The most exciting element of the J Street conference I attended last weekend in Washington, for me anyway, was the open battle between older Jewish donors and young Jews about Israel. This battle was frequently explicit; as it was near the end of a panel on “Fault Lines” in the American Jewish community.
At minute 1:03 a young man asked the panel about donor pressure.
My question has to do with the growing divide between… young Jews and Jewish institutions. I think there exists an implicit notion that mainstream Jewish institutions will support whatever Israeli government is in power, and that has been isolating for a lot of young people. But a lot of people are aware of the fact that a lot of institutions are run by donors and donations. So how can we reconcile a populace that has different preconceptions and ideas surrounding specifically Israel than the donors who are funding the institutions? Primarily on campus how can we engage in these conversations, because it’s really tough when we can’t permeate the actual institutions, if the donors are saying otherwise?
Moderator Dov Waxman, author of Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel, seized on the question. He asked Rabbi Shira Stutman, leader of the Sixth and I Synagogue in Washington, to talk about the “the interests of donors and institutional power… versus the needs, the desire of young Jews in particular to have an open, uninhibited, not rule-bound conversation particularly around Israel but about Jewishness in general.”
Stutman said, “I didn’t want that question.” She then responded candidly:
When I’m not working at Sixth and I, I also serve as the scholar in residence for the National Women’s Philanthropy of the Jewish Federations of North America. So I spend a lot of time on Federation missions [to Israel]. And if I tell you that’s atypical for a J Street supporter, that would be the understatement of the year.
I spend a lot of time with donors… And I think that is really the $60 million question, whatever the number is up to now. Because I think there is a tremendous disconnect. If you are asking me the question about how to bring into the community people who consider themselves non-Zionist, or anti-Zionist, that answer I can give you on one foot. But I think you already know it. It’s with dialogue, it’s with compassion, it’s with open arms– and the ability to make changes in your own opinions, by the way.
But if you’re asking about the disconnect between the laypeople and the donors, that’s as tough as it gets. And here’s what I would say.
I would say, whenever possible, get the people who are the activists in the room with the donors. The disconnect is tremendous. I told one of the women on the mission I was on two weeks ago in Israel that I was going to the West Bank this summer on Encounter, to talk– [Encounter is a Jewish organization that brings Jews to the Palestinian territories for dialogue.] And she said, “Why would you want to talk to them?” Now, she’s not representative of the Federation! She’s one person, right? But she’s a donor. Six figures a year, to Federation.
So what we want to do is get people in the room with each other. Do not walk away from the Federation system, just because you disagree with a lot of what they do and say. You are abdicating your own seat at the table as leftwing people. A lot– $900 million a year still goes through the Federation system. As people who are more leftleaning, whatever side of the position you find yourself, more towards the left, I find that we often tend to walk away quicker than the people on the right do. We are less open to dialogue than people on the right. Because we are correct, right? We think.
So I would beg you, don’t do it. Stay in the difficult conversations, whether it be with your grandparents, you know, or whether it be with the Federation donors, because that’s the only way that we’re going to bring ourselves closer together.
The Federation’s website makes clear how pro-Israel it is: “We stand by Israel’s side. Always.” With a lot of money… Stutman and J Street are clearly to the left of the Federation; and of course rightwing Zionists have name-called J Street as traitors for criticizing Israel.
Note that Rabbi Stutman sets great store by communal cohesion; and of course the question I always raise here is, On what basis should a community maintain community bonds, if there is a fundamental values divide? Many young Jews are checking out of these institutions because they are questioning Zionism. (Though I’d also note that Stutman is open to discussions with anti-Zionists.)
The money question is a spiritual/sociological battle that must begin if the community is to deal honestly with its crucial support for Israel and the occupation. Money is clearly a large factor in the Democratic Party’s adherence to Zionism (Landing a big donor was the reason that a Democratic Party thinktank sucked up to Netanyahu. Keeping big donors happy was the reason the Clinton campaign spent so much time fighting BDS, Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.) And at a deeper level, the battle reflects the changing status of Jews in the United States, as a group with establishment power; at a time when some advocates describe us as an “oppressed community”.
I’ll have more to report on the opposition of donors and idealists at J Street in days to come.