As published by the Jewish News Service – November 5, 2015


by Rafael Medoff

Fifty years ago this week, two prominent figures in the American Jewish community startled their colleagues by calling for democratic elections to choose Jewish leaders.

The occasion was a two day conference in New York City, in November 1965, on “Planning for the American Jewish Community of Tomorrow–1975.” Jewish organizational professionals, rabbis, and scholars came together to discuss what should be done to ensure the well-being of American Jewry ten years hence.

Most of the speakers confined themselves to generalities and platitudes. But two of them stepped outside the box to present what was, at the time, a radical proposal.

“One of the first issues in planning for the future is that of creating a democratic structure for the Jewish community,” said Dr. Judah Shapiro, secretary of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. That structure should “include an expression of decision (voting), the presentation of alternatives (platforms and parties), and the selection of leaders on the basis of merit (elections), rather than ascription. Planning for 1975 demands the earliest attention to the establishment of democratically structured Jewish communities,” Shapiro explained. (Parentheses in the original.)

C. Bezalel Sherman, the noted sociologist and historian of American Jewish life, seconded Shapiro’s call. He told the conference that the main problem was “the growing indigenousness of American Jewry”–fifty years earlier, some 60% of American Jews were immigrants and felt a strong Jewish identity, but by 1965, “at least 80%” were native-born and less attached to Judaism. Such challenges could be met only by establishing a central Jewish organization that would be “democratically constituted” and “will have the right to speak in the name of American Jews and weave a Jewish strand into the fabric of American society without tearing it out of the texture of Jewish peoplehood.”

Shapiro and Sherman touched on one of the unspoken ironies of contemporary American Jewish life: U.S. Jews are patriotic and strongly committed to the American value of democracy–yet there is no real democratic tradition in the American Jewish community.

The only genuine nationwide American Jewish elections took place in 1917, for the founding assembly of the American Jewish Congress. (There were also elections in 1943 for a short-lived umbrella group called the American Jewish Conference, but there were no competing views in that contest; the voting was basically just a taking of the community’s pulse.)

The absence of democracy in American Jewish organizational life had serious consequences during the Holocaust. Jewish leaders who failed to mount an effective response to the news of the mass killings could not be voted out of office. Grassroots Jews had no say in choosing the leaders who claimed to represent them.

Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, the foremost U.S. Jewish leader in the 1930s and 1940s, simultaneously headed a remarkable number of organizations and institutions: the American Jewish Congress, the American Zionist movement, the Jewish Institute of Religion (a rabbinical seminary that later merged with Hebrew Union College), Manhattan’s Free Synagogue, and others.

He spread himself thin, and it showed. Wise’s wide array of commitments, combined with his deteriorating health, reduced his effectiveness precisely at the moment that a focused and robust leader was most needed: as news of the mass murder of Europe’s Jews was reaching America.

Rabbi Wise was also seriously handicapped by his political loyalties. A devout supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, he could not bring himself to challenge FDR’s abandonment of the Jewish refugees and lukewarm support for Zionism. But those in the Jewish community who favored a more activist policy did not have the option of voting for a new leader.

Seventy years after Stephen Wise’s heyday, and fifty years after Judah Shapiro and C. Bezalel Sherman issued their call for democracy in Jewish life, little has changed. Democracy is still a foreign concept in the organized Jewish community.

There are American Jewish organizations today where the same person has been president for more than twenty years…where “elections” are held but there is only one candidate…where entrenched leaders have abolished term limits so they can remain in power indefinitely…where elections required by an organization’s own by-laws are simply ignored.

The democratic values which American Jews ardently champion as Americans are seldom practiced in the Jewish organizational world. American Jewry has suffered and will continue to suffer, from the consequences of this absence of democracy.

(Dr. Medoff, a Washington, D.C.-based historian, is the author of numerous books on Jewish history. He was a winner of the American Jewish Press Association’s 2014 Simon Rockower Award for Excellence in Jewish Journalism.)

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As published by the Jewish News Service – June 11, 2015


by Rafael Medoff

More than 80% of eligible Jewish voters participate in American presidential elections, yet less than 1% voted in the recent nationwide election among American Jews. For a community that takes American democracy so seriously, U.S. Jews showed surprisingly little interest in the democratic race that was recently held in their own ranks.

Just 56,737 Jews participated in the elections for delegates to the World Zionist Congress, even though they had three months in which to vote (January 30-April 30), and were able to cast their ballots without ever having to leave the comfort of their living rooms.

The number of voters represents a sharp drop from those who took part in previous American Jewish elections to the Zionist Congress–75,686 in 2006, 88,753 in 2002, and 107,832 in 1997. Yet even those higher numbers still represented a minuscule fraction of the American Jewish community.

There are a number of reasons for the abysmally low voter turnout in the Zionist elections.

One reason is that an American presidential election actually affects the lives of the voters, whereas the Zionist Congress election involves expressing a more abstract preference that does not have many practical consequences for the people who are voting.

Another reason is that when Israel’s existence is not in immediate danger, there is less of a sense of urgency among American Jews. (Which also is why the membership levels of American Zionist organizations declined steeply after 1948.)

But an important and often-overlooked additional reason is the lack of a serious democratic tradition in contemporary Jewish communal life. The only other nationwide American Jewish elections took place in 1917, for the founding assembly of the American Jewish Congress, and 1943, for a short-lived umbrella group called the American Jewish Conference. For most of the current generation of American Jews, the idea of a Jewish communal election is a foreign concept.

Some of today’s American Jewish and Zionist organizations do not hold any elections for their leadership positions, or stage elections in which incumbents run unopposed. Wealth or political connections too often become the major criteria for leadership positions. That diminishes the likelihood of younger leaders emerging, since they are much less likely to have accumulated wealth or connections on the level of their elders.

One way to discourage excess and encourage change is through term limits. Troubled by “the love of power and the love of money,” Benjamin Franklin warned that without term limits, politicians would view elected office as “a place of profit, and they will move heaven and earth to obtain it.” Thomas Jefferson likewise vociferously advocated term limits to curb what he called “office-hunters.”

In addition to the constitutionally-mandated term limit on presidents, 36 states today have term limits for governors, and 15 state legislatures and numerous local municipalities have them, too. Term limits could play a valuable role in Jewish organizational life just as they do in American political life, acting as a restraint on self-interested politicians and opening the door for new leaders.

Greater democracy and term limits not only would be healthy for the Jewish community in general, but would be a boon to Jewish organizations themselves. Many Jewish groups have had difficulty attracting members of the next generation. As younger men and women enter the Jewish leadership, they will bring with them the technological skills and social media savvy needed to compete in today’s world.

Perhaps the shockingly low turnout for the Zionist Congress elections will serve as a reminder to entrenched Jewish leaders that support for their organizations is likely to remain at embarrassingly low levels unless remedial steps are taken–including the cherished American remedy of genuine democracy.

(Dr. Medoff, a Washington, D.C.-based historian, is the author of numerous books on Jewish history. He was a winner of the American Jewish Press Association’s 2014 Simon Rockower Award for Excellence in Jewish Journalism.)