Far-Right Pro-Israel Group Rallies Against Vaunted New York Jewish Institution

Originally published in The Daily Beast on August 12, 2013.

The 92nd Street Y bills itself as a “proudly Jewish organization,” one that “enthusiastically welcomes people of all backgrounds and perspectives.” That seems to be exactly what’s got the American Jewish far-right so upset.

On Thursday evening, around fifteen people gathered outside the Upper East Side institution, under umbrellas, to stage a protest against the cultural center. Despite the small crowd, the energy and frustration were palpable. Led by Richard Allen and Helen Freedman, the mostly middle-aged demonstrators were joined by a few elderly people, and two or three young children who came with their parents. The rain and humidity would not deter their plans.

A collective known as JCCWatch, a volunteer group that protests allegedly anti-Israel activity enabled by local Jewish community centers, organized the protest—the latest in a series against 92Y. In this case, the protests were against the 92Y’s “financially and morally corrupt” leadership, arguing that the guest speakers they invite are anti-Israel and many are actually leaders within the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) against Israel. JCCWatch advertised the Thursday protest by posting a message on their website: “Enough! STOP HOSTING ISRAEL-HATERS WORKING TO DESTROY THE JEWISH STATE!”

Allen founded JCCWatch a few years back when he noticed that the The Other Israel Film Festival, a project through the JCC in Manhattan, partnered with groups like the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem and the liberal umbrella group The New Israel Fund. JCCWatch’s website argued that these groups “actively partner with or link to groups that, in addition to their stated missions, support, fund, or closely work with” BDS groups. Since the JCC in Manhattan and the 92Y are beneficiary agencies of the UJA-Federation, a funder of Jewish communal causes, JCCWatch argues that under no circumstances should they “partner with, link, or in any way support any of these despicable BDS groups.”

The other protest leader, Helen Freedman, serves as the Executive Director of a group known as Americans For A Safe Israel, which was founded in 1970 as the American counterpart to the Greater Israel movement. The Greater Israel movement pushes for Jewish settlement and control throughout all of Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Shouting into a megaphone at the protest, Freedman yelled, “The declaration that Israel is occupied is absurd. The declaration that settlements are an obstacle to peace is absurd. 92nd Street Y is an obstacle to peace!”  

The 92Y and UJA-Federation of New York seem intent on ignoring the protests. Neither returned requests to comment for this article. No one from the 92Y was willing to comment during Thursday’s protest either. I asked a protester on the street, who identified herself as Peggy, if there had been any response from the 92Y since the first protest and she said no.

While I watched these agitated people pass out flyers and attempt to talk to passersby, I couldn’t help but notice the way they were being ignored. “When we try to talk to them about it, they don’t get back to us!” cried Freedman into the megaphone. “Why are groups like my organization never invited to speak at the 92nd Street Y? We’re a national pro-Israel organization.” 

An elderly woman I spoke to named Charlotte told me, “We are objecting to the Y having so many entertainers and speakers against Israel and who are also for the boycott of Israel. We don’t want the Jewish charity money to be given to anti-Israel people.” Specifically she was referring to guests invited to speak like literary icon Alice Walker and former Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters, both harsh critics of Israel and backers of BDS. 

But JCCWatch’s objections weren’t limited to advocates of BDS gaining a platform at the 92Y: protesters railed against the decision to invite Jeremy Ben-Ami, the founder of the pro-Israel lobby J Street, to speak this coming fall too. “Groups like J Street, The New Israel Fund, and B’Tselem do not care about Israel,” Allen shouted into the megaphone.

Because JCCWatch often professes views that fall outside the political mainstream, Jewish leaders and communal members tend to dismiss them. Yet whereas groups like J Street have repeatedly advocated for a “wider tent” and “a seat at the table” when they encounter opposition, JCCWatch takes a more hostile approach to the American Jewish Establishment’s efforts to marginalize them. 

“Nineteen U.S. embassies are closed right now,” Freedman said into the megaphone, referring to the mass-closure of American diplomatic outposts in the Middle East and North Africa on grounds of a security threat. “Americans are on the run because institutions like the 92nd Street Y fail in their responsibility to their donors and to their members. This is a disgrace.”

JCCWatch’s mission is to staunch donations to Jewish institutions like the UJA-Federation until they start inviting sufficiently pro-Israel speakers. “Please pay attention!” Allen said at the protest. “Know where your dollars are going. Close your wallets!”

