Saturday, July 17, 2021

Regrouping American Jewish Group Strategy: Nazarian versus Harris

This JTA article -- surveying some American Jewish leaders on the new polling showing that between a quarter and a third of American Jews believe some very harsh things about Israel -- illuminates an interesting divide in the American Jewish establishment. All agree the poll shows a "problem" that needs a response. But in terms of specifics, we're saying a breakdown into two camps.

The first is well exemplified by ADL bigwig Sharon Nazarian. She argues that the problem is that major American Jewish organizations' incessant rah-rah-rahing of Israel ends up driving people away insofar as it doesn't paint a "realistic" picture of the state.:

Nazarian says the traditional mainstream organizational focus on, and lionization of, Israel is becoming a liability and turning people away.

“This narrative about Israel needs to be a more realistic one, one that [brings] attention to the strengths of the state, and to its weaknesses,” said Nazarian, a philanthropist who is president of a family foundation that funds research into education.

The second camp is embodied in AJC chieftain David Harris, who locates the problem in a failure of effective Israel education:

“A main source of disconnect between segments of American Jews and the reality of Israel is deficient education,” David Harris, the CEO of the American Jewish Committee, one of the rally’s sponsors, said in an email. 

Harris pointed to an AJC poll last month that showed only 37% of respondents described their Israel education growing up as “strong,” and to separate data showing that young people increasingly are getting their news from social media “where untruths are rampant,” he said.  

“Clearly, greater efforts at educating American Jews, especially younger cohorts, about all aspects of Israeli society, and connecting them with their counterparts in Israel, are critical for ensuring nuanced understanding about Israel and strengthening Israel-Diaspora relations,” he said. 

Now, nominally these positions can be harmonized. I've written about how our Israel education is failing precisely because it assumes a "never bend, never compromise" posture is necessary in the face of rising anti-Israel sentiment worldwide, when in reality that approach makes it far more likely that young Jews will eventually break. I do not personally relate to the oft-repeated millennial story that goes something like "I was always taught that Israel could do no wrong, but once I visited myself/met some Palestinians/read some new books/watched the news I realized that I had been misled and the story I had been taught was not an accurate one -- and that's why I joined IfNotNow." My Israel education never felt that one-sided. But it makes sense to me that if one was taught that Israel is only a place of virtue and light, that a headlong crash into reality leaves only the choices of denial or existential crisis.

Unfortunately, I do not think that what Harris has in mind with respect to better Israel education is one that gives a more realistic accounting of Israel's strengths and weaknesses as a state. He thinks we need to be more aggressive in instilling young American Jews with a beatific outlook towards Israel, in the belief that such an attitude will make them immune to the lures of the TikTokers and the college activists and the insta videos. 

Again, I think that's a recipe for failure. But my position isn't that important. What is important is how the divide between Nazarian and Harris actually is resolved, because it represents a pivotal decision in how mainline Jewish organizations recalibrate their Israel discourse, education, and programming. Harris is finally retiring from the helm of the AJC after over thirty years in office -- longer than most global dictators* -- and who is chosen as his replacement could make a massive difference in the trajectory of that organization, which has followed Harris down a noticeably right-ward path in recent years. Fresh blood could revert the AJC to a more representative posture aligned with the actual views of the American Jews it purports to represent.

But there's a history of major Jewish organizations tapping leadership well to the right of their membership either to boost fundraising or due to a misbegotten desire to appear "bipartisan" (e.g.: prominent Trump donor Ron Lauder at the helm of the World Zionist Congress, former RJC staffer William Daroff ascending to lead the Conference of Presidents -- it's amazing how little attention this all gets compared to "Jonathan Greenblatt held an obscure non-political post in the Obama administration, ergo, the ADL is basically Our Revolution" discourse). One doesn't see the NAACP tap Thomas Sowell or even Michael Steele to be its top officer, yet I'm having nightmares of reading the press release touting Matt Brooks as the next AJC head.

What I hope is that people like Nazarian will recognize that their diagnosis will go nowhere unless they fight for the right treatments. It is not an accident that there is a growing divide between American Jewish organizations and American Jewish human beings, and simply letting things go on autopilot will not result in a change. Nazarian and her allies need to start working to make sure that the other Jewish groups in the picture start picking leaders and building out staffers in a way that will facilitate the transition. That means elevating a younger, probably more diverse, definitely more liberal (which is just to say, more representative) cadre than the old guard they'll be replacing. But if they don't put in the work, the ship isn't going to turn. 

Nazarian sees the problem correctly. Now it's time to actually right course.

* No exaggeration. There are only five currently-serving heads of state who've have continuously been in office longer than Harris has at the AJC: the leaders of Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Iran, Cambodia, and Uganda. Grand company, that!

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