Whither the Jewish macher? Upstarts increasingly setting Jewish agenda

Nathan Lewin, left, and his daughter Alyza created headaches for major Jewish groups by persevering with a so-far unsuccessful lawsuit to get the State Department to recognize Jerusalem-born Americans as born in Israel. (Washington Jewish Week)

Nathan Lewin, left, and his daughter Alyza created headaches for major Jewish groups by persevering with a so-far unsuccessful lawsuit to get the State Department to recognize Jerusalem-born Americans as born in Israel. (Washington Jewish Week)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — On Sept. 27, the conservative political blogger Ken Berwitz was enraged – not by Democratic malfeasance, his favored bugbear, but by the policies of an Oklahoma-based chain of craft stores.

Berwitz was bothered not only that Hobby Lobby was keeping Hanukkah tchotchkes off its shelves, but that a clerk at a New Jersey outlet had accounted for the omission by explaining that the store doesn’t “cater to you people.”

“I will never set foot in a hobby lobby. Ever,” Berwitz seethed on his blog. “I will be sure to tell everyone I know and, obviously, everyone who reads this blog, the reason why.”

The story quickly went viral. Within a week, Hobby Lobby had apologized and announced that in time for the holiday season, it would be stocking dreidels and menorahs in certain locations. The Anti-Defamation League posted the apology on its website while noting that not stocking Jewish items did not indicate bigotry.

A swift victory in the Internet age?

Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, isn’t so sure. In fact, the whole experience left him uneasy.

“In the good old days, when someone said something critical or nasty, you could ignore it,” Foxman said. “Now everyone has a megaphone. Your supporters come and say, ‘Did you hear?’ You’re forced to deal and engage.”

From matters of state to determinations of what should and should not offend Jews, the major Jewish organizations have been forced to contend in recent years with individuals or small activist groups that increasingly determine which issues dominate the communal agenda.

Recent controversies over religious freedom in the military and American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital have been driven not by the country’s largest Jewish groups but by individuals who bypass traditional channels of Jewish advocacy.

One of the more consequential recent examples was a lawsuit brought by Nathan and Alyza Lewin on behalf of Menachem Zivotofsky, an American citizen born in Jerusalem. The father-daughter legal team sought to force the U.S. State Department to hew to a 2002 law allowing Jerusalem-born Americans to list their country of birth as Israel — a law ignored by both President Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush, citing presidential prerogative in shaping foreign policy.

The American Jewish Committee initially opposed the lawsuit, considering it dangerous to bring the issue of Jerusalem before the courts. But pressure from donors and right-wing activists ultimately persuaded the AJC and other major Jewish groups to sign on.

The lawsuit backfired. In July, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld the president’s exclusive power “to determine whether to recognize a foreign sovereign,” enshrining in legal precedent the president’s preeminence in foreign policy matters over Congress, which has historically proved a pro-Israel bulwark at moments of tension between Israel and the White House.

“How far Congress has the power to rein in the executive is not trivial,” one regretful senior official at a group that backed the lawsuit said at the time of the ruling. Freelancers “do a lot things that make short-term sense for the cause and long-term very little for the Jewish people as a whole.”

Alyza Lewin disputed the suggestion that the Zivotofsky case had done long-term damage to Jewish interests, telling JTA she is petitioning for a Supreme Court review and is confident her position will prevail.

Steven Cohen, a professor of Jewish Social Policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, said the pressure on Jewish organizations has increased in part because of the convergence social media and a resurgent activist temperament that has been dormant since the 1970s.

“There’s the decline of mainstream Jewish organizations as the non-Orthodox committed Jewish population shrinks,” Cohen said. “There is organizing in the postmodern age, the ability of social media to link people and to push issues that have resonance to the forefront very quickly. It’s not much different from the Arab Spring in Tunisia.”

Two top establishment figures speaking on background noted the case of Mikey Weinstein as another example of the ways major groups have lost unfettered control over the communal agenda. A former military lawyer, Weinstein founded the Military Religious Freedom Foundation after hearing reports from his sons that they had been exposed to Christian proselytizing as cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Several establishment groups took up the gauntlet and negotiated reforms with the Pentagon, but the reforms did not go far enough for Weinstein, who now derides establishment groups as milquetoasts. Weinstein remains influential, scoring his own Pentagon meetings.

Whether the phenomenon results from failures by establishment groups or is a symptom of larger shifts in the culture is in dispute. What is clear is that the landscape has dramatically changed.

“We are confronted more to take positions we’ve never taken before, things we’d ignore or phase out, but now it’s harder to do so,” Foxman said.

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