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The Mainstream Jewish Leadership is out of Touch with Progressive Young Jews

February 29, 2012 – 5:48 pm32 Comments

We think this challah is meant to read: צדק צדק תרדוף (Justice, justice shall you pursue)

By Max Kaiser

Research recently commissioned by the Australian Jewish Democratic Society shows the mainstream community is seriously out of step with the views of many Jewish young people.

In the research report, 13 people under the age of 45 years provide a snapshot of the views of politically progressive young Jews. Speaking frankly, they raise concerns about the exclusive nature of the Melbourne Jewish community and its domination by right-wing Zionists who block open debate about Israeli Government policy.

As one participant expressed “Why can’t we oppose the Israeli Government without being labelled as self-hating Jews?” This participant also wants to hear “a fresh voice that is not centred on the experience of 1939-45 and is free from the self-centred, insular focus on Israel”.

These sentiments were echoed several times over, with the young research participants unanimously valuing a socially progressive Jewish voice in the Jewish community to counter conservative and “myopic” views of the Jewish mainstream.

The ECAJ’s (Executive Council of Australian Jewry) recent 31 page complaint to SBS about the television series ‘The Promise’ illustrates this growing divide well. In my view and the view of my peers, it is not a good look for the Jewish community in the 21st century to seek to censor television programs because they are critical of Israel. The ECAJ pretends that it is a representative organisation of Australian Jewry when in actual fact they only represent a small segment, and reflect a very conservative set of politics.

Many Jews of my generation want to challenge the idea that Jews in Melbourne speak with one voice. We want to challenge mainstream Jewish positions on the Israel/Palestine conflict. We want to stand in solidarity with Indigenous people in Australia and their struggles for land rights and justice. We oppose the vilification and detention of asylum seekers seeking refuge in Australia. We support urgent action to combat catastrophic climate change. We want to build a feminist world and create spaces that are open to people of all sexualities.

The young people interviewed for the AJDS research project placed a lot of value on an organisation like the AJDS existing in order to provide ‘A Jewish voice amongst progressives and a progressive voice amongst Jews’. Progressive young Jews are crying out for organisations that reflect their values.

There’s a large vacuum that exists in the Jewish community for young people concerned about social justice and environmental sustainability. We aspire to fill it.

To provide an opportunity to further explore what kind of Jewish community young Jews want, the AJDS is hosting a forum called ‘Re-imagining the Jewish Community: A forum for Young Jews’.  The forum will be held on Sunday March 4 at 3pm. Young people interested in attending should contact Max Kaiser at co.ajds@gmail.com

The AJDS research report, ‘Enhancing the AJDSEngagement with Young People’ was researched and written by Dr. Helen Rosenbaum. Max Kaiser (aged 24), comes from a social activist background and became the AJDS’ Community Organiser in October 2011.

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  • frosh says:

    Hi Max,

    It isn’t the small sample size that concerns me, as I know that qualitative research often has small sample sizes.

    What is more concerning is the lack representativeness of the sample. Why didn’t the researcher sample a broad spectrum of youth, rather than just leftist youth?

    It think that would have made for more interesting or at least meaningful results.

  • bloo says:

    under 45 is “youth”?!?

  • Harry Joachim says:

    Yes, 13 people isn’t exactly a representative sample size of Melbourne’s Jewish youth…

    Also, where does this definition of “under 45″ as “youth” come from?

  • “The ECAJ … only represent a small segment” How did you reach this conclusion?

  • Sydney Daniel says:

    So the Australian Jewish Democratic Society, which say they “existed for over 20 years as a Jewish Voice Amongst Progressives and Progressive Voice amongst Jews”, found in a report that “mainstream community is seriously out of step with the views of many Jewish young people”.


    Next you might see a tobacco company do a report based on 13 people and find that tobacco is actually a great reliever of stress and that because being stressed can lead to heart attacks then it’s better to smoke and get cancer than die of a heart attack.

    Just give them a free advert and take the story offline.

  • Harold Zwier says:

    David Werdiger wrote:

    “The ECAJ … only represent a small segment” How did you reach this conclusion?

    Since the ECAJ and the various state bodies are made up of people who want to be part of the ECAJ and various state bodies, it is essentially correct to say that the ECAJ and various state bodies are a small segment of the Jewish community. The hierarchy of the organised community may see themselves as representative, but there are many Jews, possibly a majority, who are not part of the organised community.