On a civic level, their actions were wholly democratic. These were constituents with a grievance—local New York Jews, who were staging a non-violent protest to voice their concerns. Six NYPD officers were dispatched to supervise the event, and as one officer said to me, “This is their First Amendment right.” 

Yet notably, these individuals who hold oft-dismissed political views do not seem to care that Pro-Palestinian perspectives are also frequently ignored within the Jewish community. Suffice to say that marginalization and McCarthyite attacks occur from both the left and the right of the political spectrum. 

Whether or not the 92Y chooses to engage or respond to JCCWatch is unclear, but either way, their next protest will take place, as scheduled, on Thursday, September 12th.

College Organizing and the BDS Controversy

Originally published in The Daily Beast on February 6, 2013.

In thinking through the most recent BDS controversy now unfolding at Brooklyn College—where the political science department is co-sponsoring a panel in support of a controversial movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel over its policies—it is helpful to keep in mind some of the basic rules of college organizing. Students understand these intuitively, but adults often confuse them. The most important one, obviously, is that free food is the best recruiting tool there is to bring students to events.

But beyond food, students know that co-sponsorship does not equal endorsement. It has to be that way. If a student group contacts your organization saying they have a speaker they want to bring to campus and would like your co-sponsorship, how can you be sure their speaker will say 100 percent things your organization agrees with? You can’t. Thus it’s implicitly understood that you will co-sponsor on principle, because you believe this is the type of discussion or event that should be happening at your school. After the event, you have the prerogative of holding whatever debrief or critical analysis your group sees fit. You might also make a point to open the event with the acknowledgement that there are multiple perspectives on an issue. But you all agree that sharing views, whether or not they are your own, is a worthy thing to do in an academic setting. And you understand that working collaboratively on events is often the only way to afford any programming at all.

Last semester, a student group at Johns Hopkins (where I’m currently an undergraduate) organized an event called “Living Under Drones at JHU,” which was created to raise awareness about drone warfare and to start a public discussion about the role the Hopkins Applied Physics Lab plays in drone development. At the event, a petition was circulated to demand Hopkins halt drone research until more information is brought into the public forum. The Johns Hopkins Political Science department proudly co-sponsored this event because they support students organizing events like these. Everyone understood that that does not mean the Political Science department endorses anti-drone activity, or the petition itself, and that even if they did, they would not be able to go on record about it. I thought it was great that the school provided institutional support to student efforts, legitimizing the students’ drive to have conversation, while not endorsing any specific views.

A third rule of college organizing is that controversy sells. If BDS opponents think that a public uproar against it will make students uninterested in the material, then they should probably consider enrolling in Intro to Psychology. When the University President and Political Science professors support the event and government officials and activists oppose it, who do they think students will trust more? To be sure, the Brooklyn College Political Science department should make clear that there are multiple views on this issue and that they fully support events that present alternative perspectives.

I am against BDS, but I’ve reached this position through many long, difficult conversations trying to wrap my head around what it is about it that I agree and disagree with. I’m grateful that J Street U, the student wing of the liberal pro-Israel group, gave me the opportunities to hold those discussions, and even exposed me to speakers who do support it in order to challenge me. The BDS movement exists, it is influential, and it is growing. Trying to shove the issue under the rug does not make the ideas disappear. The only reason that I feel comfortable opposing BDS is that I’ve been given the honest chance to research, discuss and figure out what I really think about it.

Many of us grew up in American public schools where boycotts are taught as quintessential, proud staples of our country’s history. We’re raised to venerate the bus boycotts of the Civil Rights movement. We applaud labor boycotts as a non-violent means for workers to protest fairer conditions. We understand that the international boycott played a major role in helping to end the apartheid regime in South Africa.

My point is, if Jewish community leaders think it is self-evident that boycotts are a poor tactic for opposing occupation, they’re unfortunately mistaken. For many students, that question is confusing. So when Hillels across the country say they refuse to associate with BDS speakers or to even hold discussions about BDS because they’re “drawing a red line,” who do you then think will ultimately be left to influence students’ perspectives on BDS? Chances are it won’t be the pro-Israel students who didn’t come to the table. And that’s a real missed opportunity on the pro-Israel community’s part.

The real way to battle bad ideas is with better ideas. Hillels should feel confident in the merits of their arguments against BDS. Especially at college, when students are continually confronted with perspectives of the world that challenge, confuse and contradict what we think, we really need individuals who support us in making sense of it all, not those who dismiss or reject ideas from the outset.