5768: The year of the upstarts


NEW YORK (JTA) – In the weeks leading up to last Rosh Hashana, the Anti-Defamation League, bowing to mounting pressure and a mini-revolt by its New England board, reversed its longstanding refusal to recognize the Armenian genocide.

Wary of offending Turkey – a close ally of both Israel and the United States – the ADL had refused to say whether the term genocide should be applied to the World War I massacres of Armenians by Ottoman Turks. But on Aug. 21, 2007, the group’s national director, Abraham Foxman, switched gears, saying the “consequences” of the killings were “tantamount to genocide.”

The reversal capped a weeks-long standoff that began with a ragtag group of activists in Boston throwing down the gauntlet before one of the most formidable organizations in the Jewish world. Though the campaign began to lose steam as 5768 progressed, it set a tone that has continued throughout much of the past Jewish year: upstart activists and new groups challenging the Jewish establishment on an ever-widening range of issues.

* In Washington, a new Jewish organization, J Street, was created to advocate for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though some observers see the group as challenging the dominance of the capital’s pro-Israel alliance led by the hegemonic American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

* A massive federal immigration raid in Iowa at the country’s largest kosher meatpacking plant spurred left-wing activists and liberal Orthodox rabbinic students into action, and gave a powerful boost to a new Conservative ethical kashrut initiative seeking to supplement the kosher certification industry.

* Holocaust survivors locked horns with the top Jewish groups over a congressional resolution that would pave the way for lawsuits against European insurers accused of defaulting on World War II-era policies.

* And in a presidential election season that has seen both parties nominate anti-establishment figures, Barack Obama’s team has labored to tamp down a viral campaign branding him a Muslim and a terrorist
sympathizer – a campaign that has withstood repeated denunciations by a broad spectrum of Jewish politicos and organizations.

“This is part of what’s going on in our society, in terms of both 24-7 news coverage – that is no less true in terms of Jewish media than in general society – and the atomization of opinion that was always a Jewish trait,” said Jeffrey Solomon, the president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies.

“We joke about the community that has two Jews and three synagogues. That was always a private joke. But when you combine it with the growth of news coverage, blogs, etc., there is more attention being given to the various opinions that exists outside of mainstream organizations,” he said.

One organization getting attention in 5768 was J Street, a lobbying group and political action committee launched in April by some of the biggest names in the dovish pro-Israel community. The goal, according to the group’s executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, is to “to give pro-peace, pro-Israel Americans a voice in American politics and in the policy process.”

In June, the group issued its first set of congressional endorsements, throwing support to one Republican and six Democrats, among them a blind New Jersey psychologist who is trying to become the first rabbi elected to Congress. J Street has since endorsed another 26 candidates. It also urged the presidential candidates to wish Israel a happy 60th birthday by pledging to pursue a two-state solution if elected.

J Street also has challenged the Jewish community’s willingness to partner with evangelical Christian groups supportive of Israel, contending that those groups oppose any Israeli concessions, seeing them as violations of God’s will.

In July the group, in partnership with Democracy for America, delivered a 40,000-signature petition to Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) urging him not to address the annual Washington-Israel summit of Christians United for Israel, the Christian Zionist group founded by Texas Pastor John Hagee.

Like the Armenian and Jewish activists who challenged the ADL, J Street finds itself playing David to AIPAC’s Goliath. The new group projected its budget at just $1.5 million, a number it has since exceeded, compared to the roughly $50 million AIPAC spends, and its staff totals just eight people. Still, organizers promised that the new group would play as tough as the big boys, animated by the belief that the majority of U.S. lawmakers support more intensive American involvement in the peace process and want to see more done to support Palestinian moderates but are afraid of the political consequences of speaking out.

Meanwhile, in New York, a grass-roots campaign from the other end of the political spectrum targeted a Barnard College anthropologist, Nadia Abu El-Haj, who was up for tenure. The campaign, led by a group of mostly Jewish Barnard alums, charged that Abu El-Haj was guilty of shoddy scholarship and harbored deep animosity toward the Jewish state. Her defenders countered that her views are consistent with those of many leading Israeli archaeologists and were twisted by her right-wing critics.

Barnard announced in early November that Abu El-Haj was granted tenure.

