Skip To Content
JEWISH. INDEPENDENT. NONPROFIT.
News

Federations Bounce Israel Critics From Contest

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 [email protected] or on Twitter @joshnathankazis

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.