The only genuine nationwide American Jewish elections took place in 1917, for the founding assembly of the American Jewish Congress.
Fifty years ago this week, two prominent figures in the American Jewish community startled their colleagues by calling for democratic elections to choose Jewish leaders.
The occasion was a two-day conference in New York City, in November 1965, on “Planning for the American Jewish Community of Tomorrow — 1975.” Jewish organizational professionals, rabbis, and scholars came together to discuss what should be done to ensure the wellbeing of American Jewry 10 years hence.
Most of the speakers confined themselves to generalities and platitudes. But two of them stepped outside the box to present what was, at the time, a radical proposal.
“One of the first issues in planning for the future is that of creating a democratic structure for the Jewish community,” said Dr. Judah Shapiro, secretary of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. That structure should “include an expression of decision (voting), the presentation of alternatives (platforms and parties), and the selection of leaders on the basis of merit (elections), rather than ascription. Planning for 1975 demands the earliest attention to the establishment of democratically structured Jewish communities,” Shapiro explained. (Parentheses in the original.)
C. Bezalel Sherman, the noted sociologist and historian of American Jewish life, seconded Shapiro’s call. He told the conference that the main problem was “the growing indigenousness of American Jewry” — 50 years earlier, some 60 percent of American Jews were immigrants and felt a strong Jewish identity, but by 1965, “at least 80 percent” were native-born and less attached to Judaism. Such challenges could be met only by establishing a central Jewish organization that would be “democratically constituted” and “will have the right to speak in the name of American Jews and weave a Jewish strand into the fabric of American society without tearing it out of the texture of Jewish peoplehood.”
Shapiro and Sherman touched on one of the unspoken ironies of contemporary American Jewish life: U.S. Jews are patriotic and strongly committed to the American value of democracy — yet there is no real democratic tradition in the American Jewish community.
The only genuine nationwide American Jewish elections took place in 1917, for the founding assembly of the American Jewish Congress. (There were also elections in 1943 for a short-lived umbrella group called the American Jewish Conference, but there were no competing views in that contest; the voting was basically just a taking of the community’s pulse.)
The absence of democracy in American Jewish organizational life had serious consequences during the Holocaust. Jewish leaders who failed to mount an effective response to the news of the mass killings could not be voted out of office. Grassroots Jews had no say in choosing the leaders who claimed to represent them.
Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, the foremost U.S. Jewish leader in the 1930s and 1940s, simultaneously headed a remarkable number of organizations and institutions: the American Jewish Congress, the American Zionist movement, the Jewish Institute of Religion (a rabbinical seminary that later merged with Hebrew Union College), Manhattan’s Free Synagogue, and others.
He spread himself thin, and it showed. Wise’s wide array of commitments, combined with his deteriorating health, reduced his effectiveness precisely at the moment that a focused and robust leader was most needed: as news of the mass murder of Europe’s Jews was reaching America.
Wise was also seriously handicapped by his political loyalties. A devout supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, he could not bring himself to challenge FDR’s abandonment of the Jewish refugees and lukewarm support for Zionism. But those in the Jewish community who favored a more activist policy did not have the option of voting for a new leader.
Seventy years after Wise’s heyday, and 50 years after Judah Shapiro and C. Bezalel Sherman issued their call for democracy in Jewish life, little has changed. Democracy is still a foreign concept in the organized Jewish community.
There are American Jewish organizations today where the same person has been president for more than 20 years … where “elections” are held but there is only one candidate … where entrenched leaders have abolished term limits so they can remain in power indefinitely … where elections required by an organization’s own by-laws are simply ignored.
The democratic values which American Jews ardently champion as Americans are seldom practiced in the Jewish organizational world. American Jewry has suffered, and will continue to suffer, from the consequences of this absence of democracy.
Dr. Rafael Medoff is the founding director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. His latest book is “The Anguish of a Jewish Leader: Stephen S. Wise and the Holocaust.”