the ask

JCRC-NY’s Gideon Taylor on Israel, Holocaust education and fighting antisemitism in New York

In the year and a half since Gideon Taylor took over as CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, the large nonprofit has confronted rising antisemitism, dealt with a new mayor and City Council, and continued to navigate a city whose population and rhythms are in constant flux

In the year and a half since Gideon Taylor took over as CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, the large nonprofit with a $9 million budget has confronted rising antisemitism, dealt with a new mayor and City Council, and continued to navigate a city whose population and rhythms are in constant flux. Taylor — who also serves as board president of the Claims Conference — sat down with eJewishPhilanthropy at the Midtown Manhattan office of JCRC this week to discuss antisemitism, elected officials’ changing attitudes toward Israel and what declines in Holocaust knowledge mean for the fight against hate. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

eJP: The time you’ve been in this job at JCRC has been a bit tumultuous. How are you feeling and what are you concerned about? Do you feel like the areas you work on have become more challenging in recent years?

Gideon Taylor: Firstly, we have an increasingly fractured Jewish community. Secondly, we have rising antisemitism both on the streets from the bottom up, and top down from the internet, influencers and personalities. A third challenge is it’s just a very rapidly changing political, demographic New York, and I think we need to stay ahead of that… Fourthly is the relationship with Israel and building support around Israel. All of those make this a tumultuous time.

What have you done to address those issues? What do JCRC, and the Jewish community more broadly, have left to do?

I think what we do and do well is connect with that rising leadership, the people who are going to be running New York, maybe in three years, five years, maybe in 10 years. So we started, at the high school level, a fellowship… for high school students. And we also have a program that we’re developing working on curriculum in high schools.

At the campus level, I think we’ve succeeded in engaging with the top leadership of [the City University of New York]. We took the chancellor and 12 CUNY presidents to Israel. I think that was pivotally important and that has opened up a set of dialogues between CUNY and Israeli institutions. It’s exposed the leadership of CUNY to many of the Israel issues that are on campus. It’s a challenge. Clearly, what happens in CUNY is a challenge.

Thirdly, the fellowships for young emerging leaders: So the newest fellowship is BridgesNY, which we have up and running. It is a group of young engaged folks in the political sphere who want to engage in civic engagement through JCRC and I think that’s incredibly important, and they’re going to visit Israel. They’re going to, probably, do a trip to Africa and to Israel.

The fourth piece is connecting with political leadership. We brought the 12 members of the City Council to Israel… The City Council is young, very different from its predecessors, diverse, majority female. It’s a new emerging leadership. I think engaging them in the complexity of the Middle East, it’s a challenge and really important. And we have, coming up soon, a trip of [State] Assembly members.

Council Speaker Adrienne Adams didn’t come on the trip, and there are concerns about a decline in sympathy for Israel in the council. Are there larger trends at play here, and is it possible to combat them?

Going to Israel for us is not about a person coming back from Israel waving a blue-and-white flag. It’s about people understanding the complexity… Certainly people are coming from different perspectives, perhaps, than earlier generations of City Council members came from. OK. That’s our challenge. But almost a quarter of the City Council — our biggest-ever delegation from the City Council in any recent memory — was on that visit. That’s important and that’s opening people’s minds. People will still have views about Israel and what goes on, and that’s fine. We just want a generation of rising leadership to be equipped and to have perspective on the diversity and complexity of views in Israel and the West Bank. 

How do Israel’s new government and the recent headlines impact that work?

I think the relationship to Israel is with the State of Israel, the people of Israel. Nor is the relationship between New York and Israel primarily around governments. It’s about understanding the breadth, depth, history, complexity of the Middle East, and I think that will remain the focus. For us, this is bigger and wider than any one government.

And it’s certainly challenging. Look, there’s obviously, in the Jewish community, deep concern about what the new government means for the State of Israel. I share that. 

People should understand what’s happening. We had in this office the head of the anti-racism unit in the [Israeli] Ministry of Justice, [who] was on a visit to New York. We invited people who have been on study tours to Israel recently… He’s Ethiopian… He talked openly about what are the challenges facing the Ethiopian community and other aspects of racism in Israel, and he didn’t pull any punches. And he said, “It’s hard and it’s complicated, and this is how I look at it.”

If we want relationships, deep relationships, they have to be about real issues, not about just what looks nice and what’s beautiful. 

But you probably want them to come away with a positive feeling about Israel. How do you try to accomplish that after the tough conversations?

