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.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.