Making Marriage Work

Like marijuana?

Believe in men’s rights? Want a secular state?

If you happen to have an offbeat or nonmainstream platform
for Israel, now is the time to run in the Jan. 28 parliamentary elections. One
lesson to be learned from the list of the 30 parties vying for Knesset (see
page 18) is that Israelis are disenfranchised, and looking for alternatives to
the major National Security issue.

And while Aleh Yarok (Green Leaf) — the party promoting
marijuana legalization — always seems to hit the headlines a week or two before
elections (despite publicity before the last elections in 1999, the party
mustered 34,029 votes, representing slightly more than 1 percent of the
electorate — 15,000 votes short of the 1.5 percent threshold for Knesset
membership), other parties with less headline-grabbing platforms are really set
to win big.

Take Tommy Lapid’s Shinui (change) Party (see page 22).
Their two-page campaign booklet doesn’t get to their political leanings until
the second page. The self-described “democratic, secular, liberal, Zionist,
peace-seeking party” platform includes creating “a secular state, a free-market
economy, [obligatory] military service.”

Does 2 percent of the country really believe legalizing pot
is the most important issue? Are 12 percent really going to vote for Lapid, a
former in-your-face talk-show host whose primary goal is to secularize the
country? (Incidentally, Shinui is attempting to do for the secular what the
religious parties — and in particular, Shas — have done for years: exchange its
vote on security for social benefits such as money for schools.)

“I’ve covered a lot of Israeli elections, but I have never
seen one like this. I’ve never seen the Israeli public less interested in the
two major parties — indeed, in the whole event,” Thomas Friedman wrote in The
New York Times on Jan. 19.

What this means for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is an even
bigger headache on Jan. 29 than he had on Nov. 5, 2002, when he called for new
elections (can anyone actually remember why?). But it also means that the major
parties had better start looking at secondary campaign positions if they want
to be relevant to the Israeli people.

Israelis, in answer to the question, “How is everything?”
might reply: “Hakol B’seder, chutz mimah she’lo b’seder” (Everything is all
right, except for what isn’t all right). The situation with the Palestinians is
so not all right, and the Israelis feel so powerless, that everything else just
seems so much more important.


Meanwhile, here in Los Angeles, the tide seems to be turning
the other way vis-à-vis involvement. These last 10 days in Los Angeles has seen
a flurry of Israel-related events and visitors almost as busy as the Oscar
buildup. The University of Judaism’s lecture series featuring Foreign Minister
Shimon Peres and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, turned out nearly
6,000 people. Peres also gave an informal talk to some 100 of Hollywood’s
glitterati (including Barbra Streisand, Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman, Annette
Benning and Warren Beatty), hosted by fellow countryman and producer Arnon
Milchen (“L.A. Confidential”).

A similar group of impressive Hollywood stars turned up at
the home of DeVito and Perlman to hear out another set of visitors, Mohammed
Darawshe and Daniel Lubetsky, of One Voice: Silent No Longer, a grassroots
petition effort seeking more than 1 million Arab and Israeli signatures urging
an end to the violence and a commitment to peace.

“My eight-year-old child came up to me and said he aspires
to become a soccer player, a doctor and a martyr,” Darawshe told some 70 people
last Wednesday at a more public event at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Darawshe, a
Palestinian, is working with Lubetsky to enact change in Israel, and now “my
son doesn’t want to become a martyr, but a leader. I showed him that a leader
was the best.”

And finally, on Sunday, Jan. 19, some 400 people attended a
full-day workshop at Temple Beth Am, “Learn[ing] how to defend Israel: on
campus, in the media, to the White House, at your office.” The StandWithUs
Advocacy Conference actually had to turn away more than 100 people from the
intense and practical seminar, which included talks on European anti-Semitism,
by the Wiesenthal Center’s Rabbi Abraham Cooper; effective lobbying by Dianna
Stein, the American Israel Public Affair Committee’s deputy director for the
Southern Pacific Region, and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Dist. 24); and writing
letters to the editor by this column’s most frequent contributor, Rob Eshman.

What does all the activity on this side of the Atlantic mean?
While the Israelis are deciding between indifference and apathy, the American
Jews are finally beginning to wake up from their 30-year slumber.  When I lived
in Israel I remember screaming at my friends in America how important some
issue was, and how can they not know about it, and why do they want to talk
about the lastest Spielberg movie?

Now, I find it’s the reverse: from Los Angeles, I’m calling
them for their opinions on the upcoming elections, the latest diplomatic effort
and no, I don’t want to talk about the latest Spielberg movie.

It might take two to make a marriage work — but usually it’s
one party’s commitment that balances a lack of it on the disinterested one’s
part. American Jews’ increasing involvement in a process that Israelis are ready
to throw the towel at — well, that’s just what the marriage counselor ordered.
That, maybe, instead of a toke of the green stuff. 

Forgetting the Little Guy

If you closed your eyes and sat very still, you could almost feel history unfolding last week in Conference Room No. 1 at national United Jewish Appeal headquarters in New York. One of the most broadly representative parliamentary bodies in organized American Jewish life was gathered to vote itself, in effect, out of existence.

