In February, a journalist named Aisha Sultan published a column in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch detailing the experience that I and a student named Shaadie Ali each had with the website Canary Mission. Canary Mission places people who speak out about Palestinian rights – mainly undergraduates like me – on a blacklist, listing us as racist anti-Semites. I’m Jewish, and I hardly think my support for Palestinians makes me racist or hateful of other Jews, so I told Sultan my story.
Her column brought me dozens of messages – mostly supportive, with a few calling me the “worst kind of Jew” and other names thrown in. But the most interesting response, to me, was that of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis. In a letter to the editor in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the JCRC released a statement in criticizing Canary Mission.
I had interned at the Jewish Community Relations Council during the summer of 2018. All of that summer, I stayed silent about my politics because I feared that if the leadership at the JCRC found out where I stood, I would no longer be welcome within my St. Louis Jewish community. It shocked me then, that when my politics were publicized, the JCRC published a statement affirming my role within the community, even across ideological divides.
“Our society and our Jewish community, in particular, are stronger because of the diversity of opinions we hold within it,” they said in their statement. “We believe in the right of every individual within our community to express viewpoints without fear of intimidation. It is precisely through the open exchange of ideas and respectful discourse that we are able to enhance our knowledge, hone our values and attain deeper levels of understanding.” The very group that I believed wouldn’t hire me due to my politics was now stating that though they disagreed with me, they respected my opinion.
This felt like an unusual move. Cities across the country have Jewish Community Relations Councils, which have existed since the early 20th century as resources to advocate for the needs of Jews within their communities. JCRCs are often deeply beholden to their local Jewish federation. Over the past several decades, many JCRCs have become something more than Jewish community advocacy groups; they are also Israel advocates, discussing and defending the State of Israel through statements, events and policy.
Local JCRCs and federations across the country have also often tended towards suppression of leftist elements within their communities.
On Jan. 17, the Boston JCRC cut ties with the Boston Workmen’s Circle, a longstanding, pluralistic Jewish group that has at times affiliated itself with anti-Zionist Jewish voices.
The Boston JCRC approved a motion saying that no group connected to the JCRC can partner with an anti-Zionist Jewish organization. As reasoning, they cited their mission, writing, “It is the long established view of the JCRC Council… that support for BDS [the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement] is contrary to our mission of advocating for a safe, secure, Jewish and democratic state of Israel.”
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In a statement released by the Workmen’s Circle on January 18th, the organization responded, “We firmly believe that the JCRC does not effectively show support for Israel, or for the well-being of the Jewish people, by silencing the voices of those with whom it disagrees.”
Another example is the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, which in 2010 adopted guidelines that prohibit it from funding organizations that support BDS. Those guidelines also suggest that organizations who receive federation money “consult” with the local JCRC before holding “potentially controversial programs” that might contradict these guidelines, e.g. by featuring a speaker who belongs to an organization that supports BDS.
The restrictions have led at least one donor-advised fund to withdraw its money from the federation, after its request to give money to Jewish Voice for Peace and American Friends Service Committee was denied.
So, what led the St. Louis JCRC to issue a statement criticizing Canary Mission?
The St. Louis JCRC is, politically, similar to many other local branches. Their executive director, Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, is a proud and vocal Zionist. The St. Louis Jewish Federation is similarly aligned
Though each Jewish Community Relations Council is a locally run group, they are all connected through the national Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), which takes a broad pro-Israel position. Every JCRC is also either part of their local federation, or is an independent agency affiliated with the federation. The Jewish Federations of North America is a national member of JCPA.
According to Picker Neiss, the JCRC of St. Louis is an independent agency, and therefore has a measure of remove from umbrella groups.
In an email, Picker Neiss wrote, “The JCRC of St. Louis is an independent agency. Although we are a beneficiary agency of the Jewish Federation and work in close partnership with them, we are governed by an independent board. This allows our JCRC to set our agenda based on our mission and the policies set forth by our Council, independent of the fundraising and relationship-building of the Jewish Federation.”
Though the St. Louis JCRC is by no means politically radical, and is in fact staunchly Zionist (“I personally and professionally disagree strongly with your anti-Zionist stance,” Picker Neiss told me) they are free to state that people of diverse viewpoints will still be welcomed within the Jewish community – in St. Louis, at least.
“In discussions around Israel and Palestine, there are loud voices on the left and loud voices on the right, but the majority of voices opt out of the conversation entirely because they are often scared or uncomfortable,” Picker Neiss said. I myself had opted out of the conversation when I hid my politics as a JCRC intern. However, the St. Louis JCRC ended up surprising me, and did something that I hope other Jewish community leaders will do: They told me that, though we disagreed, I was still part of their community.