewish grandparent or a relative serving in the Israel Defense Forces. The Falash Mura, many of whose ancestors were forcibly converted to Christianity, were blocked from joining their fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, who were airlifted, even though the Chief Rabbinate – usually the bane of American Jewish existence – was in favor of their aliyah and Jewishness.
After the State of Israel declared yet again the end of the Ethiopian aliyah in 1998, I was held at gunpoint in northern Ethiopia gathering evidence of the burning of homes of Jews, who the Israeli government denied even existed. Meeting with community leaders in both Gondar and in Addis Ababa, I collected names and evidence to counter the aliyah qualification double standards of the State and fed them to AvrahamNeguise, head of the activist group South Wing to Zion. Neguise threatened to bring 5,000 Ethiopian Jewish protesters to picket the GA in Jerusalem that year, and again in 2003. Each time, the Federations woke up and lobbied the Israeli government in favor of the aliyah and each time extracted commitments that were largely broken or watered down or delayed.
Neguise, now a Likud Member of Knesset, chairs the Aliyah, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee of the Knesset, is the government’s chief critic on the abandonment of the remaining community and the lack of accountability in the absorption programs. Under pressure from Neguise and his allies, the cabinet voted unanimously in 2015 to bring the rest of the community home, estimated at roughly 10,000 people. The move was approved again by the cabinet on October 7, two weeks before the gathering of American Jewish leaders in Israel. And each year since the line-item for the Ethiopian aliyah and klitah (absorption) mysteriously disappears from the state budget, without a peep from American Jewry and with few dollars.
“We are happy about a decision that will put an end to the suffering of 1,000 Jews and thousands of their family members in Israel, but we are far from being satisfied with that,” said the Struggle for the Aliyah of Ethiopian Jews, an advocacy group. “In 2015 there was a government decision to bring all the members of the Jewish community in Ethiopia. Instead of implementing its decision, the government is spreading out the aliyah from Ethiopia based on allocations that are reminiscent of the White Paper policy [of theBritish Mandatory government, restricting Jewish immigration to Palestine]. It’s clear to everyone that if we were talking about fair-skinned Jews, they would all be boarding a plane already today and Israel would roll out a red carpet for them.”
The Netanyahu government is double-counting applause lines even as it is double-crossing the Ethiopian and American Jewish communities; it announced the aliyah of the same 1,000 family members back in February. And the Federations, with their donor fatigue, slowly defunded the Association of Ethiopian Jews, the home-grown Ethiopian advocacy organization that should be empowered to lead the good fight for the aliyah and repair the deficiencies in their absorption.
The fact that Israeli government can play such games with a core Zionist mission that historically has been important to American Jewry is a symptom of a political reality, which the Jewish Establishment has failed to truly grasp. This ineffectiveness is mirrored in other issues like the freezing of the Kotel deal, the cancelation of the deal between the United Nations and Israel on ending forced deportations of African asylum seekers, the aspects of the Nation State Bill that are troublesome, and conversion bills that undermine pluralism (or even just modern Orthodoxy) and more. And that was just in 2018.
Jewish Federation leaders will get the audience with decision makers along with the photo op and headlines in the Jewish media that they raised key concerns, but they won’t get their votes. American Jewry is not mighty, after all, like the Druze or the anti-African racists in South Tel Aviv or the ultra-Orthodox politicalblackmailers. But they could be. Earthquakes are largely considered acts of God, and all we can do in Israel is prepare for the next Big One. (The State Comptroller warns Israel has only reinforced one of the 70 bridges vulnerable, almost none of the schools and is due for a major quake). But we can learn something from the tiny Jewish community of Tulsa, Oklahoma, about earthquakes that is quite surprising: While some of the earthquakes are acts of God, most are the results of the handiwork of people with an agenda and a lobbying budget. There has been a 4000% increase in earthquakes over the past decade in Oklahoma, largely attributed to pumping noxious fluid into the ground as part of fracking for natural gas. It’s just public policy – or lack thereof. The people, or at least the powers-that-be of Oklahoma, whose ground shook 1,000 times this past year, have made the decision they like the status quo of cheaper natural gas and will tolerate the consequences of any fallout and the weakening of the foundations of the structures of their communities.
With growing concern about the blow-back from Israeli policies on the North American Jewish community, and the growing disenchantment of its youth from an Israel that seems to be growing more reactionary, the Federations will have to face the reality that these man-made (yes, it’s usually the guys) earthquakes are preventable.
Counterbalancing forces within Israeli society exist but are not being marshalled yet to narrow and close 2018’s gaping fault lines. The New Israel Fund realized that with liberal civil society groups 30 years ago, yet Federations and their partners still mistake really good on-the-ground program funding, meaningful conversations with partners and legacy influence for real political leverage.
Hey, Federations, it’s time to shake things up!
Yosef I. Abramowitz, winner of the Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education and Israel’s Green Globe Award in the Knesset, was the first private-sector candidate for Israel’s Presidency and serves as CEO of Energiya Global Capital. He can be followed @ KaptainSunshine
This article originally appeared in The Jerusalem Report; reprinted with permission.