Old White Jewish Men

Last Friday afternoon, B’nai Brith Canada sent out a news release. They do this often. Stuff happens in the Jewish community, and they send out a news release. Stuff happens in the Christian community, and they send out a news release. Someone farts at York University, and they send out a news release. While the many emails from “JEWISH CANADA” can become annoying at times, I ultimately commend them for remaining diligent in their communication efforts – they do a much better job than many other Jewish organizations.

But. Last Friday’s email was different. The title was:

United Church of Canada Resolutions Insult to Grassroots Canadian Jews

Hmm. Something jumped out at me. Angered me a little. Can you spot it? Moving on, the first sentence in the email read as follows:

B’nai Brith Canada, the voice of the grassroots Canadian Jewish community, was disappointed to learn that resolutions that enable United Church Conferences, Presbyteries, congregations, and community ministries to boycott the Jewish State of Israel, if they so choose, were unanimously passed at the United Church of Canada’s (UCC) 40th General Council.

How about now?

B’nai Brith is many things. They’re a Jewish advocacy organization. They’re an Israel advocacy organization. They’re a human rights advocacy organization. Their newspaper in Canada claims to provide “the real story – and the story behind the story – from a Jewish perspective,” though more often than not, that appears to be code for the Right Wing perspective. I should also say that they run a number of summer camps, and Jewish camping is more than important to me. They are indeed many things, but they are certainly not grassroots.

What is grassroots? For starters, labeling an organization as grassroots implies that there is a movement behind the organization. It implies that a collection of people – the roots – have come together independently to identify as a group with a shared philosophy. What is the B’nai Brith movement? Visit the “About Us” section of the website, and you’ll learn that:

B’nai Brith Canada is the action arm of the Jewish community. We believe in:

1. Reaching out to those in need
2. Fighting antisemitism, racism and bigotry;
3. Promoting human rights and peace throughout the world.

What is B’nai Brith’s philosophy? Their ideology? Their social perspective? These are things we would expect to know about a movement. How many people today will claim that they are part of the B’nai Brith movement?

The term also implies that the movement and its related organizations evolved spontaneously and naturally as a response to some stimulus. B’nai Brith – at least in the USA – certainly had a grassroots origin, with German-Jewish immigrants gathering to do something about the squalor in which Jews were living at the time. But now they have evolved into something beyond this grassroots origin. They do wonderful work, representing their constituents and advocating on behalf of certain Jewish views, but they are far past the days of being a small, grassroots movement. To be sure, they are part and parcel of the Jewish establishment. Meet your friends Federation, the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency, and the State of Israel.

Labeling a group grassroots is also a way to highlight the differences between that group and its accompanying movement, and other organizations governed by more traditional power structures. A quick glance at B’nai Brith and B’nai Brith Canada’s websites is more than enough to show you that they are intimately familiar with “traditional power structures,” as the names and pictures of their leadership look like they came from a Facebook group called “old white Jewish men.”

The labeling of B’nai Brith Canada as grassroots is a curious move by the organization. For one, it is an abrupt change – they’ve never called themselves this before. Last Friday’s email was the first appearance of this adjective. Why, all of a sudden the need to add this term in August 2009? (8.28.09 Update: Turns out they have called their constituency grassroots a few times before. Mostly in press releases.)

I take great issue with this. It’s an attempt to make it look like they aren’t facing declining relevance like the rest of the organizational Jewish world. It’s an attempt to make it look like they don’t have a member base that’s almost entirely made up of people who were born before 1950 (not that there’s anything wrong with people born before the invention of the VW minibus). It’s an attempt to make it look like they attract the same type of people that Obama attracts.

There’s a term for what B’nai Brith is doing. It’s called Astroturfing. And in the political, advertising, and PR world, this is a BIG no-no. By calling themselves grassroots, B’nai Brith Canada is trying to project an image of something it isn’t.

Let me re-iterate: B’nai Brith does many wonderful things, many vital things for the Jewish and broader communities in Canada and the US. But they are not grassroots. To try and present this image is dishonest and unfair.

I’m also left with a few final questions from B’nai Brith’s email of last Friday…

Is there a difference between “grassroots” Canadian Jews and “regular” Canadian Jews? And if so, is the Canadian Jewish community insulted and disappointed en masse, or is just the “grassroots” Jews? And if so, is B’nai Brith really the voice of the entire “grassroots” Canadian community?

This is where B’nai Brith shows their true colours. You can’t just blanket label a group of people as grassroots. At the end of the day, I’m left wondering what B’nai Brith Canada’s “grassroots” movement is all about…

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