Eleven prominent Jewish philanthropies have begun an unusual drive for politeness among their own -- threatening to use their money and influence to strengthen only those organizations that can make their cases with a civil tongue.
In an ad campaign to begin tomorrow in 35 Jewish publications in the United States and Canada, the foundations -- among them the Owings Mills-based Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation -- announce that they're stepping forward to "foster open, healthy debate that preserves and enhances the dignity of all segments of the Jewish people."
The ad also says that "the tone and content of advertisements and pronouncements from potential grantees have now become part of our funding criteria."
The plea comes at a time of particularly pointed debate among Jews domestically and abroad --over the question of who is considered a Jew in Israel, how funds raised by Jewish charities should be distributed, and the Middle East peace process.
The foundations, which awarded a combined $100 million in grants during 1998, say that in practical terms, their statement might not affect the bottom lines of many organizations. The philanthropies say they already have avoided funding nonprofits with uncivil tactics.
More important, they say, is the message they're sending.
"They carry not only the power of the purse, but also a certain moral suasion that shouldn't be underestimated," said Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. "I don't think it's only a matter of the threat of withholding philanthropy. It's a statement."
Mark Charendoff, vice president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, which have led the effort along with Cleveland's Sapirstein-Stone-Weiss Foundation, said the issue surfaced in particular for the Bronfman foundations after the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
"I think everyone said, 'We've really learned a lesson at a horrible cost,' " Charendoff said. "Then, [we were] struck by the fact that we didn't learn the lesson at all."
After the assassination, the debate over "who is a Jew" -- the question of whether the Reform and Conservative strains of Judaism should be recognized in Israel -- became heated again.
"You saw the rhetoric climb right back up to the old level," he said.
Bernard Siegel, president of the $1.8 billion Weinberg Foundation, said the foundations hope to exert "peer pressure" on a range of Jewish groups, particularly in the debate over religious pluralism.
"If we step forward and it starts some conversation, I hope there's going to be a groundswell of people who will say, 'They're right,' " he said.
But some worry that the message is too vague -- that one person's incivility is another's well-made point.
"I'm a little queasy about it," said Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who has clashed publicly over a number of issues with Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America.
"Who's going to define that a particular institution was uncivil? The fact that foundations see this as an important value is important. I'm just not sure how it will be enforced."
Charendoff said it will be up to each foundation to decide how it will live up to the pledge.
"There will not be a list circulated among us of offenders," he said. "We'll allow more voices to be heard by allowing the debate and the discussion to be kept civil."
The civility pledge also has been signed by the J. E. & Z. B. Butler Foundation Inc., the Dobkin Family Foundation, the Jesselson Family Foundation, Jewish Life Network: A Judy and Michael Steinhardt Foundation, and the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, all of New York City; the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation of Tulsa, Okla.; filmmaker Steven Spielberg's Righteous Persons Foundation of Santa Monica, Calif.; and Synagogue Transformation and Renewal, a new Chicago-based foundation.
"There is a growing influence among private foundations in the Jewish philanthropic world, and we have responsibilities, in addition to our other activities, to engage in the public debate and to use the leverage we have," said Sandy Cardin, executive director of the Schusterman foundation.
"There are relatively few ways in which we can directly influence conversations, and this is one of them."