The American Jewish community has a problem. Our institutions — Hillels, Jewish community centers, synagogues, day schools — are increasingly beholden to a group of wealthy donors whose politics are far out-of-line with the majority of the American Jewish community. For instance, though American Jews supported the Iran deal by wide margins, 55 Jewish federations and community relations councils across the country either declared their opposition to the deal or expressed strong reservations, while none expressed support.
Nowhere is this problem more apparent than in Jewish institutions’ attempts to suppress discourse about Israel, especially on college campuses. Nearly three years ago, the Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance (a Hillel-affiliated student group) was barred from holding a conversation inside Hillel about the occupation of the West Bank with the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee. Harvard Hillel’s director explained that the event was disallowed by Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership for Israel Activities. Interestingly, though, the Hillel director received calls from area funders, such as Combined Jewish Philanthropies (the Jewish Federation of Greater Boston) warning him that if the event were to proceed, Harvard Hillel would see much of its funding withdrawn. Progressive Jews were sent a clear message: you cannot talk about Israel in Hillel if your conversation includes Palestinians as equal partners.
In response, students at Harvard launched the Open Hillel campaign to abolish Hillel’s Standards of Partnership, which exclude Jewish students from Jewish campus life, inhibit collaboration with progressive campus groups, and prevent Jewish students from engaging in dialogue with their Palestinian classmates. Students from colleges and universities around the country soon joined the effort, with rabbis, professors, and other Jewish community members following suit. Over the past three years, though support for ending these restrictions has increased, one roadblock prevents communities from lifting the restrictions: money. Put simply, if Jewish community groups were to welcome a broader discourse on Israel, they could lose their funding.
Some of this funding, of course, comes from individual donors and foundations, who have no particular responsibility to Jewish communities writ large. But a great deal of this funding comes from one organized source: the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), which serves as an umbrella group and primary donor for Jewish life across the U.S. and Canada. The JFNA, which proudly calls itself “the central address of North American Jewry,” consists of 450 affiliates and distributes over two billion dollars annually to thousands of Jewish institutions across the continent.
The JFNA should be accountable to its constituents — that is, to North American Jews — and it ought to support the development of vibrant and pluralistic American Jewish life. However, rather than promoting pluralism and open debate, the Federations currently use their influence to impose a narrow vision of acceptable ways for American Jews to relate to Israel. Through their Israel Action Network project, the Federations promote a “broad tent and red lines” approach to Israel in Jewish communities and beyond, which promotes the idea that anyone deemed too critical of Israel — or seen as associating with those too critical of Israel — should not be allowed a communal voice.
Thus, the American Jewish community is caught in a situation where wealthy donors, with the help of the JFNA, are able to impose their views while repressing perspectives with which they disagree. At this critical juncture — a time when tensions are again flaring in Israel/Palestine, and when American Jewish leaders are trying to figure out how to inspire the next generation to live committed Jewish lives — the need for open conversation and welcoming Jewish communities is stronger than ever. Jews, young Jews in particular, should be able to intellectually engage with all sides of the Israel issue within a Jewish space, just like we allow similar open discussion on other topics such as God, kashrut and intermarriage.
The JFNA’s General Assembly, which will take place from November 8-10, provides a perfect illustration of the ways in which the Federations have abandoned their communal mandate in favor of pleasing donors. At the GA — which it costs $500 to attend — attendees will learn about “finding corporate support” for Jewish communities and “insights on high net worth donors.” They will also hear about how to promote a “healthy” discourse on Israel (that is, how to exclude overly critical perspectives) and how to effectively “fight BDS” on campus — whether or not Jewish students in fact want their campus Jewish communities to be turned into political training camps where their perspective is decided for them.
On November 8, Jewish students, professors, rabbis and ordinary community members of all backgrounds will gather in Washington, D.C., for a gathering of our own: the Jewish People’s Assembly. At this assembly, organized by Open Hillel, we will meet to discuss the most urgent needs of North American Jewish communities — the needs that the Federations consistently fail to address. We will demand that the Jewish Federations of North America stop holding Jewish communities hostage to their donors’ Israel politics by conditioning their support on adherence to red lines around Israel. And we will ask that the Federations enact a policy of actively supporting and promoting political pluralism and open debate around Israel in North American Jewish communities — a debate that should include everyone from the far right to the far left.
It is no easy task to hold our institutions accountable to the people they ought to serve. Yet while money is important for the functioning of any communal institution, the people who make up that community are even more essential. Without us — American Jewish students, professionals and community members — the Federations have no purpose and no mission. So let’s demand democratic accountability. Let’s call for openness and pluralism. Let’s reclaim our Jewish communities.
Caroline Morganti is a senior at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Internal Coordinator of Open Hillel.