I don’t think you can make sure of anything. In today’s world, there’s multiple sources of information, there’s multiple viewpoints. I think the goal is for people to understand the perspectives. Israel is a country, it’s not heaven, it’s a real country with real challenges and real problems and real issues — of course it has. My view is that it’s just better that people understand that complexity and go there, see it, hear the perspectives and understand what the challenges are for the Arab minority in Israel. Understand the problems and also understand the beauty and the remarkable country, and what Israel does and how it grapples with this.

You mentioned the city’s changing demographics. The demographics of the Jewish community are also changing — with surveys showing a growing Haredi population and a growing population of unaffiliated Jews. How does that affect your work?

We try to have a dialogue with all parts of the community, and I think we do have a dialogue with all parts of the community…. There are some issues that cross over, [such as] security. Security is an issue that cuts across the entire community. So we’re in close dialogue with everyone across the community around the issue of security… So that’s a key part of our dialogue with different parts of the community and a key role for JCRC. 

Is there another example similar to that? 

I think it’s the one that’s of most concern. Rising antisemitism is obviously of concern across the entire community. It’s probably the issue that we spend the most amount of time on at the moment…

We look at the issue of dealing with antisemitism and hate crimes through two very different lenses. One is through the lens of security, law enforcement, protection of the sites and working with the NYPD, FBI, what we do with CSI [the Community Security Initiative, which coordinates security for New York City-area Jewish institutions]… And on the other side, we work through education, dialogue, bringing people together, combating hate through fellowships, through bringing communities together. And I firmly believe that any kind of longer-term strategy to deal with rising antisemitism and rising hate crimes generally has to deal with both. Dealing only with law enforcement without dealing with how we share a society is doomed to fail and dealing only with dialogue without dealing with law enforcement will fail.

You also serve as board president of the Claims Conference, which conducted a survey showing decreased levels of Holocaust knowledge among millennials and Gen Z. Are you worried that that generational change will reduce the stigma around antisemitism?

This rise in antisemitism comes in some ways from two completely different directions. You have this on-the-street doubling of antisemitic incidents in two years, from the streets, from [the] bottom up. And you have a top-down normalization of antisemitism from influential figures and from social media. 

In terms of, how does Holocaust education tie into this? Look, I think that Holocaust education is not an end in itself. It’s not that people should have this level of historical knowledge for the sake of that. I think Holocaust education is an important tool in educating people about where hate can end up. And I think the thing that we hear from Holocaust survivors often is, you know, it didn’t start with Auschwitz… It started with words, started with things that were said and it started on the streets. 

And that’s what’s so concerning — that you have a generation growing up, where half of millennials in New York can’t name one concentration camp. Now, for the generation before, Auschwitz is a common language. It’s a guiding star that you have something in common — everyone understood that when you talked about Auschwitz, this was where humanity’s depravity can lead to. And that’s important because then people can understand, OK, this is where this can end up. When you have a generation growing up that doesn’t understand that, that doesn’t know what Auschwitz means, or the importance of Auschwitz, I think that’s challenging because I think that makes much more difficult the task of educating the generation about tolerance of acceptability of where hate can lead. 

Is the point knowing the word “Auschwitz” and what it means, or is the point knowing that there were death camps and unimaginable things happened at them?

It’s obviously not how many death camps a person can name. It’s understanding it. But [Auschwitz] is such a universal symbol on which humanity grew up in the period after the war and up to a few years ago. Sometimes you need iconic symbols in order to educate and that’s what Auschwitz was.

I think the flip side is… what the surveys also show is that young people, when asked the question, “Should there be more Holocaust education?” answer overwhelmingly yes… That gives me encouragement. It doesn’t mean that that solves an issue. But I think that that’s encouraging.

I think that Holocaust education, also, like everything we do, has to address today’s problem and tomorrow’s problem, not yesterday or yesterday’s approach. And I think that’s why the shift in Holocaust education is really important. So, for example, a developing set of materials on social media, I think, is incredibly important, because we have to meet the younger generation where they are, not where we are, or where we think they ought to be…

The fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors there are to speak in their own voices and to tell their own stories, the harder it is to tell that story… That said, there are also new techniques and new ways to communicate information about critical moments of history. And we, the Jewish community, have to be tuned into those, whether it’s social media, whether it’s film. We need to be tuned into new ways of communicating about issues that, yes, are further in the past, but that are pivotally important to who we are and who we want to be as a society.