Grassroots Jews: Do you know who speaks for you

The world of Jewish diplomacy is about to lose one of its most prominent and successful practitioners. Edgar Bronfman, the globetrotting ambassador for the Jewish people, is stepping down after more 20 years as head of the World Jewish Congress (WJC).

Whoever succeeds him will take charge of the flagship organization of world Jewry, representing Jewish interests and concerns to policymakers around the world. So it should follow that who this person will be, and what his (there has never been a female president) views are, should be of great interest to Jews.

But the vast majority will probably know nothing about this person. Isn’t it time they did — and have a greater say in deciding who will speak on their behalf?

Why should Jews care? Despite its lofty-sounding name, WJC is a tiny organization, with only nine staff members in its New York headquarters and a budget far smaller than the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish organizations.

But WJC packs a lot of punch for its size. Under Bronfman and Israel Singer’s leadership, it took on the Swiss banks over their role in the Holocaust and won billions of dollars in restitution. It successfully fought the Vatican to shut down a Carmelite convent at Auschwitz. And it exposed former U.N. secretary-general Kurt Waldheim’s secret Nazi past. These are only its most well known accomplishments.

WJC also works behind the scenes, quietly lobbying governments and international organizations on behalf of Jewish communities around the world and over issues of concern to world Jewry like anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial and Israel’s security.

WJC has been engaged in this kind of Jewish diplomacy since its was founded in 1936 as a vehicle to unite and mobilize the Jewish people against the rise of Nazism. As the only organization that represents Jewish communities and organizations from all over the world, WJC lays justifiable claim to being, the words of its Web site, the “global ambassador and advocate for Jewish people.”

The president of WJC, then, is the self-proclaimed ambassador of the Jews, representing the interests of the Jewish people in capitals around the world. He routinely meets with presidents and prime ministers, getting the kind of access normally afforded only to heads of states. Last November, for example, Bronfman met with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. Why did the Chinese premier meet with the head of a small NGO? The answer is simple: because Bronfman was seen as the preeminent representative of world Jewry — the “king of the Jews,” as some have refereed to him, only half-jokingly.

Many policymakers believe it is in their country’s interests to maintain or cultivate good relations with Jewish leaders. Behind such a belief often lies an exaggerated notion of Jewish power and influence. There is nothing new in this. More than a century ago, Theodore Herzl took advantage of the myth of global Jewish power to gain entry into the chancelleries of Europe and plead the Zionist cause. Chaim Weizman, another great Zionist diplomat, also traded on exaggerated ideas of Jewish power. The leaders of Jewish organizations today are doing much the same thing when they meet with policymakers around the world.

Jewish power, real and imagined, is what makes the position of WJC president so important and influential. It is not the few people who work for the WJC who lend it significance, but also the millions of Jews in whose name it speaks and acts.

For this reason, the election of a new president should be a significant event for the Jewish people.

Yet the Jewish people will not be taking part in this election. Only a small minority will even be aware of it. Instead, the election will involve a handful of WJC insiders. It will be conducted behind closed doors and most likely decided by secret deals and alliances.

There is nothing unusual in this. Organized Jewry as a whole operates largely beyond the control, or even the awareness, of the masses of the ordinary Jews it claims to represent. Only a select few — generally wealthy donors or longtime activists — are directly involved in its activities. Most Jews have little, if any, knowledge of these activities and virtually no say in them.

This disconnect between organized Jewry and the Jewish people, which is growing year by year, undermines the claims of Jewish organizations to represent Jewish interests and concerns. Without more popular input and involvement, Jewish organizations are in danger of completely losing touch with their constituents. To avoid this, they must make greater efforts to reach out to Jews and get them actively engaged in finding creative ways to encourage a broad-based Jewish politics.

Only then can they truly claim to be the representatives of the Jewish people.

Dov Waxman is an assistant professor of political science at Baruch College of the City University of New York.