At the beginning of this year, like he did every year, Alan Sussman asked the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle to donate some of his family fund’s money to a charity of his choice.
This time, though, things went awry.
That’s because the group Sussman wanted to support was IfNotNow, the left-wing Jewish group that has made its name protesting not only Israel but also American Jewish organizations themselves – including the Seattle Federation.
Citing the protests, the federation told Sussman that supporting IfNotNow would go against their policy of “build[ing] a cohesive Jewish community.”
The Federation’s refusal to support IfNotNow indicates a definition of cohesion that’s too simplistic, Sussman said.
“A cohesive Jewish community tolerates a certain amount of dissent,” he told the Forward. “It certainly shouldn’t eliminate it.”
When Sussman’s parents created their philanthropic fund more than 15 years ago, they agreed that the federation would be responsible for managing the money, and would take an annual fee in exchange for working to grow the original investment. Every year, the Sussmans would ask the federation to donate specified amounts of the fund to charities of their choice. The federation would technically get final say on the donations, but Sussman says no request was ever denied — until this year, when he wanted to support IfNotNow.
Since its founding in 2014, IfNotNow has become increasingly visible in its targeting of Jewish institutions that they see as complicit in Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Their most notable campaign involved leading walkouts of Birthright Israel trips, but they’ve also protested outside the headquarters of prominent national and local American Jewish institutions.
In 2018, IfNotNow’s Seattle chapter disrupted an Israeli Independence Day festival that was co-sponsored by the federation, according to its own Facebook post as well as a pro-Israel blogger who was there. Members held up a banner, sang songs and recited the Mourner’s Kaddish prayer to honor Palestinians who had been killed by the Israeli army while trying to breach the Gaza border fence.
It was these and other actions that led the federation to turn down Sussman’s request, according to an internal federation memo.
The federation said in a statement to the Forward that IfNotNow’s “primary organizing tactic, which involves publicly protesting other Jewish organizations,” was what violated their community cohesion policy and thus prevented them from approving the grant.
The federation also claimed to the Forward that IfNotNow harmed cohesion because of its “anti-dialogue approach.” The federation memo cited one of IfNotNow’s principles listed on its website: “We refuse to negotiate behind closed doors with institutions.”
Whether IfNotNow is “anti-dialogue” is debatable: During its actions outside Jewish groups’ headquarters, IfNotNow leaders often say that they had offered to meet with the leaders of the organizations they were protesting and were rebuffed – though according to JTA, both the Jewish Federations of North America and the Anti-Defamation League have said that they did agree to meet with IfNotNow, only to be rebuffed themselves.
Sussman didn’t buy that protests and community cohesion were incompatible, noting that many Israeli Jews themselves share IfNotNow’s anti-occupation views and frequently protest their own government. “[It’s] as if they thought the American Jewish community should be more cohesive than the Israeli Jewish community,” he said.
The federation denied to the Forward that the move had anything to do with IfNotNow’s anti-occupation politics, noting that it had approved of donations in previous years to progressive groups like the New Israel Fund and T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. And Sussman said that his fund gave to both of those not-for-profits through the federation.
But IfNotNow wasn’t convinced that it was only about the protests: Spokesperson Becky Havivi told the Forward in an email that the federation’s decision was “in order to protect the status quo” of American Jewish organizations’ strong support for the Jewish state.
Sussman wasn’t convinced either. “I wish the federation itself would become more accepting of dissent when it comes to matters involving the state of Israel,” Sussman said. “There shouldn’t be a line drawn to separate Jews from Jews who oppose certain Israeli policies.”
This is not the first time a local Jewish Federation has blocked a proposed donation to IfNotNow. In 2015, Lisa Greer, a board member of the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, saw her $5,000 donation to IfNotNow blocked by the institution. Three years later, the Forward revealed that another donor-advised fund at that foundation had donated $250,000 to the Israeli charity that runs Canary Mission, a website that creates blacklists of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic college students.
Sussman said he wasn’t sure if he would give to the federation in the future. He added that he appreciated the good works the organization has done over the years, but said that their refusal to allow a donation to IfNotNow showed that “they’re missing the boat — they’re making a disadvantageous calculation by isolating me and people who think like me.”