Who Speaks For American Jewry?

David Kirshenbaum, Esq. - The Jewish Press - December 11, 1992

The American public has made clear this year, as never before, its tremendous dissatisfaction and frustration with the lack of accountability of its political leaders. In this election year, Americans have turned out a sitting President, and numerous incumbent senators and representatives, fearing the wrath of their constituents, decided in record numbers not to even seek re-election.

A similar demand for greater accountability from its leadership is taking place within the American Jewish community. The clearest example of this is the increasingly higher levels of outrage among grassroots Jewry over the manner in which the American Jewish establishment has turned its back on Jonathan Pollard. American Jews are making it clear that they will no longer tolerate the inaction of its ensconced leaders within the American Jewish establishment who, in addition to lacking the political legitimacy gained though elections, disdainfully ignore the views of the people they purport to represent.

One of the most flagrant and galling examples of the total lack of accountability of American Jewish establishment leaders to grassroots Jewry is the reaction of Phil Baum, the Associate Director of the American Jewish Congress, to the New York Times ad signed by nearly 600 U.S. rabbis calling on President Bush to commute Jonathan Pollard's sentence to the seven years he has already served. Asked about the ad, Mr. Baum told the Jerusalem Post, "This [the Pollard issue] is not a Jewish issue and this ad does not make it one. I don't know of anything in this case that demands a response from the Jewish community."

It always has been, and still is, close to impossible to gain a consensus of virtually the entire U.S. rabbinate on any issue. Indeed, the breadth and scope of the consensus on the Pollard issue, as evidenced by The New York Times ad and the coming together on this issue of rabbis representing every stream of religious thought within the American Jewish community - from right wing Orthodoxy to Reconstructionist - may very well be unprecedented.

Who then has more credibility and legitimacy in speaking for American Jewry - who speaks with greater authority about what is a Jewish issue - one Phil Baum, or the nearly 600 rabbis who represent millions of American Jews in hundreds of Jewish communities in nearly all 50 states who signed the Pollard ad?

It is interesting that Henry Siegman, Phil Baum's boss at the American Jewish Congress, has been actively supporting greater U.S. involvement, including the use of force, in support of the Bosnians. In explaining his motivations, Siegman told the New York Jewish Week, "There are always some saying, "Why are you doing this for Moslems?' And "The Croats had such a terrible record during World War II." But the Jewish community is overwhelmingly anguished over what has taken place there, and they want to see something done about it." The lead taken by the AJCongress in support of the Bosnians stands in sharp contrast to the inaction of the AJCongress in the case of Jonathan Pollard.

Grassroots American Jewry has been demanding, in ever greater numbers, the long overdue termination of the gross miscarriage of justice in the Pollard case which becomes more egregious with each additional day that Jonathan Pollard remains in prison. Yet, leaders of the American Jewish establishment such as Phil Baum, Henry Siegman and Robert Lifton of the American Jewish Congress and Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League have compounded their initial failure of leadership in the Pollard case by ignoring, to paraphrase Mr. Siegman, the "overwhelming anguish" within the American Jewish community over Pollard's life sentence and their demand "to see something done about it."

The clearest exposition of the views of the Jewish establishment on the Pollard issue is set forth in the "Statement on the Pollard Case" of June, 1991 prepared by an Ad Hoc Committee of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council (NJCRAC) chaired by none other than Phil Baum. That report has been adopted, hook line and sinker, by the Jewish establishment, which was more than happy to let a handful of individuals deal with, and formulate a response to an issue with which the Jewish establishment did not want to dirty its hands.

The tragic irony of this is that very little independent thinking was brought to bear by the Jewish establishment on an issue of fundamental importance to the American Jewish community and to the U.S. Israel relationship. Rather, the Jewish establishment sought cover behind the NJCRAC report written by a handful of individuals who functioned more like a kangaroo court than as a committee conscious of a sacred mandate to fairly and objectively determine the facts.

The lack of objectivity of the NJCRAC Committee in examining the facts of the Pollard case is exemplified by the actions of Mr. Baum himself. Dr. Edward M. Goldberg, a physician at the Humane Hospital in Chicago, Illinois, testified before a United States Magistrate about what Goldberg felt was Anne Pollard's poor medical condition and the inadequate treatment which she was receiving. After testifying to this effect, Dr. Goldberg received an angry phone call from Phil Baum.

Dr. Goldberg writes that in that phone call, "He [Baum] challenged my medical judgment. He expressed a clear opinion that Mrs. Pollard was malingering. He indicated that he had invited only the federal correctional officials, including Mrs. Pollard's prison physician, to interview before his organization. He further indicated that from the testimony, it was clear to everyone present that Mrs. Pollard was receiving excellent care for what was primarily a 'fictitious' syndrome. He stated that most of her trouble was self-induced.

"I challenged his conclusion as not being consistent with the medical facts." "His response seemed highly agitated. He said I was defending a convicted spy who was causing great trouble to the Jewish community. He dismissed the relevance of my medical testimony and stated he believed the testimony of the Correctional Officials."

One must wonder what would motivate a layman like Mr. Baum to so aggressively attack the independent medical opinion of a physician representing no special interest and not, unlike the prison physician, dependent for his job on those who asked him to testify. This was not simply a case of Mr. Baum choosing which expert medical testimony he found more credible, but a case of wanting to stifle any medical testimony at odds with the Government's position.

Phil Baum was plainly interested in rubber-stamping the Government's actions in the Pollard case and it is a terrible disgrace that he has been allowed to play any sort of role, let along a leading role, in formulating the American Jewish community's response to that case.

But the issue before the American Jewish community goes beyond the manner in which certain Jewish communal leaders have shut their eyes and stopped up their ears to the senseless suffering of Jonathan Pollard. Who has vested the Phil Baums of the American Jewish community with the authority to countermand the expressed desires of virtually the entire rabbinic leadership in the United States? And, if Mr. Baum lacks such authority, how long will American Jews allow the perception to continue that non-elected leaders like Phil Baum have the mandate to speak for or represent the American Jewish community?

One of the secrets of Jewish survival has always been an ability to look for and find the silver lining in events which by any reckoning would seem to be entirely tragic. The position of the American Jewish establishment on the Pollard case threatens to shatter the credibility and legitimacy of the non-elected American Jewish leadership. But when Jonathan Pollard is finally released, perhaps we will be able to look back on this tragic series of events with the knowledge that the Pollard affair was the catalyst for the democratization of the American Jewish communal structure. Let that process begin today.