Federations Bounce Israel Critics From Contest

Jewish Voices for Peace Leader Booted Despite Being Top Ten 'Hero'

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published October 12, 2011, issue of October 21, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The national umbrella organization for Jewish federations has removed harsh critics of Israel from an online voting contest designed to identify “heroes” within the Jewish community.

One of the excluded nominees, Jewish Voice for Peace Deputy Director Cecilie Surasky, was among the top 10 vote getters in the Jewish Community Heroes contest when Jewish Federations of North America officials pulled her name from the contest website.

Surasky’s organization takes no stand on a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict — today seen as a litmus test in much of the Jewish community for upholding Israel’s continued existence as both a Jewish and democratic state. JVP also does not condemn the movement for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel and was instrumental in organizing a protest at the JFNA’s 2010 General Assembly, at which the protesters disrupted an address by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“One of the core values of the Jewish Federations is to support Israel, and our Jewish Heroes rules preclude us from accepting nominees whose aims run counter to our mission,” said Joe Berkofsky, a JFNA spokesman.

But JVP alleges that the contest changed its rules partway through. A comparison of current and cached versions of the JFNA’s website shows that the initial rules were amended to state that nominees are ineligible if they are “nominated for a cause that runs directly counter to the ideals of The Jewish Federations of North America.” No such language was evident a week before Surasky was removed.

Berkofsky denied that contest guidelines were amended. “The rules were never changed,” he said. “If anything, the rules were just clarified. The rules were always the same.”

Now in its third year, the Jewish Community Heroes contest features an open nomination process, Internet voting and a panel of judges to select a winner who will receive a $25,000 grant toward his or her philanthropic work. The contest is promoted heavily through social networking services and Jewish media websites.

Forward Editor Jane Eisner is among the contest’s 18 judges.

Surasky and JVP Executive Director Rebecca Vilkomerson were removed from the contest website in early October. Surasky had nearly 1,500 votes when her voting page was taken down, according to JVP.

The Jewish Heroes flap isn’t the first brush between Surasky and the JFNA. Though Surasky herself did not disrupt Netanyahu’s speech at the JFNA General Assembly, she was with the JVP staff member who accompanied the JVP protesters as they prepared for days near the convention hall.

“There’s no secret that we’re critical of things the Jewish Federation has done,” Surasky told the Forward. She noted that the JFNA had not cited her involvement in the protest as rationale for excluding her from the contest.

In a press release, JVP pointed to the presence among the top vote-getters of Manis Friedman, a Chabad rabbi who in 2009 declared his belief in “the Jewish way” to fight a war against the Arabs: “Destroy their holy sites. Kill men, women and children (and cattle.)” He later retracted the comments.

Surasky alleged that the JFNA was treating her group differently than right-wingers who opposed JFNA policy.

Berkofsky declined to comment on how the Jewish Community Heroes contest would enforce its rules in the future. But of the removal of the JVP activists from voting, Berkofsky said, “This wasn’t a difficult or complicated decision.”

Others acknowledged that monitoring nominees posed challenges. “These are not easy lines to draw,” said Ethan Felson, vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “But groups that abandon civility and shout down speakers have demonstrated that they are not interested in sitting at the table, either. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t shout down speakers and expect to be part of the conversation.”

Contest nominees are divided into two categories, one for those recognized for their work as volunteers and the other for those recognized for work in a professional capacity. At Forward press time, Leah Rubashkin, wife of jailed former Agriprocessors CEO Sholom Rubashkin, led the volunteer category. The page describing her candidacy praises her for raising her children and for her family’s philanthropy. Ultra-Orthodox Jews have broadly condemned Sholom Rubashkin’s 27-year prison sentence on bank fraud charges and have campaigned for his release.

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at nathankazis@forward.com or on Twitter @joshnathankazis


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.