eJP Interview Series

‘Get Your Phil’ with Ron Halber

The additional staff member hired by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington for its education department was meant to free up the director for “higher level” initiatives. Instead, since Oct. 7, it’s been an all-hands-on-deck as the organization has scrambled to respond to over 100 antisemitic incidents in schools, the JCRC’s executive director, Ron Halber, told eJewishPhilanthropy Managing Editor Judah Ari Gross in the latest installment of “Get Your Phil.”

“We have responded in this region to over 100 anti-Semitic incidents since the war started. And it could be a teacher inappropriately using their work email to state their view. It could be a Jewish student being socially ostracized. Or it could be a swastika. And it’s non-stop,” Halber said.

“We received the money for this grant, which was an $80,000 grant from our federation, which we’re grateful for, that allowed us to hire a second person. The goal was to allow the second person to run our programs… and then the idea was to allow Sarah Winkleman [the JCRC’s director of education, program and services] to work on some more higher level stuff with school boards and with the administration. But October 7th changed everything. Now everybody’s doing more of everything. Our associate director is [also] probably spending half of her time working on this. So I would say the JCRC right now has two and a half professionals who work full time on issues of antisemitism in the schools, in workplaces. And of course I get involved myself. It’s all time consuming.”

Halber said that he expects Israel to be a top priority for local Jews ahead of November’s election, even has prior surveys have shown that it is normally not a top-10 issue.

“I do think that whereas Israel has been lower [on American Jews’ list of policy priorities], I think it’s going to be more in the mindset of American Jews in this election cycle because of the war and certainly antisemitism. There’s not even a doubt in my mind about that,” he said.

As Maryland prepares for a tight Senate race, Halber said that the Jewish community appears to be turning away from the incumbent Chris Van Hollen.

“The polls show that if you know that it’ll be a tight… [Larry] Hogan said the latest poll shows him winning by 16 points. I don’t believe that. I don’t think that’s what that would be that happened. I think it’ll all depend, first of all, on who is his opponent,” Halber said.

“The Washington Jewish Week just put out a op-ed which said basically that Chris is no longer a friend, and I was quoted saying that he’s hemorrhaging support. He’s really, really hemorrhaging support… And this is hard for me because I worked with Chris all the way from when he was in the state senate. He ran for Senate against Donna Edwards. The Jewish community was clearly pro-Chris. Donna Edwards was terrible on Israel. But ever since the war came, there’s been a dramatic shift. We always knew the senator had some issues, but he had been supportive of placing the warships that are protecting Israel. He was always in support of Iron Dome funding, he was supportive of military aid. But now he has not just become the most evocative [critic of Israel], he’s leading the effort at this point… He’s become the head of the anti-Israel caucus, I hate to say it… [But] the bottom line is if you are against providing Israel military aid, you’ve hit the third rail of American Jewish politics at this point,” he said.

Reflecting on the growing prevalence of local government resolutions criticizing Israel or calling for a ceasefire, Halber advocated a tough tack of shutting them down at all costs.

“I know some of my colleagues want to wordsmith these resolutions. I’m against that. I think it’s nonsense,” he said. “Our job is to stop these resolutions from happening. Just stop them, and we’ve stopped them. Except for Takoma Park, which is a very isolated — some people would call it the socialist hamlet of our county… But in none of the other major cities has it happened, it hasn’t happened with Montgomery County Council. It’s not going to happen. They’re trying to push for it at the DC council. It will not happen. If they tried to push it in Virginia or Maryland on the state level, it will not happen,” he said. “And I believe in a very, very aggressive response to these resolutions because I think what you’re seeing happening is that the anti-Israel activists are frustrated at their lack of ability in Congress to get what they want. So they’re directing their energy towards local and state government where it’s easier to stoke the flames at the grassroots and get resolutions passed.”

Watch the full recording below.