JCRC Bay Area CEO Tye Gregory holds an Israeli flag while singing the Israeli national anthem in front of Oakland City Hall before the city council considered a resolution in support of a cease-fire in Gaza, Monday, Nov. 28, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
JCRC Bay Area CEO Tye Gregory holds an Israeli flag while singing the Israeli national anthem in front of Oakland City Hall before the city council considered a resolution in support of a cease-fire in Gaza, Monday, Nov. 28, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

JCRC Bay Area steps into the spotlight amid post-Oct. 7 uptick in antisemitism and anti-Zionism

“I will wait for you to restore order.”

It was Jan. 8 at the San Francisco Board of Supervisors rules committee meeting, and Tye Gregory had started to speak in vigorous opposition to a cease-fire resolution. But he was unable to continue over the loud chorus of “boos” from the crowd.

As CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council Bay Area, Gregory has come to expect anti-Israel hostility during public meetings where such measures are being considered and tension is high.

Since the Oct. 7 massacre that launched the Israel-Hamas war, the Bay Area has been a flashpoint in national and international debates over Israel’s response to the attack. At city council meetings, marches and protests, moderate calls for a cease-fire have been overshadowed by hateful rhetoric, outright lies and bizarre conspiracy theories. Jewish businesses and religious events have been targeted, leaving the community shaken. At the same time, some Jewish families have decided to leave their school districts out of fears their kids will be bullied, or worse.

In this tense climate, one voice has been particularly loud — that of the San Francisco-based JCRC Bay Area, whose leaders have been a regular presence online and in front of TV cameras since Oct. 7 as the most visible face of the organized Jewish community. Its position of staunch support for Israel has drawn ire from organizations on the opposite side and from some Jews who oppose JCRC’s position.

Jewish Community Relations Council Bay Area CEO Tye Gregory (far left) sits in the Oakland City Council chambers near supporters of a resolution calling for a cease-fire in Gaza, Nov. 27, 2023. The council passed the measure unanimously. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Jewish Community Relations Council Bay Area CEO Tye Gregory (far left) sits in the Oakland City Council chambers near supporters of a resolution calling for a cease-fire in Gaza, Nov. 27, 2023. The council passed the measure unanimously. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

The organization has responded by ramping up its work dramatically, including behind the scenes to support grassroots organizing, to urge Israel supporters to speak at city council meetings and to mobilize turnout for events.

“I can’t remember the last time when we’ve gotten hundreds of people to come to rallies, or attend seminars, be willing to show up at city council meetings and speak,” said Karen Stiller, JCRC’s senior director of Jewish affairs. “All of this has really rallied our community together.”

That new engagement, though, has grown largely out of worry and fear. According to Gregory and Stiller, the number of calls from Bay Area Jews to JCRC with concerns about antisemitism or anti-Israel sentiment has skyrocketed.

“The incoming community issues have increased hugely,” said director of communications Jeremy Russell, who estimated an 800% increase in community inquiries since Oct. 7. “So much so that we’ve taken on a contract staffer just to help manage the volume.”

So what does JCRC do when someone calls, worried about activity at a local school? Or when a city councilmember gets in touch to ask how to handle irate constituents?

One response is to send Jonathan Mintzer out to drink more coffee.

“My role is to create relationships based on trust and understanding with elected officials so that they will view JCRC as a trusted resource partner, or nonprofit organization that can support their work as it pertains to the Jewish community,” said Mintzer, director of external relations.

Mintzer said a lot of his work really does happen over coffee; it’s about showing up in person to answer questions for members of city councils or school boards who might not have all of the facts and history about the complex politics of the Middle East.

“We’ve had difficult conversations,” Mintzer said. “All the tough questions — about Israel, about antisemitism, about Jewish identity — come up, and I hopefully can explain to them the nuances of those topics and how the Jewish community feels.”

That relationship-building work has always been a part of JCRC’s mission, Gregory said. But now it’s more important than ever.

JCRC CEO Tye Gregory (left) hugs San Francisco Mayor London Breed during a menorah lighting celebrating the seventh night of Hanukkah at Union Square in San Francisco, Dec. 13, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
JCRC CEO Tye Gregory (left) hugs San Francisco Mayor London Breed during a menorah lighting celebrating the seventh night of Hanukkah at Union Square in San Francisco, Dec. 13, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

“I think Berkeley is the best example,” Gregory said. “We took Mayor Jesse Arreguín to Israel and cultivated that relationship.”

Arreguín has so far resisted calls to bring a resolution condemning Israel or calling for a cease-fire to the city council, making him an outlier in the East Bay.

“He is a progressive Latino mayor who cares about the Jewish community and understands the context to know why this is ridiculous,” Gregory said.

Gregory added that there are other Bay Area cities where JCRC has similarly good relationships, but it doesn’t have the capacity to be everywhere.

“We always prioritize the towns based on population and the size of the Jewish communities,” he said.

San Francisco is one of those communities, but like Oakland and Richmond it did pass a resolution that JCRC opposed. Gregory said the fact that so many resolutions have passed doesn’t paint the full picture.

“For every council resolution that’s introduced, there’s five that aren’t,” he said.

The Alameda City Council’s rejection of a cease-fire letter this month was an outcome due in part to sustained community effort facilitated by JCRC. Alameda resident Jacqueline Palchik worked on that campaign.

