Miriam Shaviv
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What we can learn from the Americans
Date: Friday, June 29th, 2007
Publication: The Jewish Chronicle

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It was one of the most embarrassing moments in the recent history of our community. Days after the University and College Union voted to promote an academic boycott of Israel last month, with our leadership still struggling to decide on an appropriate public response, the American Anti-Defamation League published snappy ads in the Financial Times and in top American newspapers (and this one), calling the boycott antisemitic. It was our turf, our problem — their solution.

In the last month, our community organisations have done much to make up for lost time, with Bicom and the Jewish Leadership Council publishing their own ads in The Times and The Guardian and launching a major fundraising initiative this week. Nevertheless, if we are willing to learn from the Americans, we can take away several lessons from the way they conduct their public affairs which will make us better equipped to defend our interests in an increasingly hostile political climate.

The first is that, as a community, we must become much more politically savvy. In the boycott debacle, we were shown to be politically naïve, miscalculating the power of the far-left activists behind the boycott movement and completely underestimating the potential damage the boycott votes could do to Israel’s reputation.

Traditionally, we have also shied away from overt political agendas and activity for fear of alienating British governments and emphasising our “differentness”. This is an attitude our current leaders have inherited directly from their Victorian predecessors.

By contrast, in North America — with its 6 million Jews compared to our 270,000 — the community has always been much more confident about its place in public life, and therefore much more politically minded and upfront about its political aims. Organisations such as the American Jewish Committee (AJC) or the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) campaign openly for causes backed by American Jewry in a way which we would never dare.

Like it or not, we are becoming political targets, in the sights of Islamists and elements on the radical left. We must get over our historical inhibitions and — like the American community — politicise.

The second lesson is that, if we are to have any hope of implementing our political goals, we must run our organisations much more professionally. In North America and in other diaspora communities, lay leaders determine policy for Jewish organisations, but the operations are implemented by professionals who are highly trained — through, for example, Brandeis University’s MA/MBA for “future Jewish leaders” — and who have often amassed huge expertise, experience and judgment in Jewish affairs. Those at the top — like the ADL’s Abe Foxman — often become recognised leaders in their own right. Most importantly, they also advise on policy, and so the organisations, when functioning best, are true partnerships between lay leaders and professionals.

It is no coincidence that the ADL responded to the boycott crisis in such a swift and decisive fashion. Its staff are trained, funded and equipped to take initiative.

In Anglo-Jewry, by contrast, our representative organisations tend to rely much more heavily on lay leadership, and give our professionals much less independence and responsibility, much less status, and certainly much less input into policy. Although a number of UK Jewish organisations have tried to redress this, through leadership training and the recruitment of qualified  public-affairs and PR professionals, we still lag several decades behind the Americans, and perhaps lack the will to allow the advice of these professionals to supercede that of the lay leaders who finance them.

These lay leaders are certainly people of integrity and sound judgment, but they seem to live their lives at a great distance from the grassroots political scene.

Only one word — “amateurish” — can describe a leadership which, again, so badly misread the power and significance of the anti-Israel boycott movement; which did not seem to appreciate how much anger and angst the boycott votes would arouse in the Jewish community; and which, once the boycott votes had passed, took so long to get their act together. If our organisations are going to be “fit for purpose”, it is essential we fund them properly and enable them to build strong and effective professional teams; that we invest more in their staff’s professional development; and, most importantly, that we give the staff the kind of operational resources, independence and input into policy which their American peers already enjoy.

Last, but not least, we must recognise that the era of quiet diplomacy is over. Anglo-Jewry has always believed that a “softly softly” approach is the most effective way of achieving our goals. We have always somewhat disdained the more aggressive American way of lobbying, but it is time to take a leaf from their book. The events of the past month have shown that, in the current political climate, timidity is not rewarded. It will take a great deal of discipline to be able to change habits and mindsets which are centuries old, and adopt a more assertive approach. But this is exactly what the Jewish leadership must do — or else face the indignity of our defence being decided and run from Manhattan.

Miriam Shaviv is the Comment and Letters editor of the JC

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