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NCCJ funding jeopardized


A philosophical split with some longtime supporters could financially cripple the National Conference for Community and Justice. In the end, the breach could redefine the 77-year-old social justice organization as it looks for previously untapped resources to pay for programs to fight bias, bigotry and racism.

A week and a half away from its annual banquet on May 11, the NCCJ had met only about a third of its $160,000 goal for ticket sales. The banquet, at which community leaders are honored for their social justice activism, is the organization’s biggest fund-raiser of the year, providing about half of its $350,000 annual budget. Without a last-minute boost in ticket sales, the organization may be forced to abandon some of its work, said Rudy Simms, the executive director of the NCCJ’s Iowa Region.

The long-standing alliance with the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines, NCCJ’s partner throughout its more than 70-year history in Des Moines, was threatened in early 2003 when Tim Wise, a widely known anti-racist speaker, was invited to speak at the NCCJ’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day observance. Though his remarks were to have been limited to race relations, Wise is an outspoken critic of Zionism and U.S. policy toward Israel, advocating a two-state solution in Israel that treats Jews and Palestinians equally.

Simms said Wise’s appearance was canceled when objections were raised by some of the NCCJ’s supporters in the Jewish community, a traditional stronghold for the organization that was founded in 1927 as the National Conference of Jews and Christians for the Advancement of Justice, Amity and Peace. The name was changed in 1939 to the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

But Wise’s scheduled appearance set off a rift that hasn’t healed. Similar concerns about programming thought by some to be anti-Semitic or anti-Jew because speakers weren’t specifically pro-Israel were raised in May 2003 when the NCCJ and American Friends Service Committee, like the Jewish Federation a longtime ally and partner, sponsored a forum featuring speakers from the Tikkun Community, a fledgling activist group made up mostly of Jewish citizens who support both Israel’s right to exist and Palestinians’ rights to statehood. Jewish Community Relations Commission Director Mark Finkelstein, who objected strongly to Wise’s appearance at the 2003 MLK observance, declined to participate in the forum or to recommend someone from the Jewish Federation to be part of a panel.

The dissension came to a head late last year, when 19 former Jewish recipients of the NCCJ’s Brotherhood/Sisterhood Awards, presented annually at the organization’s banquet, declined to nominate someone from their faith for the 2004 award. In a widely circulated Dec. 24 letter, they distanced themselves from an organization they said has become increasingly confrontational and divisive and has strayed from its original mission. The letter stated, in part:

“Historically, NCCJ has brought together our faith communities and others to obtain funding to address problems of social injustice, intolerance and bigotry. To the best of our knowledge, NCCJ did its work with an eye toward harmony, particularly with its supporting constituencies. However, lately, public inflammatory language, a willingness to engage in confrontational and divisive means to promote social activism, and the sponsorship of programming that does not foster harmony are indicators that the NCCJ has veered from that historical approach and has become problematic for, at least, some of its supporters. …

“To have seen NCCJ become divisive at this time of increasing local poverty, intolerance and social injustice is disappointing.”

Don Blumenthal, Margo Blumenthal, Milton J. Brown, Dorothy Bucksbaum, Lawrence B. Engman, Stanley Engman, William Friedman Jr., Harlan D. Hockenberg, Maddie Levitt, Richard S. Levitt, Fred Lorber, Anita Mandelbaum, Marvin A. Pomerantz, Roselind P. Rabinowitz, Sheldon Rabinowitz, Stanley Richards, Elaine L. Steinger, Timothy Urban and Marvin Winick signed the letter.

In it, they asked the NCCJ to agree to an independent review of its budget, programs and governance. They also questioned the role of the organization’s board of directors in reaching a consensus on issues before public statements are made to the media and in determining programming. Simms explained the Iowa Region office takes its programming and policy cues from the national group, which also audits its financial books. On the issues of programming and policy, he stood firmly behind Jesse Villalobos, the outspoken programming and public policy director for the Iowa Region and often a lightning rod for criticism directed toward the NCCJ.

“Some truths are very hard to hear, but let’s don’t underestimate the American people to be able to see the truth, sort out the factors, and make proper and correct decisions,” Simms said. “There are no kind words to talk about oppression, genocide and other atrocities society perpetuates on individual groups because they are different, because they may be outside the so-called Christian norm and values, which is another perspective.”

Though defending the programming choices, Simms said he’s gained a new respect for the passion some longtime NCCJ supporters have regarding the hostilities in the Mideast. “I didn’t have a pulse on their passion for that,” he said. “They asked for more sensitivity to the issue, and I can respect that.”

