The Sound of One Hand Clapping

October 1, 2003
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By Marlene Provizer

Underlying the decline of consensus is a cru-cial, related question: “Who speaks for the Jewish community?” For many years there was an implicit understanding that community relations agencies - both nationally and locally - spoke to a broad range of public policy matters, including church-state, civil liberties, and social and economic justice issues. The federation system focused primarily on direct needs of the Jewish community, especially government appropriations for federation-supported services. Of course, the division of labor was never absolute; as the federation system grew, consolidated power, and claimed more of a stake in issues once perceived as the province of community relations, things became stickier.

Twenty years ago, most challenges to the consensus positions of the Jewish Council on Public Affairs (then known as the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council) came from major national community relations agencies, not the federation system. But now the JCPA is increasingly challenged by the United Jewish Communities and several powerful local federations.

The influence wielded by mega-donors plays a role in the fraying of the relationship between federation and community relations. When the federation system originally established the JCPA and local community relations agencies, it was acknowledging the need and value of an autonomous community relations presence distinct from the Jewish community’s fundraising engine. But when federation influentials insist on unanimity instead of consensus as the standard for addressing issues they deem controversial, they erode the practice of communal consensus.

Take the recent dust-up over the JCPA’s resolution on proposed federal budget cuts. When it was called on the carpet for advocating rescission of the past two years’ tax cuts, the JCPA de-emphasized that part of its plank. But one wonders how many community relations agencies would have been wary of advocating a tax position, had it not been dropped.

Using the traditional definition of affiliation as membership in the institutions and congregations whose memberships constitute the mainstream communal system, the percentage of “affiliated” Jews is estimated at no more than half of all American Jews. Members of the sizeable cohort of American Jews who are “unaffiliated” (according to the traditional definition) have always found other ways to weigh in on public policy, whether as individuals, members of secular organizations, or both. But now many Jews are seeking to do so as Jews. The rise of new Jewish membership organizations and affiliations outside the formal communal system - some of them multi-issue, others single-issue, and many of them progressive - has created a wealth of opportunities for involvement and activism on issues that, depending on the particulars, the communal system may not be addressing or may oppose.

It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine a scenario in which the number of Jews - identified as Jews and acting outside the communal system yet in a distinctly Jewish context - express themselves in greater numbers on a given issue than the response registered by “affiliated” Jews. In local communities, grassroots Jewish groups have the potential to be particularly effective at mobilizing large numbers of people through phone trees, e-mail networks, and public actions.

It remains to be seen how these developments will affect the mainstream communal enterprise. For the good of society and the Jewish community, let’s hope it serves as a prod, spurring community relations agencies to be more innovative, inclusive, and risk-taking in their approach to consensus.

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Marlene Provizer is Executive Director of the Jewish Fund for Justice. She has also served as Deputy Director of National Affairs for the American Jewish Committee, as Assistant Director of the National Jewish Community Relations Council (now JCPA), as Social Policy Director of the League of Women Voters Education Fund, and on the national education staff of the Children's Defense Fund.

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