Here is the anatomy of a smear campaign.
I receive a press release from public relations executive Ronn Torossian sent out on February 21, a Saturday, slamming the president of UJA-Federation of New York, Alisa Doctoroff, for being a donor to the New Israel Fund. The NIF, Torossian declares, is an extreme left-wing organization “committed to working against the interests of Israel around the world.”
I read the email that night. The details are new, but the arguments that the NIF funds anti-Israel nonprofits are old, aired several years ago by a right-wing group in Israel, and so they aren’t newsworthy. I press delete.
The next day, Torossian offers to write an oped piece for the Forward on the subject with Hank Sheinkopf, a noted Democratic strategist. Sheinkopf’s name grants the pitch a bit more legitimacy and, since Doctoroff is a long-time family friend, I didn’t want to judge this on my own.
So I ask Gal Beckerman, our opinion editor, to consider the oped. He does, and echoes my prior conclusion. Nothing new here, and besides — it smacks of the kind of unsubstantiated ad hominem attacks that aren’t appropriate for the Forward.
The following day, February 23, an oped piece by Torossian appears on the Joint News Service, a Jewish wire service. Now Torossian is challenging the Jewish Community Relations Council’s decision to enable NIF to march in New York’s Celebrate Israel Parade in May.
The JCRC this year issued new guidelines stating that only groups opposing global efforts to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel will be allowed to march. NIF is publicly against BDS. No matter, Torossian says; it’s still supporting efforts to hasten Israel’s delegitimization and demise.
Doctoroff’s name is mentioned, now along with Karen Adler, a JCRC board member.
Then on February 24, Sheinkopf publishes his own column in the New York Observer decrying that an Israeli human rights lawyer who represents some of the organizations that NIF funds testified on behalf of the PLO at a recent terror trial in Manhattan. For this guilt by association, Sheinkopf urges that the NIF be defunded and ostracized.
I follow this without comment. This sort of internecine debate is of little interest and importance to our readers.
Until, on social media, I learn of the bus ads. Pamela Geller, a noted right-wing agitator, announces on March 2 that her organization, the American Freedom Defense Initiative, plans to roll out a nationwide ad campaign to “expose” Jewish organizations and individual leaders who support BDS. Starting with 100 public buses in New York City, Geller says she plans to take the campaign to Chicago, Boston and other cities.
And she’s intending to name names. In large, capital letters.
In addition to Doctoroff and Adler, these ads — pictured on Geller’s website — target Carol and Saul Zabar, Edith Everett, the Bronfman Foundation (there are more than one; she doesn’t specify) and even UJA-Federation.
“These leaders,” Geller writes, “are 21st century kapos, but worse.”
That’s when I decide to weigh in.
I ask UJA for an on-the-record response; the spokeswoman declines. I don’t blame her. Who would want to give oxygen to this destructive fire?
I do so with hesitation. I’m not here to defend NIF, which has a mission that is fair game to challenge and debate. And I’m not anxious to give this scurrilous campaign the publicity it so clearly craves.
But my hesitation is overwhelmed by the imperative to openly express outrage that this discussion has escalated to become so public and so personal. Put simply: these tactics should have no place in our community.
Doctoroff, Zabar, Bronfman, Everett — these are names ubiquitously identified with widespread, thoughtful charitable giving and voluntary service, to Israel and the Jewish people, and beyond. Is this what we do — splatter the names of outstanding individuals on public buses in the Diaspora’s largest and most important city, demeaning them and by extension ourselves?
Let the smear campaign end right now. It isn’t how we express our love and concern for Israel. It shows, instead, how unnecessarily cruel we can be to each other.
Anatomy of a Smear
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, is writer-at-large at the Forward and the 2019 Koeppel Fellow in Journalism at Wesleyan University. For more than a decade, she was editor-in-chief of the Forward, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward’s digital readership grew significantly, and won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.