    When the ECAJ complains to SBS because they don’t like the politics of a political drama, or NIF Australia comes under sustained criticism from prominent individuals such as Philip Chester of the Zionist Federation of Australia, Ron Weiser of the State Zionist Council of NSW and Dr Danny Lamm, president of the ECAJ, are they reflecting the will of the majority, or are they embarking on pushing their own political idealogy? For goodness sakes, Danny Lamm was very critical of David Landau, former editor of the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, who visited Australia in November last year. Is that acting in a representative manner?

    If there are young Jews who are alienated by attitudes prevalent in the organised community then that should be reason enough to think about ways of engaging those people. The future of a healthy community is dependent on accepting the diversity of views, ideas and activism of people who will be the next generation of leaders.

    The question is: will their talent be an asset of the Jewish community and the wider community, or will it be restricted to the wider community?

  • Sam says:

    The report commissioned by the AJDS purports to indicate that young people have views that generally conflict those represented by mainsteam jewish organizations. The way I read it the sample size is too small, selected as potential AJDS recruits which is the real agenda behind this report. ONE person stated that we need a fresh voice not centered on the 1939_1945 experience. I suggest that person might like to discuss that with a few survivors from nazi concentration camps.

  • Mandi Katz says:

    I can’t imagine the study represents the majority or even a high percentage of young Jews but it does represent those that it represents. It’s called qualitative research. It’s not about numbers but about probing deeply into people’s views and reporting on that coherently.

    Without a formal survey, it’s impossible to measure how well the ECAJ represents the community but it was very interesting to see the spontaneous and widespread response in the AJN and privately to the comments last year of Dr Danny Lamm, president of the ECAJ, that the community should not have been given the chance to hear former Ha’aretz editor David Landau.

    I was involved in arranging the Landau tour and I received many more private comments to that effect than were published in The AJN, including from people who didn’t particularly like Landau’s politics.

    The upshot is that the president of the ECAJ was out of touch with community expectations about how we talk about Israel and offended people with his view that it is the role of community leadership to tell us who is and isn’t kosher for our political consumption.

    Bear in mind that Landau is a deeply committed Zionist (best evidenced by his almost forty years of living in Israel where he raised his family who all live and work in Israel) and supports a two state solution, the official position of the government of Israel.

    People should read this report. The people surveyed almost all went to Jewish schools and identify strongly as Jews. We can dismiss the report (and them) because they are not representative, but they are real so we could also take the opportunity to learn about a segment of the Jewish population which doesn’t have much of a voice in mainstream community organisations.

    (I I have no formal or informal affiliation with the AJDS or this report)

  • Sol Salbe says:

    When the AJDS wants to study of views of its potential recruits, why should it sample the entire community? The exercise had a purpose.

  • Larry Stillman says:

    People should remeber that the extensive and very-well funded Gen08 Research Study provided some core baseline data on community attitudes.

    The other way of looking at the study is that it is of ‘key informants’, people with good knowledge of what the ‘vibe’ is, largely based on their engagement with the Jewish community and beyond it. As a progressive organisation, AJDS was or is concerned with developing an expanding a progressive social and poltical agenda.

    It should also be added that in qualitative research, there is the principle of ‘saturation’. Once you start hearing the same opinions over and over, often using the same language, you have some reasonable answers to questions and you can ask new ones if you like. In some situations, this happens very quickly. In others, where there is much more diversity, it may not happen at all.

    As for the ~45 age limit. I suppose this reflects the fact that many people don’t get into formal organisational activity at a board or other level until they have free time after kids and other committments are done with, and many organisations are faced with the problem of succession of leadership and innovation to the next generation. In years past, when women stayed at home and men worked and went to their clubs, things were different, but not any more, with the career family.

    The study is also reflective, as has been well-established through numberous studies around the world, that people are less and less engaged in formal organisations, or even structured social activity–it is what Robert Putnam called the ‘bowling alone’ phenomenon. They are also more and more distant from the Shoah as the driving force in their lives, not just hear in Melbourne, but also in other countries.

