Stress test for JCRCs’ strategy in wake of Hamas attacks

Coalition-building approach yield successes, but K-12 schools and universities emerge as a major challenge with rising antisemitism on campus

Across the country, Jewish Community Relations Councils and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs have based their efforts on coalition-building and on “being in relationship” with different communities — minority groups, religious denominations, LGBTQ organizations and others. 

That overarching strategy has been put to the test this past month following the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel and the ensuing rising in antisemitism across the United States (and the rest of the world).

The past three weeks have laid bare the successes, failures and challenges of that JCRC system and identified likely focuses for the organizations going forward.

Jewish community advocates told eJewishPhilanthropy that they have seen significant successes in their work with elected officials, particularly those involved in national and state politics, but less so with local and city governments. Many prominent faith leaders, particularly Christian and Catholic leaders, have also appeared at solidarity rallies and penned statements and opinion pieces sympathetic to Israel and the Jewish community, as have leaders of national nonprofit organizations, such as the Ford Foundation, which advocates credited to years-long efforts to engage with them.

“I think there’s a lot that has been heartbreaking, but elected officials on the national level and also on the local level have been showing up in many places and, in many cases, in places that matter,” Amy Spitalnick, CEO of JCPA, told eJP last week. “And that is the result of deep relationships with the JCRCs and others.”

At the same time, schools — both K-12 and higher education — have emerged as areas of significant difficulty, with institutions releasing equivocating statements about the Oct. 7 attacks and failing to address antisemitism on campus.

“That’s going to be one of the biggest takeaways from this is our high schools in particular need a lot more attention,” Tyler Gregory, CEO of the JCRC Bay Area, told eJP.

While some national trends have emerged, in most cases, the situations vary city by city. In some areas, JCRCs have had significant success with Black groups or Latino groups, while in others those relationships have not resulted in the full-throated statements of solidarity that the Jewish community would have hoped for.

In general, Amy Spitalnick, who entered her role at JCPA earlier this year as part of the organization’s push toward coalition building (and away from its previous consensus model), said the events of the past three weeks have only strengthened the resolve of JCRCs and JCPA of the need to maintain connections with other communities. As part of its shift toward coalition building and restructuring, the JCPA officially became independent of the JCRCs and Federation system, though it still works closely with them.

“For me and for every single JCRC director or other professional or leader I’ve spoken with, it only makes community relations that much more urgent,” Spitalnick told eJP last week. “We know that in moments like this, the loudest, most extreme voices seek to tear communities apart and exploit these moments to really create the fissures to undermine broader efforts that have been going on for years.”

Gregory, whose organization is based in one of the most progressive parts of the country, said that its connections with other groups has indeed yielded successes, even if they are not always immediately apparent.

“We as a Jewish community like to focus on the most negative things happening. But for every fire that we’re having right now, there’s 10 that we’re not having because of our relationship building and community relations,” Gregory said.

Spitalnick stressed the importance of remembering that “those extreme voices get disproportionate attention… and so it’s important to not lose sight of the fact that there are many from diverse communities who are actually showing up for us.”

She said that building those coalitions and relationships will require finding “points of commonality,” even when there are disagreements between the Jewish community and other groups about certain issues.

“That doesn’t mean that they are necessarily agreeing with everything that we believe when it comes to what is happening next in Israel and Gaza,” she said. “But [they] are recognizing that the Jewish community is in pain, that the massacre of Israeli civilians [was] the deadliest attack on Jews since the Holocaust, that there’s very real impacts on the Jewish community here, in terms of our fear and our grief, and [they have] shown us in solidarity.”

Spitalnick added that even as JCPA and JCRCs look for common ground despite differences, “obviously there are red lines,” which would require the Jewish community to cut or refrain from building ties with certain groups. “There are some who have, for example, characterized Hamas’ massacre of Israeli civilians as ‘resistance.’ I have a hard time seeing a path forward [with them],” she said, not specifying a particular group.

Gregory said his JCRC has seen particular success with its outreach to the Asian American community in recent years, particularly following the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw an increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans.

“We did a joint solidarity mission to New York and D.C. at the beginning of this year to talk about rising hate against both of our communities,” Gregory said. “The Asian community, I would say, has been the place where [coalition-building] has worked the best and where we’ll continue to invest.”

He said he was disappointed but not necessarily shocked by the lack of support from other minority groups.

“There have been people that have been silent that we hoped would be supportive,” Gregory said. “We largely know it’s because they have relationships with some of the Muslim groups so they’re sort of paralyzed, not wanting to offend anybody. Sometimes we’ve been able to figure out strategies to craft something that both condemns terror and mourns civilian losses on both sides. We think people can do both and should do both. But we haven’t seen anyone that we’ve had as an ally who came out against the community.”

Gregory added that the JCRC has had significant success with state and national elected officials, as well as with local politicians and leaders who have taken part on one of the trips to Israel that it or other Jewish groups have sponsored. He cited Calif. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Vice President Kamala Harris, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and San Francisco Mayor London Breed, “all of whom have been to Israel with us and all of whom have been perfectly on message around these issues.”

Gregory noted that in Richmond, Calif., where the city council passed a resolution condemning Israel by a vote of 5-1, the one vote against was cast by someone who visited Israel on a trip organized by the Jewish LGBTQ organization A Wider Bridge.

Regarding the resolution, Gregory said that the JCRC “knew we were going to lose that one” as the city does not have a significant Jewish population and has many elected officials, including the mayor and vice mayor, who are members of the Democratic Socialists of America, which has emerged as one of the most prominent anti-Israel voices in the U.S. 