The March 18 vote was meant to clear the way for a new body to emerge. It will allow responsibility for hundreds of millions of dollars of Jewish communal money to be concentrated in a smaller group of wealthier hands.

Some tried to block it. There was a brief revolt by a disorganized group of populists who demanded representation on the new council. But they couldn’t muster the votes. In the end, the merger of the United Jewish Appeal and the Council of Jewish Federations passed its last major hurdle.

Now, the truth is, you had to shut your eyes real tight to feel the drama here. This was a quarterly board meeting of the United Israel Appeal. Watching these folks work is usually about as dramatic as watching grass grow. This time, though, something happened.

The United Israel Appeal is a little-known agency that helps manage the flow of cash between the UJA and its Israeli beneficiaries. Last week, its board met to approve the long-awaited merger between the UJA and the Council of Jewish Federations. There wasn’t supposed to be any trouble.

The merger, of course, will combine the UJA and the Council of Jewish Federations into a single, still-unnamed super-agency. The new body is supposed to coordinate all the fund-raising and social-service work of America’s 190-odd local Jewish welfare federations. Four years in the making, the merger will put the machinery of Jewish philanthropy firmly in the hands of the folks back home who pay for it. Enthusiasts see it as taxpayer justice at its finest. It depends on your math.

The merger is now down to the final details. Winning approval from the United Israel Appeal was one of them. It’s essential because, for obscure historical reasons, the United Israel Appeal actually owns the UJA. Under the new plan, the UJA will turn the tables and own the United Israel Appeal.

Nobody expected any real trouble, because all three institutions — UJA, United Israel Appeal, Council of Jewish Federations — are basically governed by the same people: the donors who run the local federations that pay everybody’s bills.

But trouble is what they got. The United Israel Appeal isn’t quite like the UJA or CJF. One-third of its leadership doesn’t come from federations at all, but from the squabbling ideological and religious factions that make up the World Zionist Organization. When the UJA-CJF merger is done, these factions — Labor and Likud Zionists, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Zionists, Hadassah, B’nai B’rith International, the fraternal order of B’nai Zion and some others — will be left out in the cold. Not one seat is reserved for them on the governing councils of the new organization. They came to last week’s meeting spoiling for a fight.

Why are these groups on the United Israel Appeal board in the first place? For the same reason that the United Israel Appeal owns the UJA: Both were created by the World Zionist Organization, decades ago, to finance its Jewish state-building plans. Over the years, the federations gradually took control. But the Zionists never lost their foothold. Until now.

What happened last week was not a pretty sight. One after another, the Zionists rose to criticize the merger negotiations, to claim that they’d been hoodwinked, to defend their role as Israel’s leading supporters and to demand seats on the new board. “I want to remind you that we’re real people out there,” said former Hadassah President Bernice Tannenbaum.

The response they got from federation representatives veered between sympathy and derision, once even descending into a shouting match. When the vote came, the Zionists lost badly. Not one federation leader crossed over to support the Zionists.

Sadly, the Zionists had lost their fighting spirit. Years ago, they were the feistiest hell-raisers in the Jewish world. But, for generations, they’ve been just the opposite: loyal followers of Israeli diktat. Now, when they had to fight for their own survival, they couldn’t remember how to put up a fight.

The best argument they could muster was that Zionists are solidly for Israel. That only annoyed the federation leaders. “To question the Zionist commitment of the leaders of the federation is not only ill-placed but somewhat degrading,” said Ivan Schaeffer, president of the UJA-Federation of Washington.

In fact, federation leaders said, the federations are already open to all. Why reserve seats for one group? “There’s no reason why the people who say they’re Zionists can’t get deeply involved in their federations and try to influence them,” said Robert Goldberg, president of the Cleveland federation.

Actually, there’s a good reason. In federations, you’ve got to pay to play. The median household income among federation board members is more than $200,000 a year. For the rest of us, it’s around $50,000.

Federation leaders insist that you don’t need to be rich. Repeatedly, they cite cases of $5,000 donors playing key leadership roles. They think that’s modest. In fact, fewer than 4 percent of all UJA donors give $5,000 or more. Fully 86 percent give less than $1,000. Almost half give less than $100. They don’t get to vote.

The leadership of the UJA is drawn today from a tiny group of the wealthiest Jews. That’s not a healthy way to run an organization that needs to make decisions about people’s lives. Will the new UJA be funding Jewish education? What kind? Trips to Israel? At what cost? Social welfare? For whom? The most powerful institution in Jewish life shouldn’t be run entirely by people with no idea how most Jews live.

This argument didn’t start last week. For over a year, the UJA has been under pressure, from Zionist groups and synagogue movements alike, to make the new body a partnership between fund-raisers and opinion leaders. They’ve been ignored.

It’s got people worried. “Everybody understands that Jewish education and religious life are absolutely central concerns of our community now,” says Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Reform movement. “Our creative survival depends on it. What would make sense is a national structure based on partnership between movements and communal leaders. What happened was that the movements were left out. My own sense is that it was a tragic error.”

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.