Until late last week, Cecilie Surasky had been riding high in the top 10 of the Jewish Community Heroes online contest, with more than 1,400 votes to her name.
On Oct. 7, she went from hero to zero.
Organizers from the Jewish Federations of North America dropped Surasky from the contest because of her role as deputy director of the Oakland-based Jewish Voice for Peace, a group they say espouses views antithetical to the mission of Jewish federations.
According to a statement, Surasky and another nominee, JVP national executive director Rebecca Vilkomerson, were removed because JFNA “cannot recognize individuals whose organization supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, while JFNA is strongly advocating … to counter BDS and other efforts to isolate and weaken the Jewish State.”
“Part of me thought it might happen, but I was pretty shocked when it did,” Surasky said. “They certainly have the right to set the rules as they see fit. They can disqualify people. But there’s a bigger issue at stake. Well after nominations closed, well after thousands voted, they essentially declared their votes null and void.”
Now in its third year, the contest solicits the public for nominees who exemplify Jewish community activism. Submissions closed on Sept. 27, with more than 330 people from across the country on the list. Surasky was among six Bay Area nominees this year. The ultimate winner, chosen by a panel of 18 judges, will be announced in December. The top Hero will receive $25,000, with four runners-up taking home $1,000 each.
Though pro-Israel activists noticed JVP members had been nominated and brought it to the attention of contest officials, JFNA spokesman Joe Berkofsky said the decision to remove nominees was “totally our own” and not subject to outside pressure.
He also said his organization was within its rights to remove the names of Surasky and Vilkomerson.
“The point of the contest is to recognize people doing great work in the community,” he said. “The rules expressly state that the people and the project have to support the mission of the federations. It can’t be something that goes against that. JVP very clearly supports BDS.”
Jewish Voice for Peace considers itself a peace organization working to end the Israeli presence in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem. It also states on its website that it “defends activists’ right to use the full range of BDS tactics,” and it supports the “Palestinian refugees’ right of return … including return, compensation and/or resettlement.”
San Francisco pro-Israel activist Dr. Mike Harris of StandWithUs/SF Voice for Israel said some of his organization’s members wrote emails to JFNA expressing their displeasure that JVP officials had made the list.
He also said JFNA did the right thing in removing Surasky and Vilkomerson because, he said, they were nominated “on false pretenses.”
“Their work is not in the spirit of the work of the federations,” Harris said. “The mission of the federations includes support of Israel. The work of JVP consistently undermines Israel as a Jewish state. More specifically, the federations have a rule against supporting BDS activities.”
Another rule on the Heroes website declares that organizers reserve the right to change the contest rules as necessary. Just as Surasky and Vilkomerson’s names were scrubbed, an addendum to the rules went up: “Nominees are not eligible if they were nominated for a cause that runs directly counter to the ideals of [JFNA].”
That did not sit well with Surasky.
“What kind of a contest is it when you write in the fine lines that you can move the goal posts in the middle,” she said, “where it says ‘Nominate your Jewish hero,’ but some Jews are OK, and some are not?”
Harris thinks the views embraced by JVP are “outside the community tent, because they refuse to simply support Israel as a Jewish state.
“They are throwing Molotov cocktails at the tent, and at the same time they’re demanding to be let into it and be part of official Jewish community activities,” Harris said, adding that allowing JVP leaders to be nominated in the Heroes project is “no different from an anti-abortion activist entering a Planned Parenthood contest.”
Berkofsky hopes the Jewish community will focus on the positive aspects of the 3-year-old Heroes project, such as last year’s winner, Jay Feinberg, who used his prize money to expand his Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation and actually saved lives because of it.
“We’re really proud of the Jewish Heroes contest,” Berkofsky said. “We’ve been able to recognize many deserving heroes, and it’s helped our winners expand their volunteerism efforts. We feel there is a much bigger picture.”