An honest conversation about JFREJ
“We need,” a spokesperson for the Anti-Defamation League told JTA reporter Jacob Henry last month, “to have an honest conversation about JFREJ.” I’ve been a proud member of Jews For Racial & Economic Justice for about a decade, and so I welcome that honest conversation.
But the ADL spokesperson’s comments came after one of the lesser known NY-10 congressional candidates used Twitter to attack our organization. He accused JFREJ members of pretending to be a part of “the mainstream Jewish community” and later called our organization’s electoral arm, cheekily called The Jewish Vote, antisemitic. He also targeted individual members of JFREJ in his tweets, who then were subject to a torrent of online harassment.
To my surprise, ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt retweeted one of the candidate’s anti-JFREJ Twitter threads, and his spokesperson used a subsequent interview about the thread to denounce JFREJ more explicitly — something the candidate has since repeatedly seized upon to further elevate his smears.
On its own, Greenblatt’s retweet was an insult to Jews like me who live in the district, and to our friends and neighbors. But the harm was heightened because the move came in a national context of right-wing Jews targeting Jews on the left: AIPAC declaring that synagogue president and Michigan Congressperson Andy Levin was their biggest target for defeat; attacks on left-wing Jews for holding unorthodox havdalah services; and years of denunciations, expulsions, and firings of Jews who stray from an Israel-right-or-wrong line.
Regardless of the context, I’m eager to have an honest conversation about JFREJ. So here is some honesty: JFREJ has 6,000 members, of whom 4,500 live in New York. For many of us, JFREJ is our primary Jewish affiliation, our Jewish and political home. We don’t just organize and march with JFREJ; we build Jewish ritual, we celebrate holidays, we make friends. JFREJ and The Jewish Vote are loudly and proudly the home of New York’s Jewish Left.
JFREJ was founded in 1990 because, then as now, a coterie of conservatives claimed to speak for all of New York’s Jews. Large legacy Jewish organizations tried to force the recently freed anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela to submit to an ideological litmus test before they would welcome him to the city, and many local groups and Jewish leaders deliberately snubbed him because of his solidarity with Palestinians.
It fell to JFREJ, a then-small upstart, to welcome Mandela on his first trip to New York. JFREJ’s first public event was a thousand-person Shabbat service to welcome and honor him, which raised $30,000 (the equivalent of nearly $70,000 today) for his anti-apartheid work.
In the decades since, JFREJ has become a crucial leader in struggles for racial and economic justice, against antisemitism, to expand democracy, to build a caring economy and to dismantle the injustices of the criminal legal system.
Neither JFREJ nor any other organization can or should claim to speak for all of New York’s Jews. JFREJ never has. But JFREJ is firmly within the Jewish mainstream, both of the country and the city.
In poll after poll, the vast majority of American Jews report that they believe in the policies we advocate for. In one recent poll of American Jewish voters, for instance, 71% of respondents opposed laws in Florida, Texas, and Georgia to restrict voting rights, 75% said they were concerned about the repeal of Roe v. Wade, and 68% said they supported teaching the truth of American racial history and politics in public schools.
Over and over, the majority of American Jews tell pollsters they want more democracy, a bigger welfare state, and more racial justice. Jewish voters tend to vote on domestic, social, and environmental issues. In the same recent poll, respondents were asked to pick the two issues they wanted federal politicians to focus on. Climate change, voting rights, and jobs and the economy — three issues around which JFREJ organizes — were by far the leading choices. Only 4% of respondents answered “Israel.” These findings reflect what those who study American Jews have found for years: The mainstream of American Jewry votes on the domestic issues championed by the left, not on Israel policy.
Right-wing forces are especially eager to weaken any alliance that includes immigrants, Muslims, Black people and Jews. These attacks continue the McCarthyite tradition of disrupting leftist movements by calling attention and objecting to the presence of Jews in them. How horrifying that the ADL, which still calls itself a civil rights organization, would join this tradition.
Like other JFREJ members, I am happy to have an honest conversation about our organization, even when prompted by empirically false attacks. But as over 75 Jewish leaders demanded last week, for honesty’s sake, the ADL and its CEO Jonathan Greenblatt must apologize.
To contact the author, email [email protected].