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In Dire Need of Some Great American Jewish Leaders

May 12, 2011 By:
Aryeh Rubin
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We are living in a troubling and dangerous time -- a time when we need courageous and insightful leaders more than at any point since the Holocaust. We are facing a potentially existential crisis for Israel and, ultimately, I believe, for Jewish people worldwide. Yet our leaders for the most part have not responded in a forceful way.

Those among us who understand what's at stake must light a fire under our current leaders. We also need to rethink the process of how we select our leaders and what we expect of them.

Today, we are experiencing two primary attacks. The Arab/Muslim/ Persian drive to remove Israel as a Jewish state is a fact, as is the very real threat of catastrophe that a nuclear Iran poses to Israel.

The unsettling recent events in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and rest of the Arab world add to the instability of Israel's neighbors. Increasingly, radical Islamists, who interpret certain edicts of the Koran as instructing them to kill Jews, are directing their vitriol and hateful propaganda not solely at Israel, but at the entire Jewish people.

There is a frightening groundswell of negativity in the Western and Muslim worlds toward Israel and the Jews resulting from a deliberate, pernicious and astonishingly effective international propaganda campaign to delegitimize Israel by portraying it as a colonial implant and oppressive occupier.

Many would agree that Jewish leadership has a poor record when it comes to the perennial problems of Jewish education, assimilation and confronting modernity. Most everyone also would agree that American Jewish leadership during the Holocaust was abysmal.

Why, then, have we ignored the lessons of that era? We certainly have the wherewithal -- we have shown ourselves to be effective change agents and effective leaders in so many spheres outside of the Jewish world, from the media to medicine to the sciences to the arts and humanities. Where is our "Jewish genius?"

Mass assemblies within our communities with the stars of the Israeli lecture circuit and American political leaders might make U.S. Jews feel good, but won't make a difference -- preaching to the converted never does.

But when it comes to exercising serious power to prevent another catastrophe, our leaders have been impotent. They have adhered to an outdated model based on powerlessness despite the fact that, since the founding of the State of Israel, we now have power and a voice that potentially can be heard the world over.

I am not denying that we have an effective group in AIPAC. Paradoxically, however, no Jewish organization has succeeded when it comes to effectively lobbying the Jewish people, motivating the masses to action.

While the Arab leadership funded a well-thought-out campaign to sway the masses in Europe and the left in the United States, and while they endowed chairs on college campuses and then embedded like-minded professors sympathetic to their cause, we were marching at Israel Day parades singing "Am Yisrael Chai."

We are now playing catch-up. We finally realize what has been going on, and have been making belated attempts to fight delegitimization and promote Israel studies on college campuses.

We also must reconsider how we choose our leaders. Our decision-makers today are predominantly consensus-builders drawn from the moneyed class, many of whom are unschooled in Jewish history and ritual, often unappreciative of the mystique and grandeur of our heritage, and lacking a solid grasp of what is most beneficial for the Jewish people and for Israel.

We should choose our leaders with different criteria in mind. They should be people who are independent, creative thinkers and committed doers. They should be people of conviction and vision with the moral courage to rock the boat. We need leadership that is more diverse in terms of age and range of experience.

We are in dire need of such people, including members of the clergy, the academy and the creative community who are connected to core Jewish values, and who have empathy, wisdom and a majestic vision to be part of the power structure. Their collective experience, combined with the acumen of some current leaders, should improve decision-making and lead to better outcomes.

We cannot afford to remain silent. It is up to us to speak up, motivate and strengthen our leadership. That is our homework. Let us hope that there is still time.

Aryeh Rubin, a JTA board member, is the managing partner of the Maot Group, and the founder and director of Targum Shlishi.

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