January 24, 2012

Philanthropy & honesty - Top two op-eds of 2012

January has already brought two op-eds in the Jewish media, each of which calls all of American Jewry to task, and both written by individuals who command the respect of their own colleagues and have a broad enough following that NO ONE can credibly claim to not have heard.

William Rapfogel has built the MetCouncil into a major social service agency and incubator for solutions to urban poverty and a wide range of issues -- literally -- from cradle to grave. Now he tells it like it is to Jewish foundations that pick and choose among trendy Gen-Next start-ups while hundreds of thousands of Americans -- including many Jews -- go hungry, homeless, and hopeless. Willie's op-ed appeared in the New York Jewish Week, which is also significant since the Jewish Week relies on the UJA Federation for the largest share of its subscriptions. (I posted my own piece on that a year ago, but not as eloquently, expertly, or prominently.)

I was going to post my own thoughts on the latest extreme to emerge from the climate of villification, demonization and doom (i.e., the Atlanta Jewish Times publisher proposing to ASSASSINATE President Obama in order to help Israel!!!) and the delusional denials by many right-wing friends that each such case is anything but an isolated event. But then JJ Goldberg beat me to it, and I couldn't say it better myself -- I'm just getting too lazy to reinvent the wheel. So here's the link to JJ's column in The Forward.  (Here's the link to an earlier, related post of my own.)

January 20, 2012

Israel should plan to attack Iran... QUIETLY.

Much has been made lately of Israel's open secret that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants authority from his Cabinet to attack Iran's nuclear facilities when the time is right and before Iran achieves the capacity for delivering a nuclear warhead. Israel faces many obstacles both before and after such a hypothetical attack; for starters, the one world leader who I know was once open to the idea has since been overheard calling Prime Minister Netanyahu "a liar".

All but advertising to Iran's leadership and the rest of the world that Israel is prepared to launch a military strike undermines the case for further sanctions. It bolsters Iran's warped regime domestically. Most significantly, it completely misses the point. As I blogged in November 2010, the sanctions are useful and important as part of an overall strategy to convince Iran to stop its nuclear pursuits to enhance the case for any eventual military action. But the reason to prepare for military action is not to CONVINCE Iran to stop its program. The goal of military action must be to actually STOP Iran's program. No convincing needed. 

The whole point of what would effectively be the "nuclear option" -- unleashing a violent Muslim and Arab backlash, Western sanctions against Israel, full-scale crackdown against all change agents in Iran, and more -- is to stop Iran from having or using a nuclear weapon after all else has failed. An attack on Iran is too important a decision to be reduced to a PR strategy, or a tactic for Republican victory in the U.S. elections.

To the extent that Israel's official policy of denying the existence of its own sophisticated nuclear arsenal has succeeded, it's been because it retains some sense of strategic mystery. When Ronald Reagan was President, the Soviets truly believed he might push the button, and that was a far more effective deterrent than any specific White House threat or declaration -- but in this case, an attack will not be to DETER Iran but to PREVENT it from holding or using nuclear weapons. And let's face it: In the moment of decision, the logistics and consequences of any attack against Iran's facilities may be prohibitive or even impossible.

It gets worse. 

If Iran does reach a milestone in its nuclear program and Israel does not attack, this may now be seen as weakness and a concession on Israel's part, and Netanyahu's failure to get Cabinet approval will also undermine any remaining credibility he has internationally.

The primary goal of Iran's nuclear program has always been not to destroy Israel (though that would obviously be fun for them). The goal has been to be a dominant regional power and to put Israel in its place. How better than for the world to watch Israel flinch. Six decades of fairly consistent Israeli discipline, resolve, and results-oriented fighting -- all down the drain?

January 16, 2012

Continuity isn't just kiruv -- it's about Jewish babies

The Jewish community is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to solve a problem, but nearly all the money is directed at only one-half of the problem.

On the basis of successive National Jewish Population Studies, and the plain reality staring most of us in the face, Jewish continuity has re-emerged as a central challenge for the Jewish people, especially in the Diaspora and particularly in the United States. As much as we want to focus on fulfilling our Divinely inspired mission in the world, we need to ensure there's enough of us to go around.

The bulk of demographic and sociological data reflects trends in assimilation, analyzing the trends and attitudes toward assimilation and intermarriage ("out-marriage" vs. "in-marriage"). Largely unmeasured is the significant decline in Jewish population resulting from reduced fertility rates, the drop-off in the number of Jews actually having babies at all. This form of attrition is less obvious, because it's much easier to notice a Jew marrying a Gentile than it is to notice babies who were never born, to parents who never married. These are facts that never existed.


My late grandfather was the second of six children, born mostly during the decade 1900-1910, in Oil City, in rural Pennsylvania. All the children were Jewishly knowledgable, and the family was active in the synagogue for most of a century during which it evolved from European-style Orthodox to small-town Conservative. 

