Too Many Jewish Organizations?

A common Jewish communal gripe is that there are too many organizations out raising money to do the same things.  There’s no quicker way to get a rise out of donors or activists than to ask why we need to fund and run an alphabet soup of Jewish defense organizations: the ADL, AJC, AJC,Aipac,StandWithUs,NJCRAC,JCPA,CPMJO.  (Put all those letters together and what do you get?  OY.)

In this week’s Jewish Week, Gary Rosenblatt, Jewish journalist extraordinaire (we mean it), examines a fascinating, long-buried study that found duplication and waste in the panoply of Jewish groups and made proposals to create a more efficient communal enterprise.

We love Gary’s suck-‘em-in lead:

… A report has been commissioned by the national policy-making body on Jewish community relations to study the relationship between and among the top national defense agencies — including the American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress and Anti-Defamation League — specifically dealing with longstanding complaints about their “duplication, excessive competition, lack of coordination and actual conflict.”

But before you breathe a sigh of relief and think to yourself, “it’s about time,” let me point out that the report in question was commissioned in January 1950, exactly 60 years ago this week.

The McIver Report, prepared by the eminent sociologist Robert McIver, rocked the Jewish world, mostly by finding out what everyone already knew: that duplication and waste were inherent in the system.  That made the organizations unhappy—not because of the waste, but because of the idea that they would have to consolidate:

In the fall of 1952, almost two years after the report was commissioned and four months after it was submitted to the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council (NJCRAC), the precursor of today’s Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), it was opposed most vocally by the ADL (then part of B’nai B’rith) and the American Jewish Committee.

They charged that the proposals would create a centralized authority — namely, NJCRAC — and, according to a news story in The New York Times of Sept. 6, 1952, “violate the autonomy of the organizations and the voluntary character of the Jewish community.”

As a result, the ADL and American Jewish Committee split from NJCRAC for years over the report’s findings.

In the end, as a result of the bitterness the report generated — half of the six key national groups approved of the findings and half did not — nothing came of the extensive study, and it has remained a footnote of 20th-century American Jewish life.

The rest of Gary’s piece looks at the lessons of the McIver Report (love the name, by the way—as if you could save the Jewish community with a paper clip, a stick of gum and a match).  He speaks with numerous organization heads who say—SHOCK!—that duplication is good. 

Not surprisingly, Marc [Stern, American Jewish Congress acting co-executive director] does not agree with critics who say his organization has outlived its usefulness. He points to its highly respected legal briefs and its advocacy style, which he describes as distinctively aggressive. He also emphasizes the need for the community to have a wide range of voices and positions.

Stern readily acknowledges that “there is duplication” among the national agencies “and sometimes wastefulness,” but he contends that there is “less duplication than many people think.”

He says that in fact, the national groups do work together on foreign policy causes like advocacy for Israel and sanctions against Iran — primarily through the Presidents Conference — and respect each other’s areas of expertise and try to avoid repetitive efforts.

“MacIver was right about some things,” Stern said, like the need for the organizations to work more closely together. But he added that MacIver’s call for consolidation would give more power to a shrinking number of funders today, who in turn could determine the agenda for the whole community.

“Let’s face it,” Stern continued, “we are all depending on fewer large givers.”

The result is an implicit push for the organizations to focus on the same issues, with much the same approach, as they woo these donors. This leads to duplication and reluctance to take divergent positions.

Stern said that while NJCRAC was established as a consensus organization, seeking coordination among the national agencies, it “does almost none of that now.” Instead, it primarily has its own agenda, he said, focusing on a domestic agenda that highlights poverty in America and environmental concerns, in addition to advocacy for Israel and calling for sanctions against Iran.

Steve Gutow, executive director of the JCPA, disagrees with the assessment, asserting that “the rationale for the JCPA as a consensus finder and builder is more important than ever, and that is a role we play.”

Some of that coordination is done behind the scenes, he notes, “but much of it is public,” like passing resolutions on a range of issues, including some controversial ones in recent years: endorsing the principle of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and calling for divestments from companies doing business with Iran.

Other national leaders say the JCPA does not have the clout it would like to in achieving consensus.

Independent Streak Remains

And so it goes. Conversations with the principals in various national organizations result in each one casting his organization in a key role, and describing other groups as performing a lesser service.

And maybe that’s the point. Each of our national organizations has its own culture, constituency and outlook. And for better or worse, the logical proposals of a MacIver Report are never going to happen in today’s American Jewish community.

It seems that in 50 years, “duplication” has come to mean, “diversity.”  And who’s against diversity?  David Harris, Exec Direc of the American Jewish Committee, has a reasonable critique of the excess—though we notice he’s not exactly volunteering to merge or purge efforts with, God forbid, the ADL.

“MacIver was on to something,” Harris said, “but he underestimated the degree of institutional resilience, stubbornness and protectiveness that allowed the Jewish community, for all its successes, to, in effect, defy the obvious, which would have meant rationalizing and distributing its finite resources more strategically.”

As for the ADL:

Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL, says it was not wrong to reject MacIver’s recommendations six decades ago, or to do so now.

“My view is let the marketplace decide,” he said. “The community is best served by many voices rather than a homogenized group that would represent the lowest common denominator. And the world would only hear one voice.

But, he added, “the spirit of MacIver remains” in that “he made us aware of the community’s concerns about cooperation and coordination. So his work had a positive, if indirect impact. The organizations have tried to live up to it, short of merging.”

Read all of Gary’s piece here.

To read key excerpts from the MacIver Report, courtesy of, click on JInsider.