The Rise of Periphery Jewish NGOs

by Gedalyah Reback

Having sat on Rutgers Hillel’s student board a couple times in my prime (my nostalgia for being a student shows), I’ve seen how difficult it is to maintain a popular center position for Jewish activists. The usually tame world of Jewish non-profits got some much unwanted and perhaps overdue excitement recently when the new Jewish student organization, Im Tirtzu, unleashed an attack against the New Israel Fund for making much of the Goldstone Report possible through its funding of certain NGOs in Israel. The response has been angry from the NIF, defending itself behind the ‘freedom of speech’ for sponsoring NGOs that choose to publish such reports.

What is happening is an inevitable outgrowth of a split among Jewish activists, where more left-wing and right-wing organizations are popping up, both in Israel and the United States. This dispute is linked to J-Street’s ruffling feathers last year premiering to counter AIPAC’s representation of Israeli interests in Washington.

But both conflicts are employing tactics of “guilt by association,” pointing to funding methods to smear rival non-profits. Im Tirtzu receives funds from Christian Zionist organizations in the United States, a fact J Street has pointed to in order to counter-attack the student union. But at the same time, J Street has received funding from Arabs and Muslims with similar political goals. This has been used by its detractors as a whip, as well.

Perhaps this points to the need for the Jewish community to examine whether it wants funding from groups outside the community. Then again, it would be a wasted conversation because the funding will continue.

It is not a simple matter of conflicting political views. It seems that all these organizations, while indeed representing the political periphery, are trying to claim the political center. Im Tirtzu, calling itself a “Second Zionist Movement,” states one of its central goals to be creating a “centrist political movement” according to its website. At the same time, J Street wants to “broaden the public and policy debate in the U.S. about the Middle East” as if it were not wide enough. Both organizations, among many, are calling for a shift, not reinforcing the center.

Many of the established organizations involved in this right-left chasm indeed have many questions to answer and criticisms to address. The Anti-Defamation League for instance has alienated even conservative Jews for ‘crying wolf’ too often. The New Israel Fund, separate from Im Tritzu’s accusations, indeed has given large funds to organizations advocating boycotts of Israel, plus ridding the country of its official Jewish character and Law of Return – would American Jewish donors be happy with continuing to fund those groups if they knew any better?

It’s difficult to tell any of these organizations they don’t hone in on positions at the current Jewish political center – a two state solution, revitalizing the Zionist movement, integrating Israel’s minorities, and attacking anti-Semitism. But taking the high ground has earned all these groups associations with people who do not necessarily have Israel’s or Jews’ best interests in mind.

I do not purport to support all the above-mentioned positions – a two-state solution is a good long term idea – but that puts me in the minority. It’s easier to support the latter three. Nevertheless, I am concerned that many groups have gotten to involved in particular causes, separating issues that are inextricably tied together and by default associating themselves with political extremes.

The political center in Jewish and Israel activism is facing dissent from both sides these days, perhaps reflecting the center’s weakness. More likely, the social networking age has enabled strong organizing on even the most peripheral political activists. Long periods of debate are ahead for the Jewish world – hopefully it all revolves around the community’s best interests.

Also see JJ Goldberg’s critique of J Street’s first convention for his take on its position between a left-wing political option and moderate organization.

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