Read the full article at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency
Andrew Silow-Carroll
May 12, 2024

(JTA) — Once upon a time (and it feels a bit like a fairy tale), Jewish communities tried to speak with one voice on domestic policy issues. If you were a politician looking to cultivate the “Jewish community,” or a Jewish group looking to lobby City Hall, you would turn to the local Jewish community relations council, or JCRC.

The 125 CRCs, in turn, were part of a nation-wide network called the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, whose members would gather at least once a year for a plenum — a sort of Jewish parliament where they would adopt consensus platforms on things like gun control, civil rights, climate change and fighting antisemitism.

The model works as long as the local Jewish stakeholders agree on what tends to be a centrist-to-liberal agenda. But like so many nonpartisan efforts in an age of polarization, the JCRC model has struggled in recent years. Bitter fights over the Iran nuclear deal and Black Lives Matter left many of the local CRCs without funding and key institutional support. The JCPA hasn’t held its annual plenum — later replaced by a “Delegates Assembly” — for several years.

And with the Israel-Hamas war leading to a surge in anti-Israel and antisemitic incidents, groups like the Anti-Defamation League and high-profile Jewish politicians like Chuck Schumer tend to speak for the Jews in all but the largest Jewish communities.

Recognizing the changing landscape, the JCPA in 2022 split from its longtime benefactor — the Jewish federation system — and rebranded as a more explicitly progressive group, freed from satisfying an ideological miscellany of stakeholders. And in 2023, it tapped as its new CEO Amy Spitalnick, best known at the time for leading, as executive director of Integrity First for America, a successful multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Spitalnick, 38, represents a new generation of Jewish leaders. She insists that it is not partisan to call out threats to democracy, even when they come from a former and perhaps future president. And she says that fighting antisemitism means building coalitions with other like-minded groups, even those who have been at odds with the Jewish majority over the war.

“Being an ally doesn’t mean putting an Israeli flag on your front door and saying you support every action of the Israeli government,” she told me recently. “It means recognizing Jewish pain and believing that the hostages should be released and that what happened on Oct. 7 was heinous and unacceptable, even if you also oppose Israel’s actions in Gaza and the Netanyahu government.”

On Thursday, Spitalnick and the JCPA announced a program of “Action Networks,” organizing JCRCs, other Jewish groups and their partners around key issues. Shuffling the traditional local model, JCPA aims to focus on two major planks: “Protecting Democracy” – voting and civil rights, countering disinformation and extremism, combating book bans and curriculum challenges from the right and left — and “Combating Bigotry.” Spitalnick is convinced that threats to democracy and the rise of hate are connected on both ends of the political spectrum.

Ahead of the launch, I spoke with Spitalnick about whether Jewish communities have the infrastructure to respond to crises like Oct. 7 and its aftermath, the deep split among progressive Jews and the left since the Hamas attacks, and the differences between the campus pro-Palestinian protests and the extremism she saw in Charlottesville.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

As we speak, campuses are cracking down on pro-Palestinian protests, actions that are being cheered by those who think the student protests were spreading hateful messages, and criticized by others who see the arrests as an impingement on free speech. As you’re watching what’s happening right now, is your first thought that this is exactly the response the Jewish community needs, or are there things that you might be worried about?

I mean, nothing about this has been good for the Jews — not the protests and the ways in which they have veered into virulent antisemitism, and not the ways some of the most extreme voices are then exploiting legitimate concerns about what’s happening on campus to advance their own extreme agenda — like the politicians who are saying “send in the National Guard,” or shut down the DEI programs, or defund liberal institutions, or take down the first black woman president of Harvard. It’s not good for Jews, it’s not good for students and it’s not good for higher education.

When you talk about antisemitism, where do you draw the line between legitimate criticism of Israel and this war, and antisemitism?

Certainly, the vast majority of students who are showing up to protest Israel’s war in Gaza are not doing so because they intend to be antisemitic. Like any young person, there’s a desire to want to speak out about a cause that feels crucial to the moment that you’re living in.

That being said, in a number of these protests, and it’s not all campuses, we’ve seen the line go from opposing Israel and the war, opposing [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and calling for a ceasefire to saying things like “we want another Oct. 7” or “go back to Poland” or calls for Israel to be wiped off the face of the earth. Or to ban Zionists from certain organizations or spaces on campus. When the vast majority of American Jews identify as Zionist, it effectively becomes a form of antisemitic discrimination to say Zionists are not welcome here.

Your office mentioned that you were eager to discuss the dangers in comparing the campus protesters to the neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville. As someone who helped win a $25 million judgment against the neo-Nazis who organized the deadly 2017 Charlottesville march, what is the nuance you want to bring to the current discussion?

There’s two pieces to this. On the substantive side, I spent years deep in the weeds of what actually happened in Charlottesville. It was a meticulously planned attempted mass murder by neo-Nazis who intended to hit protesters with cars, and two dozen of them were found liable by a jury for a violent conspiracy. Heather Heyer was murdered, many others were grievously injured. While there has been some specific cases of violence — in the form of breaking windows or surrounding Jewish students or some of these other well-documented incidents — thankfully we haven’t seen that in the pro-Palestinian protests. There are those who are actually, obviously and vitriolically antisemitic and some that have even crossed into violence, but the vast majority of people are there peacefully.

