New Ajcommittee Head Charts a Cautious Path of Change

A conversation with Ira Silverman had turned from discussion of the Democratic National Convention to the subject of whether Jews should publicly criticize Israel, as most conversations with leaders of American-Jewish organizations are bound to during these days of the Palestinian “intifada.”

The newly appointed executive vice president of the American Jewish Committee mulled the subject for a long moment, before answering in careful, measured tones.

“I don’t believe in speaking out against Israel,” said Silverman, biting hard on the last word. “What I do believe in is stating plainly our view about how best to achieve a peace for Israel.

That view may differ from the view of the prevailing Israeli government administration at any given time, but we will still say forthrightly what we think.”

Like most Israeli governments since 1967, Silverman continued, AJCommittee has clearly supported a settlement with the Arab nations, based on some exchange of territory for peace.

What is not clear, he said, is to what extent the present Israeli administration supports the same principle.

“We haven’t so much criticized that administration, as much as we’ve simply said what we think.” And by refraining from criticism, AJCommittee has not lost its effectiveness as a voice on Middle East issues, Silverman believes. “We are in contact with influential Israelis everyday,” he said.

Silverman’s position on this issue hinted at what could be his style in the new job: analytical, diplomatic and cautious, but with a willingness to push the organization he represents into territory slightly ahead of where it has been accustomed to going.

NUDGING AGENCY BEYOND NEUTRALITY

If he offered no specific criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir or of the American Jewish Congress, one of the most outspoken of Israel’s recent organizational critics, he seemed to be nudging AJCommittee beyond the posture of calculated neutrality it has retained in recent months.

Silverman spoke about his goals for the 82-year-old organization during an hour-long interview at his mid-Manhattan office.

While those goals are bound to mean changes for the committee, the 43-year-old Silverman recalled that he was “an old AJC hand,” having served as director of special programs until 1981. Any changes, he said, would be made gradually.

Accordingly, he remains dedicated to the committee’s belief in maintaining Israel’s security, to religious and ethnic pluralism, to assisting threatened Jewish communities abroad and to scholarly research and analysis of American Jewish life.

But he also holds to the principle of “tikkun olam” (healing the world) and intends for the organization to become increasingly “action-oriented” in its approach to the issues.

He spoke, for instance, of a need to “focus harder than ever on enhancing black-Jewish ties. But that does not mean rolling over and playing dead when we see manifestations of anti-Semitism among blacks,” he said. “We intend in that case to come down hard.”

GROUP IS NOT NEO-CONSERVATIVE

Silverman rejects the notion that, as publisher of the neo-conservative magazine Commentary, AJCommittee” has been a symbol of the Jewish turn to the right.” While he remains a “proud publisher of Commentary,” he insisted that “the committee’s volunteer leadership is not cohesively oriented toward neo-conservatism — it is, in fact, more liberal.”

But he said he was not sure if that was true of the American Jewish community at large Despite the claims of Jewish liberals that American Jewry is more dovish than its leaders recognize, there is no “demographic basis” on which to measure the political temperature of the community, Silverman said.

“The American Jewish Yearbook for 1988 studied the attitudes of American Jews on a whole range of issues,” he said of the annual book AJCommittee publishes. “And they seem to retain as broad a range of opinion as jokes about American Jewish diversity seem to suggest.”

Silverman’s own background is as diverse as that constituency. He holds his undergraduate degree from Harvard University and a master’s in public affairs from Princeton.

He served in executive positions in higher education, first at Princeton and later in Washington, where he also moonlighted as Washington correspondent for both the Jerusalem Post and Yediot Achronot.

Before joining AJCommittee for the first time in 1977, Silverman directed the Synagogue Council of America’s Institute for Jewish Policy Planning and Research.

From 1981 to 1986, he served as president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, overseeing that seminary’s move from an inner-city complex in North Philadelphia to a campus in the suburb of Wyncote, Pa.

Until accepting AJCommittee’s top professional job, Silverman directed New York’s massive 92nd Street Y.

‘PAN-DENOMINATIONAL’ APPROACH

The last two positions seemed to have shaped many of his attitudes toward Jewish life. From the Reconstructionist movement, he gained an appreciation for what he called a “pan-denominational” approach to Judaism that fosters diversity but rises above divisiveness.

And he called the 92nd Street Y, a major cultural and educational institution, the embodiment of both Jewish and American ideals of culture, polities and creativity.

Fostering those ideals at the AJCommittee remains his ultimate philosophical goal, but until then, there remain more practical steps to be taken — “institutional repair,” in his words.

“We need to reach to attract younger members,” he said, admitting that the “big givers” who are the lifeblood of non-profit organizations tend toward an older and wealthier profile.

“It is imperative that we reach out to younger members who can bring their own diverse talents.”

On the subject of polities and the platform the Democrats could carry into the White House in November, Silverman might well have been speaking of his own tenure: “Possible changes will be made,” he said. “But I’m confident the out-come will be consistent with our views.”

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