Early in 2008, Obama found himself fending off a grass-roots campaign of a different sort when e-mails began to circulate claiming that the Democratic presidential contender is a Muslim, had attended a madrassah as a child in Indonesia and had been sworn into office on a Koran.

All three claims are false, as the media and a host of Jewish defenders were quick to point out. Obama’s father was a non-practicing Muslim and the Illinois senator embraced Christianity at Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, an association that would soon reveal a different set of liabilities.

In January, leaders of several of the largest American Jewish organizations – among them the United Jewish Communities, the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, and the Reform and Orthodox congregational arms – took the unusual step of signing a letter refuting the rumors about Obama. Seven Jewish senators later signed a letter echoing the same theme.

“These tactics attempt to drive a wedge between our community and a presidential candidate based on despicable and false attacks and innuendo based on religion,” the organizational leaders’ statement said. “We reject these efforts to manipulate members of our community into supporting or opposing candidates.”

Still the charges, which continued to circulate widely during the primaries, raised doubts about Obama among some Jewish voters. One former Orthodox Jewish official, writing on his personal blog, speculated that Obama might be the Muslim version of a “pintele Yid” – a Yiddish expression describing someone who isn’t Jewishly identified but retains some unconscious attachment to his roots.

Eventually the lines of attack against Obama moved to more conventional ground, with Jewish critics focusing – whether fairly or accurately was a matter of debate – on his associates, positions and experience. But as recently as May, The New York Times was reporting that Jewish voters in the key swing state of Florida were still under false impressions about Obama – that he’s Muslim, a member of Chicago’s Palestinian community and was endorsed by al-Qaida.

In primaries in several of the states with the largest Jewish populations, Obama lost out to his main Democratic opponent, U.S Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.). On her home turf, New York and New Jersey, and in Pennsylvania, Obama lost the Jewish vote by sizable margins. But he handily won among Jews in Connecticut, 61 percent to 38 percent, and narrowly in California and Massachusetts despite losing those two states overall.

Several polls show Obama stalled at 60 percent of the Jewish vote in his general-election fight against his presumptive Republican foe, U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) – a significant drop from the 75 to 80 percent enjoyed by recent Democratic standard-bearers – suggesting that the successive waves of grass-roots attacks against him may still be taking a toll.

For their part, the establishment organizations say they are the victims of smear campaigns as well – the ADL by the Armenian activists, AIPAC by its liberal critics and Hagee by those who portray him as a sexist and a homophobe.

That sort of back and forth – with both sides charging they are being unfairly tarred by their adversaries – also was characteristic of perhaps the biggest Jewish news story of the year: the controversy surrounding Agriprocessors, the largest kosher meat producer in the United States.

In May, federal authorities conducted the largest immigration raid in U.S. history at the company’s packing plant in Postville, Iowa, netting 389 illegal workers and prompting a flood of allegations against the company from former employees. A grand jury investigation is ongoing and the Iowa attorney general is separately considering criminal charges in 57 cases of alleged child labor. No senior management has yet been charged.

The company’s owner, Brooklyn butcher Aaron Rubashkin, has denied wrongdoing while his defenders allege a witch hunt orchestrated by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and abetted by liberal Jews and the media. The critics, meanwhile, say the company has a storied history of running afoul of government regulations and is out to maximize profits on the backs of immigrant laborers.

Both sides accuse the other of failing to live up to the high-minded ideals they espouse.

As the recriminations flew, the episode provided a boost to the Conservative movement’s upstart food certification, Hekhsher Tzedek, which aims to label kosher food that has been produced in an ethical and environmentally responsible manner.

The brainchild of a Conservative rabbi in Minnesota, Morris Allen, Hekhsher Tzedek released its guidelines in late July and represents the first attempt by non-Orthodox Jews to influence the exploding kosher food market. And while Allen insists his certification is meant to coexist with existing certifications, established kosher agencies are casting a wary eye on his efforts.

“What does somehow trouble me a little is the fact that they are devoting all their efforts to kosher food companies,” said Rabbi Avrom Pollak, the president of Star-K, a kosher certifier that works with more than 1,500 manufacturers. “I think it should be a much broader effort. All the services that we use and buy should also be subject to the same scrutiny.”

