Ten years ago, philanthropist Samuel Bronfman made something of a stir in the
Jewish world when he proposed that the three main Jewish defense groups in
this country merge.
He believed that it was long past time for the American Jewish Committee, the
American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League who were all
committed to fighting anti-Semitism, supporting Israel and a platform of social
justice to pool their efforts and merge.
The reaction to Bronfman's proposal from the staff and the lay leadership of
the three groups was, to put it mildly, less than enthusiastic. The proposal
was dutifully applauded by many in the Jewish world and then quickly forgotten.
The two AJCs had at various times actually met to discuss merging. But the
complicated business of meshing two disparate sets of professionals and
volunteers and the egos of all of them was never resolved.
Instead, the groups continued on their merry way, fighting for the scraps
that a declining Jewish population and, even more importantly, a shrinking donor
base could throw them.
Both continue to do important work, though all stumble at times on the
political rocks, as their traditional constituency forces them into defining the
secular liberal agenda as Jewish issues.
NEW AND SNAPPY
While the older and more prosperous AJCommittee has fared better than
AJCongress, the ability of each to sustain itself may be diminishing. That has led
the bright lights there to think about a way to increase visibility. Listening,
no doubt, to the siren songs sung by public-relations consultants, some of the
good people at AJCommittee are pondering a name change. According to a recent
report in The Jerusalem Post, the group's board has discussed renaming the
organization in time for the group's 100th anniversary in 2006.
Apparently, they want something new and snappy that will speak of their
heightened concern about the worldwide rise of anti-Semitism and the continuing
propaganda assault on the State of Israel.
Of course, those who want to do away with the old moniker are right when they
say it is easy to confuse it with the other AJC. Jewish life is a melange of
alphabet-soup groups that are virtually indistinguishable to those not
immersed in the minutiae of the so-called "major Jewish organizations."
Once upon a time, you didn't need a scorecard to tell the difference between
the AJCommittee and the AJCongress.
The committee was founded in 1906 by the wealthy grandees of the old German
Jewish elite, such as Jacob Schiff, Oscar Straus and Cyrus Adler, and their
redoubtable president Louis Marshall. Moved to act by the plight of victims of
czarist pogroms, the committee came into existence as a sort of council of great
men who acted out of what the Enclopaedia Judaica calls a sense of "noblesse
oblige." They used the traditional tactic of the "court Jew" who interceded
on behalf of his less fortunate brethren.
By contrast, the AJCongress, created by Rabbi Stephen Wise in 1918, was seen
by the great men of the other AJC as populist in nature and radical in
But before another generation had passed, the differences between them were
already starting to recede. Wise, who came to prominence as something of a
rabble rouser, eventually came to embody the political establishment of his day.
At the same time, AJCommittee, which was originally cool to Zionism,
eventually came to identify closely with Israel. And where once its membership was
restricted to just 60 persons (think of it as a sort of exclusive country club
for monied political activists), it is now as eager to get average Jewish Joe's
to sign up as any other group.
Given the fact that the Jewish world that gave birth to these groups no
longer exists, would AJCommittee be better off if it were called something else?
The answer is that, although repackaging themselves as the Jewish equivalent
of "New Blue Cheer" may be tempting, whether they call themselves a
committee, a convention, a conglomerate or a confederacy, the problems they face will
not be altered.
THE PLAGUE OF CONSULTANTS
Indeed, if their leaders pause and consider the success of the merger of
three major national Jewish philanthropies a few years ago that resulted in the
scrapping of the familiar name of "UJA" and its replacement by the obscure
"UJC" they would not even consider it. New and snappy is nice, but change
for the sake of a new marketing campaign is a poor substitute for substance or
As is often the case in the business world, consultants who use jargon such
as "branding" to tell companies what to do have become a universal plague.
Armed with focus groups, market surveys and polls, consultants, who usually know
little about the reason the group exists, and a lot about public relations
(which is to say nothing), have a way of diverting people from core issues and on
to narishkeit like name changes.
Those confronted with such choices should always remember that the three
worst words in the English language today are "studies have shown."
The point is, if the folks at AJCommittee are focused on the real priorities
of the Jewish people today and given their recent emphasis on the issues of
anti-Semitism, Israel and Jewish continuity, there is reason to think they are
on the right track then what they need is not a new name, but to continue
working on those issues.
If they are making a difference, Jewish donors will find them no matter what
the name on the door says.
That's because the problem of redundancy that Bronfman talked about will
eventually be solved by a form of natural selection. Those groups that serve the
needs of the past, and which look to outdated ideology rather than the urgent
priorities of the present, will ultimately perish just like the dinosaurs after
the asteroid hit.
If AJCommittee or any other denizens of the alphabet-soup bowl want to
survive, let them speak to the present danger facing us.
And before they change their names, they ought to take a deep breath, and
then tell their consultants to run not walk to the nearest exit, and not let
the door hit them on the way out.