Rejoinder by Professor Handlin
To the Editor
I regret the necessity that has compelled Professor MacIver to write in response to my recent article. Yet he is, in part, responsible for events that have had the most disruptive consequences in Jewish communal life. And I can understand the obligation he now feels to understand the confused situation in which he finds himself. It would have been better had he sensed the weight of that obligation before he wrote his report.
I must make it clear to begin with, as I did in my answer to Harry Lurie’s letter (February COMMENTARY), that my article was not a critique of the MacIver Report. It attempted rather to set forth the historic background of certain long-term tendencies in the life of American voluntary associations; and it saw at the root of the present difficulty the failure to recognize that voluntary bodies, as they had fruitfully developed on the American scene, differed from those under government in that whatever power and effectiveness such groups enjoy derives first and last from the voluntary consensus of opinion among their adherents; and that there is no way of exercising upon them, as in government, coercion based on a majority vote outside their ranks; against any such majority they will always have the right of withdrawal. Neither Mr. Lurie nor Professor MacIver disputes in their exposition any of the facts or interpretations about the essential spirit and mode of operation of voluntary agencies, and of various historical attempts to subject this traditional pattern to a coercion alien to it under the slogan of unity. Their objections lie rather to the judgment that such lack of respect for tendencies traditional to American voluntary agencies are at work in the Report and in the subsequent action of the NCRAC. I address the comments which follow to this question in the hope they may clear away some of the obscuring elements that engulf Professor MacIver’s consideration of the matter.
The case that Professor MacIver cites is illuminating. Should the Security Council be governed by the votes of a majority? There are ample theoretical grounds for urging that a council which represents groups (or states) rather than the members (or citizens) of those groups (or states), can only operate through accord and assent. But, in any case, we know that in the situation of the Security Council majority rule simply is not applicable. The alternative to decisions by consensus is no decision at all. For a council, by its nature, is a body that brings together organizations which do not wish to unite, but which retain freedom of action while they seek agreement in the areas in which agreement actually exists. The failure of such a body to reach agreement does not, however, mean an inevitable obstacle to action, as Professor MacIver seems to think. The constituent organizations are still free to act, and there are numerous instances in which they have done so as groups of agencies, to the extent that several of them agree, or individually where no agreement exists.
It will be more profitable to turn away from these theoretical considerations to the particular elements of the case that concerns us. Professor MacIver opens his letter by pointing to the weaknesses of the NCRAC. It must be noted that his criticisms are almost entirely abstract and general; rarely are the particulars given to support the accusations of waste, duplication of effort, and frustration. I, for one, am inclined to give the NCRAC credit for greater achievements in the eight years of its existence than Professor MacIver.
His central criticism is that the body lacks the power to make decisions by majority rule, that it lacks coercive powers. Yet he proceeds to justify the Report and the subsequent actions based on it by the fact that the agencies in the NCRAC have not lost any part of their autonomy. “What group freedom was jeopardized?” he asks. If the latter part of his letter is correct, then the changes in organizations have not met the objections he raises in the early part of his letter.
Speaking of the NCRAC, Dr. MacIver states in his report repeatedly: “Its authority needs to be strengthened.” What the Report states and what its sponsors hoped to achieve was the creation of an agency with authority to replace the earlier consultative advisory one. In the Report Professor MacIver spoke of majority decision as “a necessity.” The deficiencies of the NCRAC in the past, he felt, were due to “its structure and to the delicate balance of opposing forces within it” that made it unable “to decide anything by majority vote.” He emphasized the need for strengthening the body’s “authority.” The purpose was “that the NCRAC assume oversight of all agreements, assignments, and allocations established or to be established between the agencies and use its influence in all reasonable ways to assure the fulfillment of these arrangements.” In view of these statements, the disclaimer of the present letter, that “the NCRAC was given no power whatever to dominate any agency” is hardly reassuring.