But, Simms said, the NCCJ’s decision to sponsor a specific program isn’t an endorsement of any of the viewpoints that will be represented, but simply an effort to facilitate an exchange of different perspectives as a healthy and necessary step in overcoming differences. “If that doesn’t happen, you sit in your isolated group and look upon each other with suspicion, wondering what they are up to and what their motives are,” he said.

Pomerantz, who is acting as a spokesman for the former honorees, said though some recent events have deepened the divide, the rift between the NCCJ and many of its Jewish supporters dates back to 1998, when the group’s national board changed its longtime name, the National Conference of Christians and Jews, to one more descriptive of the scope of the organization’s work. The NCCJ is increasingly focusing its programming on international political issues, rather than using locally raised money to address local and domestic issues, he said.

“Certainly in its history it was a glorious organization, but the mission has been changed from religious- and faith-based to race-relationship-based,” Pomerantz said. “Those are important issues, and if I were looking for an organization to do race relations, I might sign up for that, but this is a far cry and a long way from the mission that I signed on for.

“We are exercising our right to vote with our feet,” he said.

Simms said the NCCJ has never been a strictly faith-based organization and has always fought against bias, bigotry and racism wherever they surfaced. The name change, he said, preserved the traditional abbreviation, but brought more people under the NCCJ tent. “We have never just concentrated on faith,” he said. “It’s always been a part of our mission and has always been one of the things NCCJ is positioned to work on, but you also have to remember NCCJ has a mission to bring all parties together by allowing different perspectives to be expressed.”

Simms thinks the issues raised by the NCCJ’s former allies have affected ticket sales for the annual banquet. He sees erosion of support primarily in the corporate arena, where Pomerantz and many of the other past honorees have strong ties. Pomerantz denies that his group is attempting to damage the organization’s credibility or cripple it financially, but says he and other former honorees want to make the NCCJ a stronger organization.

“There isn’t a movement in the Jewish community to exercise its so-called strength,” he said. “I’m not sure we’re all that strong that we could force that kind of change.”

But a boycott, whether official or informal, has the same result, Simms said. “You don’t have to have an official boycott if you cast doubt and suspicion on an organization and its mission, and imply by raising questions about expenditures and governance that the organization isn’t adhering to its mission. The damage is done.”

Simms said the NCCJ will continue to work to rebuild its alliance with the Jewish Federation and supporters from the Jewish community but will continue to look for other sources of funding to keep the organization intact. This week, the organization is dusting the city with fliers soliciting support from new sources and hoping to win back the confidence of those who have left the organization. The flier gives banquet ticket information, encourages letter-writing campaigns to Iowa media and attempts to explain “how we got to this point.”

“NCCJ is suffering from the same systemic factors that are putting schools, social services, civil liberties and civil rights in jeopardy,” according to the flier. “This has turned neighbors, friends and even victims against each other. Ideas that were the foundation of our democracy, like free expression and dissent, have become grounds for destruction of organizations like NCCJ. It’s become critical that people and groups who are victimized by discrimination, violence and economic hardships stand our ground and work together.”

Meanwhile, others are trying to mend the rift. Last week, Brian Foss, an executive vice president at the NCCJ’s national office, met with Pomerantz and other Jewish community leaders to help bring the two sides together, but declined an interview on the progress made in those talks Among others working to resolve differences between the NCCJ and its former supporters is former Iowa Gov. Robert Ray, a longtime supporter of the programming NCCJ provides. Ray said it’s important for people on all sides of the issue to “calmly analyze where NCCJ is” and refrain from emotional arguments that further separate them.

“I think it got expanded out of proportion, but any time there’s a problem and people want to express themselves relative to that problem, you have to take it seriously,” he said. “It shouldn’t be taken lightly. We’re dealing with intelligent individuals, people who mean well. You can’t ignore dissension.”

Pomerantz thinks the controversy has created greater awareness among the NCCJ staff and its board members and the fact that Foss came to Des Moines to help heal the rift gives credibility to the position he and other honorees have taken. To bridge the gap, he said, would require the NCCJ to return to its faith-based mission or draft a new mission statement and bylaws and adopt a new structure.

“We’re not trying to hurt anyone; our motives are to make the organization better,” Pomerantz said. “Hopefully, all of this will help clarify the issues and in the end make the organization a better one.

“Are we closer?” he asked. “We’ll have to see in the next few weeks and days.”

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