Ronald Lauder’s shocking call for a Palestinian state on the op-ed page of the New York Times this week has raised many questions. Here’s one that nobody has yet considered: Did anybody bother to ask the members of Lauder’s World Jewish Congress if they wanted their president to take that position?
I am not aware of any vote that was taken by World Jewish Congress members to decide the issue. Nor I am aware of any vote that was taken by members of other organizations who have, in recent months, taken controversial and unprecedented positions.
Officials of several Jewish and Zionist organizations recently visited Qatar, providing a major PR boost to a regime that is the major funder of Hamas and sponsors the anti-Semitic Al Jazeera media network. No votes were taken within those organizations to see what their members wanted.
I’m not saying it’s practical to hold a referendum among members over every single issue. But when a leader is going to take a significant, unprecedented position – one that involves reversing his or her previous position – then the basic principles of democracy require that the members should have a say.
This kind of accountability should apply to other aspects of Jewish organizational life, too. Consider the problem of Jewish leaders who never seem to leave office. Lauder himself has been president of the World Jewish Congress for 11 years. Will there ever be an election in which members of the WJC can choose between him and an opposing candidate?
And Lauder’s 11 years in power is peanuts compared to many other senior officials of Jewish and Zionist organizations. If it seems like the names of Jewish leaders you see in the newspapers are the same names you’ve been seeing for practically your entire adult life, it’s because they are.
I compiled a list of the 35 most prominent leaders of American Jewish groups. Twelve of them have been in power for more than 30 years – since the days of the Carter or Reagan administrations. Twenty-four of them have held their positions for more than 20 years. Thirty-three out of 35 were in office when Ariel Sharon was prime minister of Israel.
I’m not saying there is any specific number of years in office to which the heads of all Jewish organizations should be restricted. But there has to be some kind of limit. If the same people hold power year after year, decade after decade, the quality of Jewish leadership suffers.
How about salaries? Don’t dues-paying members of Jewish organizations have a right to know how much their leaders are being paid? Yet I don’t know of a single Jewish group that has ever sent out a mailing to its members in which it revealed and explained the salary levels of its executives.
According to The Forward’s annual list, the top 37 officials of American Jewish or Zionist organizations are all making at least $300,000 annually. The top 28 are receiving over $400,000. The top 16 are taking home over $500,000 each year.
Compare that to the annual salaries of other people who perform valuable functions in our society. The median annual salary of an emergency medical technician is $31,980. The average starting salary of a teacher is $36,141. Social workers earn, on average, $43,619 annually. The median salary of a firefighter is $48,030.
So yes, Ronald Lauder’s decision to campaign for a Palestinian state, without asking his own members, was wrong. But it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Jewish leaders across the political spectrum routinely advocate positions, stay in office, and enjoy lavish salaries without consulting their membership. Lauder’s action is part of a much broader failure among much of our Jewish leadership.
A healthy and effective American Jewish community needs leaders who adhere to principles of democracy and good governance.
We need transparency. Members should be able to see the minutes of board meetings. They should be allowed to know how many members their organization has. They should be informed how much their leaders are being paid – and they should have some say in establishing salary levels.
We need democracy. Leaders should be chosen in democratic elections, not hand-picked by a board or rubber-stamped in an “election” that has only one candidate. I mean free and fair elections, governed by a neutral body, with moderated debates and equal access to lists of the voters.
We need accountability. Leaders should not be able to just take whatever position they feel like taking. They have to be accountable to their members. You want to embrace Qatar after previously denouncing it? Ask your members. You want to call for a Palestinian state after previously opposing it? Ask your members.
It’s no wonder so many grassroots have Jews lost faith in the old leadership. They see leaders who perpetuate their own power decade after decade, pay themselves whatever they feel like, and adopt whatever political position they choose, without ever consulting the people whose membership dues keep their organization alive. This has to change.