No doubt the NCRAC still lacks the obvious means of coercion; it was not indeed given an army, navy, or an air force. But that does not mean that it was left without such power. The NCRAC and the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds have other resources with which to bring pressure upon the constituent agencies, to say nothing of the influence they would obtain by virtue of their position as the official majority. Add to this the fact that Professor MacIver’s proposal would have given the NCRAC predominant control over budgetary matters, and the extent of the coercive power available to it can be readily understood.
The test of the matter is quite simple. A majority decision is not necessary in order to give advice; there are many other ways in which advisory opinions can be rendered. A majority decision is necessary only to the degree that it serves to induce a minority to acquiesce in the views of the majority.
These misunderstandings are aspects of a larger problem, moreover. I suspect Professor MacIver’s difficulties arise from a failure of comprehension as to the true nature of group life in America. In principle, Professor MacIver seems to recognize that “the Jews” are not a homogeneous group distinguished from other Americans only by the difference of the religion to which they adhere. But his practical recommendations recognize no bases of differentiation other than the simple denominational one. His blueprint for the future of community relations work takes no account of the fact that the Jewish group, like other comparable American groups, is also deeply divided within itself, ideologically and socially; and tolerance of those differences is as necessary to its members as tolerance of the whole group.
Within this letter, I find a number of striking illustrations of this failure to comprehend the diversities of Jewish life in America. Speaking of inter-religious affairs, Professor MacIver finds it logical to allocate to “the rabbinate” the task of dealing with the representatives of other religions. What is “the rabbinate”? The Report provisionally handed over this area to but one group of rabbis, those affiliated with the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Even if some agency were devised to bring together the three largest groups, that would still not constitute them “the rabbinate.” There are substantial numbers of Jews who regard no rabbi within any of these groups or no rabbi at all as their “representative.”
Or again, the Report urges that all legal services be transferred to a single agency. Professor MacIver argues that there is “no reason why two agencies . . . should separately prepare briefs for the same court.” This statement can only rest on the assumption that all Jews will have the same views on such questions as civil rights and religious education. After all, all are engaged in “the common cause.”
The recent past has however abundantly shown us that differences as to the means of achieving that common cause are far more important than the abstract agreement as to common end. The consequence of putting all legal work into the hands of a single agency would be to label one viewpoint official, the others dissenting, to mobilize support for one, to suppress the others. And it has been the same in a variety of other fields—with the problem of collaborating with the veterans and the anti-Communists, and with the necessity of dealing with rabble rousers, for instance.
Nor is it enough to say that, under these conditions, the minority would still retain its freedom of dissent. Dissent is useless without the means of implementing it. With the departments devoted to this work disbanded, the “minority” agencies would be helpless. These circumstances show that the Report, and the implementing actions which followed upon it, did not recognize the legitimate differences among Jews, and did indeed take a first step toward imposing the kind of central authority that would minimize these differences.
I cannot close these comments without expressing my own regret that Professor MacIver has been less than fair, in this statement, to the dissenting agencies. They rejected his proposal for a “strategy committee” not because they objected to the scientific study of prejudice, but because his scheme involved acceptance of a single master strategy. The right to differ which is left them in this matter, and in questions of allocation of functions, is of but slight value without the means of making those differences effective. Professor MacIver’s strictures on the competition for funds imply that this is peculiar to Jewish “defense” work rather than general to the fund-raising activities of all American voluntary agencies. And it is difficult to square the charge that organizations which ultimately withdrew from the NCRAC rejected “all overtures” with the fact that they did make counterproposals, did negotiate for two years, did accept some recommendations including the principle of joint planning, and did support Professor MacIver’s proposal for a reassessment committee to study the whole field.
Respecting Professor MacIver’s integrity as I do, I have no doubt these distortions are unintentional. But they strongly suggest the necessity of taking the long view, of seeing the immediate incident in which we are involved in the fuller perspective of its historic antecedents.