I think even more important than that distinction is the reaction of government. Right after Charlottesville you had a president who called the neo-Nazis “fine people.” We have [in Joe Biden] a president who [on May 1] took the podium in the White House and unequivocally condemned antisemitism on campus, period, full stop. He has done that over and over again over the last six and a half months and put out a historic national strategy to right antisemitism. And it can’t be partisan to call out that distinction.

But I am sure you’ve heard those in the Jewish community who say that while groups like yours were focusing on antisemitism on the right, the biggest threat to Jewish safety is coming from the left right now. And that the Jewish community was unprepared for that because they were hyper-focused on the right.

I think there’s some particularly loud voices who might say that, but the vast majority of American Jews have been able to actually recognize that both are challenges, even if they manifest in different ways. And we need to be clear-eyed about the distinction.

The goal of antisemitism in both forms is to divide Jews from the coalitions we need to be able to advance inclusive democracy. And we’re seeing that in both forms. We’re seeing right wingers who are exploiting this moment to advance their broader agenda that pits us against the Black community and we’re seeing it among those who espouse left-wing antisemitism to in effect keep Jews out of the coalitions we need to advance inclusive democracy. None of it makes any of us safe.

Do you share the deep disappointment of many Jews who felt abandoned by fellow progressives after Oct. 7? Did you feel that you weren’t getting the support you needed from putative allies?

I mean, yes and no. Some of the first calls I got on Oct. 8, Oct. 9, were from Black civil rights partners and others I’ve worked with in this role and for longer. That was deeply felt and impactful and just so personally meaningful for me. I think similarly, there was Reverend Barber [William J. Barber II, founding director of the Center for Public Theology & Public Policy at Yale Divinity School] and others who wrote opeds in the aftermath where they said, “You know, I don’t support everything Israel does, but we need to be clear that what Hamas did was murder and was unacceptable.”

There were also those more like the Democratic Socialists of America — what some have since dubbed the “paraglider left,” for whom Oct. 7 was a celebration. At my own alma mater, Tufts, there was a Students for Justice in Palestine chapter who called the Oct. 7 terrorists “creative.” There was the [pro-Palestinian] rally in Times Square on Oct. 8, a notorious example of what you’re describing. And so how to separate those things?

One way is to recognize that the situation might not quite be as zero-sum as some are painting it.

A younger generation of Jews is far less likely to support Israel and Zionism. How are you reaching out to younger Jews — are you trying to change minds or does the Jewish organizational world have to adjust to this new reality?

I’m probably among the last generation of American Jews who knew Israel at a time when it was under dire threat. The second intifada was so formative to my worldview of Israel. I was in high school when it happened. I lived in Israel in 2006 and 2007, when there was legitimate concern that Israelis were going to face deadly terror attacks on a daily basis.

Younger American Jews, except for Oct. 7, have not really seen anything like that in their lifetime. And similarly, the only prime minister that they really know is Netanyahu, which shapes their worldview for obvious reasons. Any conversation in the Jewish communal infrastructure needs to start from that recognition and reject white-and-black frameworks that suggest you are either pro-Israel or pro-SJP. The loudest voices on campus are in that space right now. That is not a space where the vast majority of Jewish students are going to feel safe, whether they agree or disagree with the war.

You are talking about making room for young people who support the aspirations of the Palestinians and criticize the Israeli government, but also believe that Jews have a right to security in Israel.

Rabbi Sharon Brous [of the Los Angeles congregation IKAR] has said she would love to see a space where Israelis and Palestinians are both welcome — an actual peace movement on campus as opposed to the eliminationist sort of language we’ve been hearing. Jewish institutions need to be thinking about how we don’t advance the false binaries in a way that keeps younger Jews out of the conversation.

We’ve reported that the Jewish community relations field took a blow during the debate over the Iran nuclear deal, when communities found it hard to reach a consensus, and then again during the Black Lives Matter movement, which also polarized the Jewish community. Do you agree, and do you think we have in place right now the kind of community relations we need at this really fraught moment?

We don’t, largely because it’s been so under-resourced. In some cities, like Boston and San Francisco, you have CRCs that are large and independent and have significant resources. And then in many places the JCRC is one person within a federation or a part-time person. We’re not resourcing community relations commensurate with the value it provides to our community, and to actually advance Jewish safety and build the relationships we need.

Historically, the Jewish community agenda has been about a lot of things: Israel, civil rights, voting rights, church and state separation, fighting antisemitism, in general supporting reproductive rights. Between now and the elections in November, do you think there is space to think about anything else except Israel and fallout from the war?

At a moment when we’re all thinking about Israel and antisemitism, the conversation on democracy is fundamental. We need to understand going into the election how antisemitism is used to undercut democracy through these conspiracy theories, and other tropes that are increasingly normalized, and how anti-democratic policy will make Jews fundamentally less safe and to create an environment for antisemitism.

At a time when some of the loudest voices are trying to pit the Jewish community against other communities, we need to reject those efforts and build the coalitions we need and this can’t be partisan. Relationships are inherent to combating the antisemitism we’re all deeply worried about right now.


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