  • Larry Stillman says:

    I did not make something clear about ‘saturation’ in qualitative research. Large numbers of interviews are not necessary when you keep hearing confirmatory data, despite attempts hear or obtain the contrary. And qualitative research is not perfect–nor are mixed-method surveys (which are also very costly to conduct if they are to be of a high quality–I am just completing one with a ~500 page report)

  • Whilst this article makes it sound like AJDS found a handful of youngish people who agree with the middle-east politics of the AJDS members, the report actually reads a bit differently. Some of the interviewees were representatives of other organisations in the community and there was a fair amount of criticism of AJDS by interviewees or at least reticence to associate with AJDS despite having progressive politics. This seems to be partially because of a perception on behalf of participants that AJDS is a one issue organisation, and is run in an old fashioned way. The report describes how AJDS could learn from other organisations such as Kehilat Nitzan and Jewish Aid who have successfully engaged with young people even though (according to the report) young people weren’t previously involved with these organisations. I think that there are a lot of people who don’t consider ECAJ to be representative of the Jewish community (particularly young people) but that doesn’t necessarily mean that young people are banging on the door at AJDS. They aren’t, that’s why the research was undertaken. I wonder if presenting the complexities of the research more openly would ultimately make AJDS more attractive to the kinds of young people interviewed.

  • andrew wirth says:

    Not sure its meaningful to call this research, not because of the small sample size and qualitative methodology, but because there was no hypothesis and no account of how participants were selected. One can conclude from this study that: 1. the author knows at least 13 “young” Jews in Australia who hold progressive views and 2. that people with progressive views tend on the whole to like progressive organisations and feel alienated by conservative organisations

    The report is actually an exploration of how the AJDS can engage progressively minded “young” Jews – a form of organisational strategising which is in itself a really important activity – and might have broader implications for engaging youth. Its important, but why dress it up as research.

  • noah says:

    Dear Max,
    It would be nice if you made aliyah.
    Then you could start to change things in a more meaningful way once you are there.
    There are many bad and unfair things that happen here in Australia as well.

    Realistically, all you will achieve is provide fuel for people in Australia and abroad who do not like Jews or Israeli politics and actions.

  • Marky says:

    Mandi Katz writes: “but it does represent those that it represents”

    Absolutely! Couldn’t agree more!

  • Larry Stillman says:

    Andrew Wirth–not all research is hypothesis based, but rather inductive in its nature. From the evidence that is gathered, a hypothesis or answers to problems or new problems are generated. In this case, the problem was that of progressive engagement by young people.

    This orientation is very familiar in what is called community-based research, action research and other related techniques, used in community development and related fields. There is frequently no other way of generating information about which to even hypothesize. The danger with requiring hypotheses or ‘science’ is that it can also potentially limit the frame of what is regarded as acceptable/non-acceptable/confirming/disconfirming information.

    It is thus a misnomer to dismiss such research because it is not conducted according to what are called traditional (social) scientific or positivist methods when there are equally valid methods for different circumstances. However, in political and public discourse ‘objective’ ‘scientific’ methods are often more highly valued because they are seemingly more valid, though they are often not.

    A colleague in the US has written a very good book on these issues (which a strong participant orientation) and it is partly available on Google Books http://books.google.com.au/books?id=C4-YtYzkWsoC&source=gbs_book_other_versions

    See also http://www.socialresearchmethods.net/kb/hypothes.php

    In any case the report available on the AJDS website also discusses the participant selection.

  • Harold Zwier says:


    Max wrote: “The young people interviewed for the AJDS research project placed a lot of value on an organisation like the AJDS existing in order to provide ‘A Jewish voice amongst progressives and a progressive voice amongst Jews’. Progressive young Jews are crying out for organisations that reflect their values.”

    You’re absolutely correct that the people interviewed were candid about their views of the AJDS and we were not looking for, nor expecting endorsement. We are however keen to find ways to engage with younger people that empower them to find common expression and activism in pursuit of issues that concern and interest them.

    The AJDS was started by Norman Rothfield and others in 1984. It emerged from a group of people who published a newsletter called “Paths To Peace” whose primary focus was on issues relating to the Israeli Palestinian conflict and the Middle East. The AJDS aimed to provide a much broader progressive outlook and attracted a wide variety of Jews who were not generally active in the mainstream community. Melbourne in 2012 has moved on a generation and it is clear that there are new people active now whose focus is different and who even engage very differently.

    It isn’t so much that the AJDS has to change to remain relevant, it’s more about providing an environment and framework in which younger people can find their own paths.

