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.