Friday, September 18, 2009

The Sokatch Saga

As we all know, Dan Sokatch and The Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco have parted ways. Mr. Sokatch is leaving and taking a position as CEO of the New Israel Fund.

Many questions are being asked. Did this have anything to do with the Film Festival fiasco? Or with other controversial matters? Is he leaving of his own volition or was he pushed?.

After talking to several people and connecting the dots, here is my assessment of what has happened.

Dan Sokatch is a young, capable, and idealistic man who once studied for the rabbinate, but switched to public advocacy and administration where he thought he could be more effective.

Sokatch founded the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) about a decade ago as a vehicle to “bring the Jewish community into the 21st century” Sokatch can best be situated among those Jews who believe that social justice should be the central organizing principle of American Jewry. And with the PJA he was able to realize many of his core passions.

A little over a year ago, the SF Federation was seeking a new Executive Director. Three features hovered over Federations background that helped color subsequent events

First, donations had been steadily declining, from a peak of 17 thousand families to al little under 11 thousand, in a community of 250,000 Jews. Some way need to be found to turn this around.

Secondly, for the past 20 plus years the San Francisco Federation had developed a reputation as being more left-leaning than comparable Federations in other cities. Some of their allocations went to organizations of the sort that more likely to be supported by the New Israel Fund. Further, the commitment to Israel had been declining, much to the dismay of other Federations around the country, .

Despite this, progressive Jews in the Bay area were suspicious of Federation as being too “old guard”, too committed to Israel with a reluctance to criticize the Jewish state, and demonstrating a long-standing failure to address their concerns. In fact, Federation has always sought consensus and tried to meet the needs of the entire community.

It made some kind of sense to think that someone like Sokatch would be comfortable with the changing philosophy of Federation, would allay the suspicions of the progressive community, and would lead to the involvement of significant numbers of progressives, both financially and personally. And so the job was his.

Sokatch was welcomed into the Federation family with much enthusiasm. Universally, there was good feeling about the hire. But there were two red flags that were ignored.

First, it is never prudent to have a broad based organization like the Federation run by a political operative who represents only one part of the political spectrum. Sokatch’s background was clearly in liberal advocacy, albeit in a Jewish context. When a Federation CEO is not identified with a political bias, the various members of the Jewish community can each project their own personal beliefs and values onto the director.

Secondly, and more specifically, prior to his hiring he had been involved in the founding of J Street, and was on their advisory board. J Street is a progressive political group founded as a vehicle to challenge the strong political support for Israel that had been nurtured for many years by such organizations as AIPAC. In addition, J Street viewed itself as the Jewish cheerleaders for Barack Obama. When the President wanted to lean on Israel, J Street gave them cover within the Jewish community.

While mainstream Jewish activist groups had used their clout to lobby on behalf of the American-Israel relationship in such areas as foreign aid and Iran sanctions, J Street took contrary positions However, for the leaders at the SF Federation, wishful thinking trumped any real consideration that this might be a problem. It was accepted at face value when J Street labeled itself as pro-Israel, despite the fact that it was perceived by many as an alternative to AIPAC, an organization that represents the entire spectrum of pro-Israel orientation. Further, J Street had been organized by persons who had marginal commitments to the welfare of Israel. .

Over the past year, a number of things have happened that caused tension between Sokatch and the lay leaders of Federation.

The first, and the most important of these, was the community-wide outrage at the actions of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF). The festival, under the directorship of Peter Stein, has had a history of showing films that were often considered anti-Israel, and has come under heavily criticism for this. But this year, criticism reached a fever pitch with the decision to show the film “Rachel”. This is a political polemic designed to enhance the martyrdom of Rachel Corrie, a young woman accidently killed by a bulldozer while attempting to stop the IDF from destroying a home in Gaza that was protecting smuggling tunnels.

The problem was magnified by the fact that the festival arranged to have the Jewish Voice for Peace, an outspoken anti-Israel group, and the American Friends Service Committee, as cosponsors

To compound this, the film festival showed a second film, “Defamation”, which mocked concerns about anti-Semitism, ridiculed the Anti-defamation league and Abe Foxman, trivialized the Holocaust, and lionized such figures as Norman Finkelstein, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer. The final blow was an invitation from the Film Festival to Cindy Corrie, mother of Rachel and a propagandist for the International Solidarity Movement, a radical group with ties to Hamas.

These poorly conceived decisions by the SFJFF sparked vigorous and broad based outrage, which quickly spread into the national media. . Since Federation was one of the financial sponsors, there was a call for them to defund the festival. Both Peter Stein and the Federation leadership responded to this controversy in a way that can only be described as tone-deaf. They insisted that this was simply an example of “diversity”, and defended the decisions of the SFJFF on\ the basis of catering to a broad range of opinions.

Sokatch was placed in a difficult position. If he spoke out against the Festival, he would antagonize his progressive supporters. But if he failed to do, he risked alienating many of those who considered this to be a moral issue.

Federation and its supporters were determined to hang tough. They were not going to give in to what they thought was simply one more group complaining with little cause about Federation. Further, they attempted to garner support for the film festival director, encouraging letter writing campaigns. One additional piece of support for Stein came when he was nominated for an award by the United Jewish Communities as a community “hero”. All indications are that the nomination originated from within the walls of Federation.

The film festival critics were persistent, and criticism of Stein and the Festival board quickly evolved into a threat to boycott Federation. It appeared that Sokatch might replace Stein as the villain-in-chief.

Secondly, the J Street connection rankled. AS the year went by, J Street was exposed as an anti-Israel lobby group despite their pro-Israel claims. They helped raise money for lawmakers who took critical positions on Israel, and they vocally opposed the Gaza war. The last straw for many came when it was revealed that J Street donors included individuals who had been associated with pro-Palestinian and pro-Iran groups,

At the same time, Sokatch did not entirely sever his connections with J Street, and is slated to be a speaker at their convention in October. It almost seemed as if he were testing the limits of what was acceptable.

Finally, significant donations from the progressive Jewish community did not materialize. Since this was one of the main reasons for his hire, this failure was not helpful.

Despite the fact that there was tension, and that Sokatch became progressively more controversial, his leaving appears to be his own decision. The position as CEO of the New Israel Fund became available; he initially turned it down, but as things became more sticky, he accepted it. There is no reason to believe that he was pushed out,,and he is leaving with considerable good will.

Dan Sokatch is a decent and highly capable person. He is sincere about his commitments, and believes strongly that he is doing the right thing for the future of American Jewry. However, I believe that there are significant problems with Sokatch’s thinking.

The first has to do with his belief that social justice should be the core organizing principle for American Jewry. There is little dispute that social justice is an important component of Jewish thought and action. But if it is to be the central principle, then the question can be asked; why be Jewish? There are many secular organizations that do excellent work in the realm of social justice. And while we must be aware of and attend to social justice as an important feature of Judaism, there are other enduring features, such as religious belief, study of Torah and other texts, and a commitment to the existence of the Jewish state as part of our heritage. We are a diverse people, and not all Jews will be comfortable with all these roles. But without any of these things, and with only a strong commitment to social justice, why not simply join “Ethical Culture” or be active in the ACLU?.

In addition, Sokatch appears to be a man who is unable to recognize that those who disagree with him on some matters are not all simply reacting reflexively and without thought in the name of support for outmoded policies There is reflexive uncritical thinking across the entire political spectrum, and brilliant ideas come from individuals of both the left and the right. If Dan Sokatch can absorb this, he will go far.

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