JCRC director says, Rachel rousers are off-track with attack on federation

Even though the “Rachel” event at this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival was more than two months ago, it continues to fester.

Specifically, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, one of many institutions that have supported the festival with modest grants, has been targeted by a small group of activists.

Rabbi Doug Kahn

It is one of the most unfair attacks against a Jewish institution I have witnessed in my 30 years as a Jewish communal professional — and I must respond.

Although most of our community has not weighed in about the wrong-headed decision of the SFJFF — a remarkable though sometimes uncomfortably edgy cultural institution — to politicize the showing of “Rachel,” this group of activists has decided to beat up on the federation repeatedly because it did not capitulate to their demands.

As a result of an e-mail campaign and, most recently, a video that distorted the federation’s role, the federation has received waves of e-mails from community members expressing their concern about its alleged support for anti-Israel organizations (along with a considerable number of supportive e-mails).

Some of the critical, and too often uncivil, e-mails suggest that the federation is encouraging or supporting anti-Israel activism.

Let’s get real. The Jewish Community Federation for decades has done everything possible to build support for Israel, mobilize the community to contribute to special funds during times of crisis, grow the connection between younger Jews and Israel, and strengthen Israeli society.

Our federation was the first in the country to establish an Israel office to deepen the relationship further and the first to create a confirmation class trip to Israel as a rite of passage. It has one of the most active and innovative Israel Centers in the country. And it continues to present Israel in the Gardens at a time when other communities have quietly eliminated the largest annual show of solidarity with Israel.

In addition, the federation also dispenses millions of dollars each year to local educational, social service, cultural and other community institutions that touch people’s lives from cradle to grave.

But given the subject of the attack, the focus here is on the federation’s critical role in sustaining our community’s commitment to Israel.

JCRC receives federation funds that enable us to mount the most ambitious pro-Israel advocacy campaign in the country — critically important in an area inundated with anti-Israel activism.

Hillels receive funds that enable their staffs to reach out to students to participate in Birthright Israel programs. Day schools receive funds and increasingly incorporate Israel into their curriculum. If the federation is held responsible for the decision of an agency to co-present films with groups whose views and

behavior on Israel most of us find repugnant, then it should also be credited for every pro-Israel action by an agency it supports. That is only fair.

Let’s look at the facts.

• Many mainstream Jewish organizations and foundations sponsor, co-sponsor and co-present at the SFJFF.

• The federation made clear its strong concerns about the “Rachel” event soon after the program came to light.

• The federation does not endorse the co-presenters (American Friends Service Committee and Jewish Voice for Peace) of the “Rachel” event or their views on Israel. Indeed, federation finds the views anathema and vigorously opposes the boycott/divestment/sanctions movement against Israel.

• The e-mail campaign targeting the federation has resulted in hundreds of wasted hours — hours that could have been devoted to growing the community instead have been used to respond to unfair attacks.

• The federation is committed to working with SFJFF leadership to ensure that the kind of polarization that resulted from the 2009 festival does not repeat.

Federation leaders represent a broad diversity of views, but in giving of themselves tirelessly, they have a common goal: to grow the strongest possible Jewish community to secure our future here, in Israel and throughout the world.

In fact, Israel activists should embrace the work of the federation — now more than ever.

So what should happen now? The SFJFF, an important community institution with a strong following, has to take specific steps to repair the breach and rebuild trust with many in the community who were profoundly and rightfully upset.

The federation has to ramp up its marketing and outreach efforts about the multiple ways in which it promotes a positive image of Israel.

Also, rather than leave the discussion to those with the strongest and loudest views, the voices of moderation in our community need to weigh in much more.

The vociferous e-mailers need to channel their tremendous energy into disciplined pro-Israel activist efforts so that we can put pressure on Israel’s true detractors rather than some of its champions.

Let’s all step back, take a breath and think about how all those who care deeply about Israel — from left to right — can work together in the coming year to achieve common goals. The stakes are too high to do otherwise.

Rabbi Doug Kahn
is the executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council. JCRC is a beneficiary agency of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.