  • ariel says:

    So anyone who doesn’t have uber-liberal views is anti progress? What does progress mean to each of us?
    The hijacking of language for political purposes is a dangerous thing.

    Max writes: “Many Jews of my generation want to challenge the idea that Jews in Melbourne speak with one voice”.

    Why does he wish to do this?

    Of course the Australian Jewish Community is uber-conservative and it should defintely be more open minded on all issues. And yes, I agree that most of our community view the Jewish experience through the prism of the Shoah. As Rabbi Sacks says, this must stop because it’s a self-fulfilling cycle of victimhood which does not measure the reality of life today for Jews in the West.

    Nonetheless, there is a difference between open dialogue within the community and shattering the public face of a united community.

    The analogy of government fits here. In the not so distant past, it was rare to have a leak from cabinet. The cabinet went through vigourous debate but came out presenting a united front to the people. This is important as it indicates stability.
    Compare this with the perceived instability of the current government. There is only a small difference; due to the massive leaks, the public is finding out that lo and behold, ministers disagree with each other in cabinet and so we perceive that the government is dysfunctional.

    The same goes for a community which allows its internal dissagreements and decision making to be made public.

  • Sol Salbe says:

    Ariel, sorry as much as I would like to stay from this discussion your latest contribution was just too tempting.

    I supposed the best word to use is novelty. All three of your key ideas strike me as being unusual. You start by saying that the AJDS has hijacked the word progressive. Well, the word has been used in that since since before Norman Rothfield was born and he would have been 100 on Australia Day. Here’s a bit of trivia: there was a Progressive Labor party in the US in the last decade of the 19th century so Ad Me’ah Ve’Esrim. Politics were not identical but the AJDS and the PLP were on the same side of the political spectrum.

    Then you tell us that leaking cabinet is also a new concept. I learnt the expression “Cabinet is leaking like a sieve” from a Liberal politician, I think it was Leslie Bury, in the early seventies. About the same time there was an article in the paper about the time time Billy McMahon was introduced to Rupert Murdoch with the title of “Billy the Leak”. Do you really think it was the rare occasion that prompted those two comments? A reminder: McMahon is dead, the bloke who introduced him is dead as is his son (K Packer) Rupert Murdoch is ancient and even the young man who took it all in (yours truly) is a long way from a spring chicken.

    But your most novel idea is the notion that we have to present the face of united community. Why? Is there anything we are united upon? Or should we tell lies to everyone else? I can’t think of anything that you, me and Rachel Sacks Davis (to pick three names) agree upon. I may think highly of Rachel, but we do not have enough in common at least not the three of us. Yes, we all agree that we object to antisemitism. But we cannot agree on a definition and I reckon that some people’s cures for antisemitism objectively promotes it. And no doubt that have a similar opinion of my solutions.

    If we don’t agree we again more credibility by showing that we don’t.

  • letters in the age says:

    interesting discussion,other orthodox communities like the greeks have various structures and organisations with a very progressive outlook and are popular with gen y………..similar to the american diaspora, hacci comes to mind.
    they dont have the holocaust baggage to deal with .
    a journalist once told me she is sick of her parents baggage thats like a monkey on their back…..sad
    surely you could adopt the practises of the american diaspora??


  • philip mendes says:

    I read the report a few weeks ago and found it interesting. Some of the comments from the interviewees reminded me of things I said over 20 years ago which in some cases mightily upset the Jewish establishment. One mistake I made then – and would caution this group of younger people from making today – is thinking that because certain mainstream bodies seem conservative or hegemonic that this perspective reflects the whole Jewish community. In fact, the community is very diverse, and there are many people who don’t reflect the stereotype of the super-affluent, Liberal-voting pro-Likud conservative. Look around and you will find many Jews even in the mainstream Jewish bodies who care about Indigenous Australians, support refugees, endorse more generous welfare policies, and don’t think Israel is perfect, nor evil for that matter. Don’t fall into the trap of just preaching to the converted. There is a community to be won.

  • letters in the age says:

    pro-likud super affluent liberal voting …..

    Phillip thats a joke right?

    there are progressives with financial resources as well sir


  • letters in the age says:

    natalie portman is a hot Heeb and a great role model for the next gen….

    who do we have here…?

