The Future of Jewish Leadership: Journalist vs. Politician
Last week I wrote about the need for renewed focus on Jewish solutions as opposed to Jewish problems. Addressing requests for more thoughts on this subject, I would like address the matter as it relates to people and leadership.
Recently, Commonwealth Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, one of the most respected Jewish leaders, writers and public representatives of Judaism in the world today announced that after more than 20 years of service, he plans to retire from his post at the age of 65. Asked by Columbia University Professor Ari Goldman at a recent 92nd St Y event about what prompted his decision, he responded, “Now, I am only able to drive at 35 miles per hour, but I would like to drive at 70 miles per hour.”
Hard to believe….that Sacks feels limited, standing on perhaps one of world Jewry’s most prestigious platforms. Although he says that he would like to spend more time teaching Torah, I have a suspicion that his decision is also influenced by his desire to escape the political straight jacket that the Chief Rabbinate demands, in order to initiate further forays into the world of journalism.
Of course here I refer to journalism and politics in a figurative sense as opposed to a literal one, as it could be said that all influencers, decision makers and thought leaders could be divided into one of two categories: the journalist and the politician. The politician is in his position as a result of collective popularity, his primary objective being to please as many people as possible so that he can maintain his position of influence. The journalist could be referred to as the anti-politician, his goal being the search for and documentation of truth regardless of its reception. Often the most popular and widely read columnists are those that ruffle many feathers.
Sometimes the boundaries are blurred. There are many journalists that behave as politicians. Israel certainly has borne the brunt of writers who pander to populist or politically correct trends as opposed to working to uncover and present unadulterated truth. Historically, conceptually journalistic figures often initiated their undoing upon embarking on political careers. Included on this list are such greats as Ariel Sharon and Menachem Begin. Paradoxically some of the greatest agents for positive change in the Jewish world have used the pen as the mightiest weapon. Included among those are Vladimir Jabotinsky and Theodor Herzl. Arguably, Moses was a journalist, diligently recording the word of God as it was transmitted. Had he been more politically inclined, the Bible today may have looked more like the work of Moses Mendelssohn.
Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky writes “I have been a journalist ever since my youth and am not ashamed to admit that in my well-considered opinion journalists are, will and must be the world’s ruling caste.”
Consider the Jewish leaders that preside over Jewish national and communal affairs today. How many are political leaders and how many are journalistic? Do we trust our leaders to lead, and make the right decisions, to seek the truth whatever the cost? Historically, how many Jews have given heavier consideration to the ‘gentile reaction’ than to what is in our best interests? Definitively, any Jewish organization that takes a poll before publicizing its position on the matter of the day has rendered itself obsolete for purposes of leadership.
Of course politicians and politicos have their place, in maintaining order, the status quo and very often as effective managers. However, at times of extreme trial and challenge, when vision, courage and leadership is called for, they are limited and are less likely to pioneer the tough, unpopular choices and initiatives that the moment may call for. At a recent viewing of a film on anti-Semitism that perfectly highlighted the challenges that are faced by Jews around the world, the only voice that really presented a path for positive change and an actual solution was journalist Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal.
A high level Israeli politician, who is among the most frank, authentic and honorable that I have met, effectively outlined the limitations of political life to a group of American Jewish philanthropists at an off the record meeting. He urged them to do more, telling them that in many ways they can effect positive change more significantly than he can.
Today’s information age may also be a reason why in practicality journalists often wield more influence than politicians. One friend even went so far as to say that nowadays, “kingship has been transposed by journalism.” This may explain why former figures with political aspirations such as Arianna Huffington and Mike Huckabee are so comfortable in their new media roles.
At a New York coffee shop, a young prominent Israeli activist drew a diagram of Israeli society for me, a triangle divided into three parts. “On the bottom,” he explained, “are the people, in the middle are the politicians, and on the top are the journalists.”
When looking toward our future, we would do well to asses those in the sphere of public influence; teachers, rabbis, organization heads and elected representatives, by asking who our journalistic leaders are, and which of our leaders are journalists?