As the outcry over Agriprocessors’ conduct grew, a coalition of 25 Orthodox rabbis traveled to Postville to conduct their own inspection. They issued the company a clean bill of health, but critics were quick to point out that their trip was paid for by Agriprocessors and they did not meet with the former workers who were alleging mistreatment. The rabbis spent three hours in the plant.

Though the Orthodox community largely rallied to the company’s defense, an Orthodox social justice group, Uri L’tzedek, broke ranks and called for a boycott of Agriprocessors products. The boycott was quickly called off – too quickly, some said – after the company hired a compliance officer and took other measures to ensure its workers were treated fairly.

Though dismissed by right-wing Orthodox figures as a fringe group with a tiny following, Uri L’tzedek was thrust into the public eye by the controversy, raising its profile in a way that will likely boost its potency down the road. Some critics charged it had seized on the Postville situation for precisely that reason.

Though most upstart-establishment battles split the community along religious, political or generational lines, one fight that transcended all three was the one over a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives that would give Holocaust survivors the right to sue European insurance companies over World War II-era policies.

The Holocaust Insurance Accountability Act is still making its way through congressional committees.

Samuel Dubbin, the Florida attorney and former Department of Justice official pushing the bill, contends that the right to sue is fundamental and should not be abridged. He also charges that the official body created to resolve the insurance issue, the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, or ICHEIC, was a failure, paying out only a fraction of the estimated value of Jewish insurance policies held before the war.

Not surprisingly, the European insurance industry has lobbied hard to defeat the bill. But Dubbin and his client, the Holocaust Survivors Foundation, also have found themselves engaged in legislative combat with the largest Jewish groups and the Claims Conference, the principal Jewish organization for Holocaust restitution.

Those groups claim that the flood of potential lawsuits would do little to help survivors and would jeopardize ongoing restitution negotiations with European companies and governments.

The fight has grown increasingly acrimonious. An official of the Claims Conference accused Dubbin of unrealistically raising the survivors’ expectations in the hopes of reaping millions in legal fees. Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), a chief backer of the bill, wondered during a congressional hearing in February how Jewish leaders could sleep at night knowing they were preventing survivors from being compensated for defaulted policies.

Advocates for the legislation have said the bill would benefit needy Holocaust survivors, many of whom may find themselves with even less communal support in the coming year if the faltering economy hits the Jewish philanthropic world as hard as some expect.

Economic concerns have risen to the forefront of the Jewish agenda as 5768 draws to a close. In the wake of the March collapse of Bear Stearns, a major Wall Street bank and a significant source of Jewish charitable financing, philanthropy professionals worried that a continued slide in stock and real estate markets could force them to cut their allocations significantly.

At the annual gathering of the Jewish Funders Network, held in April in Jerusalem, philanthropists and foundation professionals openly expressed concern that a philanthropic recession was coming.

“People are beginning to be nervous, especially in places where the economy is so based on banking and real estate,” Richard Marker, an independent philanthropy adviser and a professor of philanthropy at New York University, told JTA then. “And I don’t think that the Jewish community is going to be exempt. There is going to be tremendous pressure on both the philanthropists and the nonprofit world.”

At the same time, the dollar’s decline hit Jewish groups operating overseas as well as Israeli nonprofits.

In July, for example, the Reform movement announced that because of the faltering dollar, its Israel center was facing a major budget shortfall. The movement issued a mass appeal for assistance, saying it needed $500,000 to “save” its Israel operation, which was facing a decline of more than 30 percent in its budget.

“We’re going to find out who the strong and the weak were. It’s an almost Darwinian survival of the fittest,” said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. “What does Warren Buffet say? It’s only when the tide goes out that you find out who’s swimming naked. We’ll only find out which Jewish institutions are severely undercapitalized if the recession deepens.”

Though the faltering economy is casting a long shadow in the waning days of 5768, the year was not without celebrations. One in particular provided a timely reminder that grass-roots challenges to authority have yielded some of American Jewry’s greatest moments.

In November, the community marked the 20th anniversary of the struggle for Soviet Jewry, a campaign that mobilized tens of thousands of Jews across the country on a scale unequaled before or since. What began as a student-led effort in the 1960s blossomed into a worldwide movement, leading to the largest Jewish exodus in history and, some say, playing a role in the ultimate fall of the Soviet Union.

Henry Feingold, the author of a recently published work on the struggle, summed it up thus: “It was probably American Jewry’s finest hour.”

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