Monday, December 11, 2006

Autocratic Jewish Leadership

(continued from previous post)

There’s a second way of allowing people to have a greater voice in Jewish affairs that would not require competitive campaigns for the Board of Directors of the Federation. It would not be very difficult to send each and every donor to the Federation a list of all the charities, a full description of their mission and what percent of the total funds each charity will receive. If a donor is not in agreement with the proposed distribution, he could indicate together with his contribution how he would like HIS money to be divided. Thus, if someone doesn’t want any money to go to Israel, he would reallocate the money to American charities. In the old days, this was considered a big problem because who would be able to keep track of all the small contributions to each individual charity; however with computers, there is no problem.

The reason why such a proposal is not being implemented is that neither the charities themselves nor the directors and Federation officials are in favor. The Federation apparatchiks don’t like any proposal that would take away their power and return it to the donors. The recipients of the funds do not want to gamble on how much money, if any, they will get from the Federation. Nevertheless, a proposal that would return the right to allocate money to the individual has a great deal to be said in its favor. Just as we do not allow bureaucrats to decide how consumers should allocate their funds between various consumer items, we should not allow it in this situation either. Is there any reason to believe that some director knows better how much money should go to the Bureau of Jewish Education versus the Solomon Schecter Day School? Has he thought through all the implications of a marginal dollar being spent on one charity rather than another? We know from markets, the more people that express an opinion the better chance of getting a more optimal allocation.

The proposal of allowing everyone to decide for themselves is not fully democratic because people who do not give any money will have nothing to say, and rich people will have greater influence than poor people, a point that should make all those who are afraid of direct democracy happy. Yet, it is better than the situation we have now where nobody has anything to say except for the dozen people on the board. The argument that many people have no opinion how to allocate the money can be spoken to by including a suggested allocation that the board of the Federation would recommend. You still would retain the great advantage of UJC charities…a donor can write one check and thereby donate money to fifty plus institutions.

The situation with the Federation is indicative of a larger problem in American Jewish life; to wit it is not democratic. Each of the twenty four leading Jewish organizations is run by a small coterie of individuals, frequently just one person who is more or less an autocrat. Take the ADL. Whenever Mr. Foxman wants to say something, he says it. He doesn’t consult with the total membership. If you don’t like what Foxman says, you have to get rid of him, which is not so easy to do; some say impossible. All these organizations are self-important and purport to represent the Jewish people in America. Someone like me who takes an interest in Jewish life would be hard-pressed to name half of these twenty-four leading Jewish organizations. And in any event, these organizations do not represent me since they never asked my opinion about anything and I frequently disagree with what they are doing. I certainly don’t feel, for example, that the Hadassah, charitable as it may be, represents my views on the Jewish issues of the day. Similarly, Morton Klein of the ZOA, who is frequently on the extreme right of Israeli politics, can not be said to represent the American Jewish community, and certainly not moi. If you take twenty-four of these non-representative organizations and you put them together into a new organization called the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, it is not obvious that you end up with an organization representative of American Jews. Yet the Conference together with the so called World Jewish Congress purports to speak for every Jew. No one ever voted for Malcolm Hoenlein or Edgar Bronfman to be Kings of the Jews. Very odd, very shtetl-like…rabbis and machers…machers and rabbis.

Two examples of how the undemocratic nature of Jewish organizations leads to problems. The Claims Conference is responsible for distributing billions of dollars to Holocaust victims. It was established in 1952 and to this day, members of the Jewish organizations that were dominant in the 1950s sit on the board of directors. A critical article in Haaretz charged that “The Claims Conference does not make public information about the amount of property in its hands and about the amount of income that is expected to come in during the coming years. The elder wheeler-dealers who sit on the board of directors take care to direct allocations to organizations that are close to them politically. There is justice in the Israeli charges that the organization is being run like a Jewish shtetl that has not yet heard about the establishment of the state.” Why are a bunch of self-appointed elderly Jews, with no responsibility to the general public or to the State of Israel, allowed to wield such power? I want to suggest that it’s part of the general culture of how many of these Jewish organizations are run.

A new disagreement is developing inside the Federations as to how much money should be allocated to help Jewish people who have intermarried remain Jewish. It’s a complicated issue. There is no simple principle to decide how much money should be spent to influence marginal Jews in their religious practices. In the absence of a principle that would be generally recognized, I don’t see any way of solving the problem in a reasonable way other than allowing the donors themselves to decide. What I think will happen is that the idea will get a hearing and, in order to avoid a big ruckus, a small amount of money will be allocated, which will do a small amount of good allowing the big problem of what happens to intermarried Jews to remain unsolved.

It is absolutely incredible that a Jewish community that donates $800 million a year to the Federations plus at least twice that amount to other Jewish charities in the attempt to keep itself intact has had such miserable results. My view is that the centralized, decision making process that is utilized in allocating the funds and the autocratic nature of the Jewish leadership are two of the culprits.


At 12:41 PM, Blogger Goofball said...

Dear Evanston Jew,
I agree whole-heartedly with your post, and have a suggestion to make. Why don't you start a website-based movement to better inform the (Jewish) public of the operations of the various organizations, so they could make their own decisions and donate directly accordingly? I'm not suggesting you just set up a website that describes them from your point of view: that would hardly be impartial. Instead, see if you can convince at least one or two of these organizations to describe themselves on their own terms on a website. If it generates more direct donations to them, the others will sign on. Just as in a market. Since initially they'll still be getting their JUF money, the first signers can't lose. Once all 24 major and however many minor organizations there are have signed on, they of course don't all win. But they lose if they don't. The very beauty of a market.
Of course, disseminating the name of the website and changing the culture of donations so that people want to donate directly is another matter, and subject to the usual obstacles facing a market where none was...

At 1:20 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

goofball...very clever idea though I am too old and too out of the Federation loop to run such a blog.

I was thinking there was a need for a forensic accountant to go over the income and expenditures of each organization. How much in expenses, cost per client, comparisons to comparable organizations around the country.Even a blog devoted to the budgets of the Federations, pointing out innovative programs ,ways to cut costs.

Ideas ,ideas and not an accountant-blogmeister in sight.

At 6:47 PM, Anonymous Bob Miller said...

If you don't want others to determine the destinations of your charitable gifts, determine them yourself and use whichever channels suit you. If enough people take these functions into their own hands, Federations will have to adapt or fade away.

In the meantime, it doesn't matter if Federations, are autocratic, democratic or any other cratic. Don't beg them to adapt; do what ya gotta do on your own.


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