Gregory said that the uproar over the resolution and the way in which the city council allowed its meeting to devolve into a free-for-all will prevent similar measures in other towns. “We hope that the messiness coming out of it will be a deterrent…. But we’re ready in case it does and we are monitoring a handful of cities closely where we think it could happen,” he said. 

Jeremy Burton, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, said Black, Latino and many Christian and Catholic groups have been supportive, which he credited not only to the work of his organization but of other Jewish organizations in Boston as well.

“I would say that the last couple of weeks have really shown that investing in quality relations in the Christian faith community and particularly in the Black community have really resulted in the kind of relationships of solidarity and understanding and comfort that one would expect and hope to see in times like this,” Burton said.

At the same time, he added, “we’ve also seen some places… and some communities where it’s been really hard and problematic, frankly.”

In terms of some interfaith efforts, Burton said, “there’s not a lot to say about Jewish-Muslim relations in Boston right now,” save for a few limited cases of outreach.

Burton said that while the Boston area has not yet seen any anti-Israel resolutions passed, he was closely monitoring the Boston and neighboring Cambridge city councils. On Oct. 10, a pro-Palestinian “victory march” was held outside the Cambridge City Hall. “Some council members denounced it. Not all of them, not even the majority of them, chose to respond. That’s disappointing. That’s problematic,” Burton said.

Burton and Gregory, who both work in areas with many colleges and universities, each said the rising antisemitism on college campuses has been a major challenge, which their organizations and their partners will have to put more energy into combating.

Burton said his focus is less on the actions of students and more on the responses to those actions by campus administrators.

“Campuses have a deep responsibility to be safe places for Jews to be present, public and Jewish without fear. Hard stop,” he said. “If a campus is not going to be off-limits for Jews, then it has to be safe for Jews. And when you hear stories of dorm administrators sending out all-dorm memos, supporting Hamas, that makes it unsafe for Jewish students.” (One such letter was sent by resident advisers at Massachusetts’ Wellesley College, in which they stated that there should be “no space, no consideration, and no support for Zionism” at the college. Administrators later forced the resident advisers to apologize.)

Burton also cited a case at Harvard University where administrators reserved a room for Jewish students to hide in during a pro-Palestinian protest. “That is literally saying: You’re Jews, here’s a ghetto, go hang out there,” he said. 

Burton said that while there are many organizations that work with students on campus, there has not been enough focus on working with campus administrators.

“Here’s the gap that needs to be filled. Here is the missing piece. We have to do it as the JCRC,” he said.

Gregory said that the campuses in his area, including Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley, have seen many of the same issues as in Harvard and other universities. 

At the same time, he said, “we’ve had some bright spots.” When the University of California San Francisco issued a statement that described the Oct. 7 attacks and Israel’s military responses as being morally equivalent, Gregory said the JCRC reached out.

“We were able to engage their leadership, and they basically apologized and came out with a statement saying and doing the right thing,” he said. “So, yes, we’re having a lot of problems, but they are solvable with the right relationships.”

While colleges and universities have become a flashpoint of anti-Israel and antisemitic incidents, they are not the only schools that JCRCs are worried about. 

“I would say the high schools are more concerning to us,” Gregory said, citing a video that was shared widely on social media showing students from a San Francisco high school chanting “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” as they staged a walkout

“I think the mediocre, if not problematic, general response we’ve seen from a lot of school districts underscores that focus going forward. There’s Jewish kids that don’t feel safe going to school right now,” he said.

The San Francisco JCRC was aware that this was an issue in local school districts because of the earlier fights in the California education system over the inclusion of ethnic studies in school curricula. Gregory said the JCRC had tried to prevent the organization that helped organize the walkout, the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, from working with the local public schools but to no avail.

“We advised the school districts a while ago not to do it, but AROC pitched themselves as being a Muslim and Arab education provider and not a BDS organization with inflammatory rhetoric,” Gregory said. “But they were the ones that led this Gaza walkout, and now everyone’s feeling the consequences of the district allowing a partnership with a hate organization.”

Gregory said that this situation has prompted the secular Israeli expats in the area, who often do not get involved with the local Jewish community, to connect with the JCRC and other Jewish groups to address the rising number of antisemitic and anti-Israel incidents in schools.

“One of the silver linings right now is that finally Israelis are working together with us on an organized response,” Gregory said.

Burton said the Boston JCRC was in the final stages of preparations for a public school engagement effort when the war began.

“We’re going to launch it this week. We ended up moving it up,” Burton said. “That’s something we’ve been working on for about 18 months to get the funding and staffing in place. The last few weeks showed us — gosh, I wish we had started five months ago.”

Burton said some public school districts put out supportive statements, while others “have done some very problematic things. And some of them quickly corrected and some did not.”

In Montgomery County, Md., the local JCRC issued a public statement denouncing the local public school system after the superintendent refrained from speaking about the Oct. 7 attacks, despite the county having a large Jewish and Israeli population.

“We reserve our greatest anger and disappointment for Montgomery County Public Schools,” the JCRC wrote. “Our school systems’ refusal to honestly name the largest slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust is infuriating and disheartening to our entire community.”

Spitalnick said that JCRCs and JCPA planned to focus more on people in leadership positions with direct control over the safety of Jews, particularly Jewish children, than on those whose power is more in their platform and who can “tweet what they want but is not going to have any real bearing on the day-to-day safety and experience of students,” without diminishing the risk posed by people with large social reach who can contribute to the normalization of antisemitism.

“There’s people who are in positions of responsibility and leadership that you sort of expect more from,” she said.