The eldest daughter married a Jew and had three kids, one of whom never married, one of whom married with no kids, and one of whom married and had two kids -- one grandchild died tragically, and the other is married and "childless by choice". My grandfather married and had two daughters, one of whom married without kids and one of whom -- my mother -- married and had two boys. Only I got married, and we now have -- thank God -- two amazing children. Of the remaining children born a century ago, two married with no kids, and two never married. All remained active in their Jewish communities.

So, after four generations, my great-grandparents went from six children to just two great-great-grandchildren. This is hardly an isolated case, and most people should recognize comparable stories from among their own relatives and friends. 

January 13, 2012

Executive benefits can have ethical strings attached

'Tis the season... to get free stuff! Few offices last month went without at least a few gift baskets with fine munchies to share, usually from vendors looking to gain, retain or regain our business.

The opportunities for individual non-profit executives to cash in, however, continue year-round. Anyone with discretion over where to deposit a company's cash is routinely and repeatedly solicited by every bank representative to move all personal accounts over to that bank. I've been offered premier or elite checking for myself, just because the organization I run already has boatloads of charitable dollars sitting there, earning hefty interest and fees for the bank. So naturally, they want me to be personally invested there, and beholden to them, lest I ever think to pull out the $50,000 or $500,000 my nonprofit (or even a business) is keeping there. So what if their services aren't as good or as affordable as the discount bank down the street... They're giving me and my family PREMIER CHECKING for free!!

In the course of discharging my executive duties, I've sometimes "had to" ride VIP helicopters and lie flat on business-class flights, spent night after night in five-star European hotels, lounged with world leaders in Baroque palaces, and dined in gourmet kosher splendor at Le Telegraphe and Juliette in Paris (both, of blessed memory). And those long, late-night strolls along Geneva's Lac Leman, visits to the Livadia Palace of Yalta fame, and hanging out at Mumbai's Breach Candy Swim Trust. But this was all part of my job, and there's no way to pass on such benefits to those junior staffers stuck back at headquarters. However, there are some benefits that can and should be shared, especially because some of us do get to live pretty well on occasion.

I've received VIP tickets to special events, bottles of wine, and a dozen other kinds of items I can't even remember. One reason I can't remember is that I've distributed them equitably among my co-workers, or served them around at the holiday party or in a farewell toast for a departing colleague. Once, I brought home a fancy Lamborghini model for my son, but only after first making certain that no one else in the office wanted that particular slick promotion from American Express (though getting the remote control would have been contingent on signing up for their services...).

Once, when I was still quite junior, I scored tickets to the President's Box at the Kennedy Center, just because I was the guy working late in the office when my boss couldn't find a babysitter. 

It's vital to (1) distinguish between trivial gifts and significant fringe benefits; (2) ensure that everyone in your operation gets a fair chance at sharing in whatever fruits are appropriately received (some items really should not be accepted at all); and (3) be accountable and transparent at all times. These points are essential to protecting the rational process of making decisions in the best interests of the organization, to maintaining your own ethical and professional standards, and to strengthening rather than undermining the team spirit and mutual trust among your team. But really, it's just common decency.

January 12, 2012

Quote of the Day

Mitt Romney sees corporations as people, so he thinks they can be fired. But what does he consider the rest of us to be? Pre-existing conditions.

January 11, 2012

Lobbyists don't kill the people -- people kill the people.

Shakespeare famously advised to first kill all the lawyers. These days, however, it's The Lobbyists who are the big villains. 

Lobbyists are the one class of Washington insider not welcome in this White House or among its appointees. And yet, the corporate titans and attorneys and bankers, the big campaign donors and fundraisers, all are invited to work in the Administration. In other words, those who hire lobbyists to actualize their own influencing of how Washington works are considered clean. This is especially ironic, since only bonafide lobbyists are required by law to report every government contact they have, and on what matters were covered. Anyone else can influence policymakers all day and night, without having to disclose it, and then jump in when the time is right. This includes the people behind multi-million-dollar "527" committees that raise money in secret and run media campaigns to get the Presidents elected.

It's not just Democrats who find the rhetoric against "lobbyists" to be a convenient bogeyman. This past weekend, Republican Presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney was boasting that his own campaign is not being run by any Washington lobbyists -- in contrast to one or two rival campaigns. When a reporter challenged him on this, Romney argued with him at length about whether one particular high-powered lobbyist is actually running his campaign or merely serving as an occasional, unpaid "adviser". 

But what difference would it make? Lobbyists are the equivalent of drivers, hired by the real monied classes to deliver messages, and to recite convincing arguments to policymakers who already know that their clients have donated major cash to their political bosses. Meanwhile, nearly every campaign is flooded with wealthy business executives and "consultants", financiers, corporate lawyers, and real estate developers -- and so is every Presidential administration.