    Who would i like to do intellectually and otherwise in our neck of the woods…

    not many come to mind ;)

  • TheSadducee says:

    Perhaps one of the things that drives away youth are all the older folks in the existing organisations (both AJDS and others) who directly and indirectly condescend to them by falling back upon the “in my time…” stories/anecdotes (eg. Salbe above) and/or “lecture” them (eg. Stillman above) when presented with an alternative opinion?

  • TheSadducee says:

    And btw, shouldn’t the title of this piece (based on what the research appears to be about) read:

    AJDS is out of Touch with Progressive Young Jews?

  • Sol,

    Your comment goes to the heart of the matter. All would agree that our community has become more diverse with time. Does that mean that it’s no longer reasonable for us to have a public, united view on anything (it’s definitely not possible, but despite our differences, does it make sense for their to be a “Jewish community” public position on any issue)? Is there a purpose served by representative organisations (a) speaking for all Jews, and (b) advocating for all Jews to government? If yes, what should be their scope?

  • ariel says:


    You misrepresent my comments. I did not mention the AJDS at all in my posting.

  • TheSadducee says:


    Those outside of the power structures don’t seem to understand that leaders have to negotiate and compromise on an acceptable range of positions to represent a community. Pushing certain positions, especially controversial and/or minority specific, though laudable in many cases, are likely to further split the community and be more destructive in the long term.

    Changes like those desired by some here, require deliberate and intelligent engagement, and tolerated disagrement, with existing power structures, not separation from, to provide an “alternative voice” etc which effectively influences noone outside of their own faction/sect.

    But then again, when someone is outside of the power structures that they criticise, they have the luxury to be ideologues/purists and morally/ethically superior without any real responsibility for their positions in a community.

  • Sol Salbe says:


    The AJDS slogan is progressive voice among Jews, Jewish voice among progressives it has been quoted both here on this august platform and in the AJN. I made the connection with your comments on hijacking of language. But if you object, I will withdraw the reference to the AJDS in that bit about your about line about hijacking of language. The use of the word progressive for such politics is still close to at least 120 years old.

  • Doodie Ringelblum says:

    David and Sadducee
    I think you are right that minority views need to be heard but not necessarily adopted. But does the community’s formal leadership genuinely embrace the notion of even hearing minority viewpoints?

    Here’s an example (I hope not too off-topic). The Gen08 survey – using the most wide-reaching, liberal and anodyne possible definition of Zionism – found that 20% of Jews didn’t identify as Zionists. (Using any definition of Zionism held by the ZFA, the figure would have been much higher).

    We have seen how even clearly Zionist views like those of the New Israel Fund are maligned and sidelined. Now can you imagine the JCCV plenum – let alone executive – comprising 20% non or anti-Zionists?

    But if the JCCV or other peak bodies are meant to be representative of the community, do you think they should establish mechanisms to encourage those views to be voiced and represented at the highest levels?

  • TheSadducee says:


    I would suggest that it is a two-way street – minority views need to express themselves by being within existing leadership organisations and/or the community. Similarly, the leadership needs to embrace these views/people and investigate/respond to their views.

    However, I go back to the earlier point – embracing and implementing changes on behalf of minority opinions/groups without community consensus (or some particularly pressing need i.e. legal requirement etc) is a recipe for disaster as it will cause reaction, fraction and division.

    Where I am concerned, (and I’m not sure if this is being said by anyone?), is instances of where the members of the groups and/or leadership figures are actively conspiring to prevent the free expression of opinions and views which do not agree with their own particular agenda/POV.

    I personally don’t support affirmative action for representation. Our community is more than capable of engaging minority views without an artificial requirement (discriminatory at that) created to enforce it.

    Mechanisms that should be considered are inviting external submissions (written, presentation, meetings etc) from Jews not on the leadership committees, but who are members of the organisations, concerning controversial topics and responding to these as appropriate and/or taking them into account when making any public declarations of a non time critical nature.

    I’m sure there are other mechanisms that others could come up with but this strikes me as an important one to start with – this ensures that members i.e. those engaged in the organisations, can express themselves and encourages membership to achieve this representation.

  • TheSadducee says:

    I would also suggest to the AJDS that they take the opportunity to respond on forums like this to the comments by the broader community – it doesn’t play well when the author of the piece chooses not to respond to some legitimate questions on a public forum where they posted their thoughts.

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