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Pressed over liberal politics, Jewish public affairs group declares independence

After years of waning influence, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs will stop officially representing dozens of Jewish federations across the country

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs presents an unabashedly progressive agenda to federal policymakers and the public: expanding abortion access, ending jail for immigration violations and stopping climate change are among its priorities.

Those positions are largely aligned with a large majority of American Jews. But despite the JCPA’s strong support for Israel, it’s caused headaches in recent years for the Jewish federation system, which financially backs the group but is itself supported by many donors who are more conservative than most Jews.

That tension came to a head earlier this year when the Jewish Federations of North America reportedly pressured JCPA, long considered part of the Jewish establishment, to fold itself into the larger organization, and perhaps mute its progressive advocacy, or break away and lose the funding it receives from dozens of dues-paying federations across the country.

The organization announced Monday that it will go the independent route, ending its longstanding role officially speaking on behalf of 125 Jewish “community relations councils,” almost all of which are part of local federations, and 16 Jewish national organizations, in a bid to be more forceful in its advocacy.

Those behind the slate of changes hope that a revamped JCPA can more easily walk an increasingly challenging tightrope. They aim to ensure the Jewish establishment is present in progressive coalitions to support causes many American Jews believe in, while also keeping a check on hostility toward Israel during a moment when major Jewish organizations have taken an increasingly combative approach toward left-wing critics of Israel.

“The consequences of the Jewish community not being fully present at various tables in the inter-group social justice arena can be significant,” said Doug Kahn, who led the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council for nearly 30 years and worked on the restructuring.

Last year, a local chapter of an environmental group left a voting rights coalition over the participation of JCPA and two other Jewish organizations, and Jewish students who support Israel have found themselves pushed out of some progressive clubs on college campuses.

Kahn said the new JCPA was drawing support both from people whose primary interest is strengthening Jewish support for progressive policies, as well as those focused on defending Israel. UJA-Federation of New York will provide funding for the organization’s first three years, during which time JCPA hopes to grow its staff from five to as many as 18.

Waning influence

The JCPA was founded 78 years ago as the National Community Relations Advisory Council to represent the country’s Jewish local advocacy arms, known as community relations councils, which paid dues to the national organization and shaped its policy agenda. For many decades it was a powerful arm of the Jewish establishment, though its influence has faded in recent years as national organizations like the American Jewish Committee and Jewish Federations of North America have focused more of their political work on supporting Israel.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs has emphasized its advocacy for Israel in recent years, bringing it in line with the priorities of major national organizations like the Jewish Federations of North America, which financially supports its work. Photo by Jewish Council for Public Affairs

David Bernstein, who served as JCPA’s chief executive from 2016 until 2021, emphasized the organization’s Israel portfolio — including staunch opposition to the boycott movement aimed at the country — although its liberal domestic priorities remained intact. Conflict between those agenda items and more conservative donors in the federation system boiled over in 2020 after JCPA signed onto an open letter published in The New York Times in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, according to a report in JTA.

David Bohm, the organization’s board chair, said under its new model the JCPA will create two coalitions — one focused on its historic, liberal priorities, and another more narrow one focused on democracy and fair elections — and allow any Jewish organization to participate in either or both.

“Even where there’s a large consensus on an issue, there are communities that don’t feel comfortable speaking on that issue,” said Bohm. “This gives them the choice to not be seen as part of a coalition on a particular issue.”

Finding its footing

While the new organization will continue to work on issues including racial justice and criminal justice reform, gun violence, LGBTQ rights, immigration and abortion, asked whether it would sign a similar statement of support for Black Lives Matter, Bohm was more circumspect.

“We never endorsed the Black Lives Matter movement,” he said. “We said, ‘Black lives matter.’ I think we would still say Black lives matter.”

And on Israel, it remains unclear where the restructured organization will fall on working with progressive groups that are opposed to Zionism. “I don’t think you can necessarily say that every anti-Zionist sentiment is antisemitic but clearly many of those sentiments cross those lines,” Bohm said during a Zoom interview Thursday. A few minutes later, Bohm asked to answer the question again. “Not every statement questioning policies of the Israeli government is antisemitic,” he said.

Bohm added that the organization might sit in coalitions with anti-Zionist groups.

Elana Broitman, who oversees public affairs for the Jewish Federations of North America, praised the organization’s new structure.

“It’s important for organizations to evolve alongside the communities they serve and the societies around them, and we are pleased that the efforts to set a new strategy for JCPA have borne fruit,” she said in a statement.

Nancy Kaufman, the former longtime director of the Boston Jewish Community Relations Council, said the new JCPA would help smaller Jewish organizations focused on social justice work with Jewish communities around the country.

While the JCPA currently has 16 national member organizations in addition to the local councils, they’re all legacy groups such as the Anti-Defamation League, Hadassah and Reform movement. And the organization never incorporated the crop of liberal Jewish groups that sprung up in the 1990s and 2000s and which are represented by the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, like American Jewish World Service, Keshet and Hazon.

She added that even many federation staff — who typically oversee local community relations councils and worried that JCPA’s policy positions were alienating some federation donors — would still be glad to see a strong organization speaking out in favor of those issues on behalf of the community.

“A lot of federations do believe that it’s important to have,” she said, “they just don’t want to say ‘the Louisville, Kentucky federation signed onto X’ — but they want to know it’s happening.”

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