For the first time in the Bay Area, the head of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation was a featured speaker at an event put on by the left-leaning student group J Street U.
Federation CEO Danny Grossman spoke at “Pluralism and Democracy in Israel and at Home,” held April 13 at San Francisco’s Congregation Sherith Israel. The appearance at a J Street U event by one of the Bay Area’s most prominent Jewish community leaders marks a symbolic shift in how the Federation perceives the student group. By appearing before the oft-marginalized organization, Grossman — and the Federation — appeared to welcome J Street U into the big tent of Jewish politics.
“They asked me to speak at the event, and I think it’s important for us to recognize them as part of the community,” Grossman said in a prior telephone interview. “The tone is a positive one, of collaboration. We’d like to identify the places we agree, and develop greater mutual understanding.”
J Street U is the college division of the liberal Jewish policy group J Street.
For its part, J Street U made the initial inquiry to Grossman because the organization wanted to build a relationship with the Federation. “The Federation is a really important institution in the community, and we have a lot of respect for what they do here and in Israel,” said J Street U Northwest campus organizer Catie Stewart. “We wanted to make sure we had a relationship with them, and we wanted to really talk to them about what they do, and how we can work with them.”
The 90-minute program attracted about 80 people, Stewart said. Grossman kicked off the evening with a presentation outlining the Federation’s activities and mission in the Bay Area, followed by several college students who spoke about their involvement with J Street U.
Joining Grossman in a panel discussion were J Street U regional co-chair Sonia Brin, who attends UC Berkeley, and vice president for the Northwest region Zoe Goldblum, a student at Stanford. Their conversation largely revolved around the Federation’s funding guidelines, which were established in 2010 in the wake of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival’s controversial screening of a documentary about the late pro-Palestinian activist Rachel Corrie. Those guidelines define a red line that the Federation now uses to demarcate organizations it will not support, including those that advocate for boycotts of Israel and Israeli products.
The conversation between the J Street U students and Grossman was polite but at times grew pointed.
The tone is a positive one, of collaboration. We’d like to identify the places we agree, and develop greater mutual understanding.
“You mentioned that the Federation does not grant funds across the Green Line,” said Goldblum, using a term that describes Israel’s pre-1967 borders. “I wondered if you would comment specifically on the Center for Security Policy, Middle East Forum and Friends of Ir David, and what the Federation intends to do [about funding], or if you’ve created a position around those organizations?”
The three organizations mentioned by Goldblum are right-leaning Jewish entities that have supported expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, both of which lie across the Green Line.
Grossman pointed out that any monies earmarked for such organizations come from donor-advised funds, which the Federation manages through its endowment fund, though it does not determine recipients.
“You were very gracious to provide the names of these [right-leaning] organizations a few days ago … I am not prepared to comment on each of them,” said Grossman. “I will say that we are going to look at all of them, and we take it very seriously, and may come back to you for the due diligence that you’ve already done.”
The students also pressed Grossman to establish a public timeline for the Federation to update or revise its guidelines, which he declined to do.
Despite Grossman’s apparent willingness to engage in a dialogue — and J Street U’s work on college campuses to fight the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel — some Jewish community members consider the student organization an unwelcome fringe group.
Rachael Stryer, co-president of J Street U’s Stanford University chapter, shared an anecdote from the March anti-BDS summit held at the United Nations headquarters in New York.
“At the last session of the day there was the opportunity for students to ask questions, and a couple of other J Street U students raised their hands and were called on,” she said. “They asked, is it possible to be both anti-BDS and anti-occupation? The speaker [Republican South Carolina Rep. Alan Clemmons] said ‘Thank you for being here, but I actually consider your organization [to be] anti-Semitic.’
“The room, hundreds of people, stood up, turned toward us and started applauding … I’ve never been in a space like there where hundreds of people are calling me a traitor to my own people.”