Palchik said help from JCRC had been important from the start in everything from explaining the rules of public comment to residents, to setting up a group chat, to showing up on the meeting day itself for moral support.

“They brought sandwiches!” she said.

The JCRC’s assistance was crucial to a group of locals like her who had never been involved with political action. “We wouldn’t have really known what to do,” Palchik said.

For every council resolution that’s introduced, there’s five that aren’t.

The help was even more meaningful, she said, because the supporters of the cease-fire letter were very well organized — and numerous.

“They’re extremely organized,” she said. “They spend a lot of time, you can tell, on their messaging and what they’re saying.”

JCRC aims to do the same, offering talking points and action alerts that urge its newsletter subscribers to attend city council meetings as needed. JCRC has hired Fenton, a communications strategy firm with an S.F. office and primary focus on left-leaning causes, to help with media relations and to scale up JCRC’s social media presence since Oct. 7. So far it seems to be working.

A JCRC-made video compiling some of the worst speakers from a November Oakland City Council meeting about a cease-fire resolution currently has over 30 million views on X. (Some have criticized the video for cherry-picking the most extreme antisemitic and anti-Israel remarks, but Gregory isn’t having that. “I was in the room, and it was a lot worse than even the video that we put together,” he told J.)

Gregory has also appeared on a slew of national and international media sites, from local news to the U.K.-based Guardian, to comment on the fraught atmosphere in the Bay Area.

“A lot of the reason these became national stories and there’s been so much national pressure now on some of these far-left detractors is because of the media presence that we’ve been able to build over the past month and a half,” Gregory said.

Another major area of effort for JCRC has been working with parents — including in Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco, Palo Alto and Marin, Stiller said — who are concerned about antisemitism in schools, or teachers they consider biased against Israel.

JCRC CEO Tye Gregory at a press conference where parents, teachers and Jewish leaders expressed their distress at a statement on Gaza from the Oakland teachers union, Nov. 10, 2023. (Photo/Dan Ancona)
JCRC CEO Tye Gregory at a press conference where parents, teachers and Jewish leaders expressed their distress at a statement on Gaza from the Oakland teachers union, Nov. 10, 2023. (Photo/Dan Ancona)

“We’ve supported all these groups with general things like strategic guidance, talking points, action alerts, curriculum review, things like that,” Stiller said. In November a JCRC staff member attended an online parents’ meeting in Oakland, for example, helping the group create a leadership committee, set goals and figure out next steps.

In general, that help has been welcomed by grassroots groups that may not have experience in organizing, especially in an environment with such intense emotions. One San Francisco resident, who got involved after a series of distressing school incidents after Oct. 7, told J. that it’s clear JCRC wants to support the community. However, the woman added that JCRC and other Jewish groups don’t necessarily have the tools to help “on the ground” in such an unprecedented situation.

The entire organized Jewish community needs to streamline and better coordinate responses, she believes. (She requested anonymity out of fear of harassment from anti-Israel activists.)

Coordination of organizations was among the first missions nearly a century ago for the JCRC, which grew out of an effort to survey the needs of the Jewish community in the 1930s and later to organize a “group of groups” as a unifying force in the 1940s against the backdrop of the horrific war in Europe.

Traditionally JCRC has worked more in the background, but Stiller said it made a concerted effort, even before Oct. 7, to increase the visibility of its work on key issues, such as the statewide debate over an ethnic studies curriculum over the past few years. In another campaign, JCRC held regular press conferences with Gregory standing shoulder-to-shoulder with mayors and other elected officials around Northern California as part of the “#HereIAm” movement against antisemitic hate crimes.

Bonta, a middle-aged Latino man in a suit, stands speaking at a podium outdoors.
California Attorney General Rob Bonta was among several elected officials who spoke out against antisemitism at the Jewish Community Relations Council Bay Area’s “Here I Am” event at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, Sept. 12, 2022. (Photo/Twitter @SFJCRC)

That greater visibility is part of the organization’s strategic plan adopted in 2021.

“This is a little bit of a change in direction of how JCRC has been doing its work,” said Stiller, who has been with the organization for more than 20 years.

Gregory said JCRC’s inherent hyperfocus on the Bay Area has allowed it to be nimble and responsive in this current crisis.

“For us, all politics is local, all community is local,” he said. “Our staff and our board are all Bay Area people. The only thing that we do is calibrate our strategy to the needs of the Bay Area.”

In mid-December, JCRC made an emergency funding call to support all of this work. That effort has reaped $1.74 million from established donors who gave new gifts, as well as new donors, Russell said. He said they included individuals, foundations and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund.

“We set this up specifically as a six-month needs-based fundraiser — everything that is directly related to the crisis at hand,” Gregory said.

That includes hiring staff to handle the increased volume of community work: “programs, rallies, events, town halls, forums, trainings, all these things that we’re doing,” Gregory said.

The increased work and visibility have brought increased attention to the JCRC — not all of it positive. As the organization’s most public face, Gregory has been repeatedly bashed online and booed in real life.

He said the current level of vitriol has been “entirely predictable,” and that Israel is being held to a double standard for protecting its citizens after a terror attack, compared with, for example, overwhelming support in the U.S. for retaliation after Sept. 11, 2001. But Gregory said it’s important to separate “celebrating Hamas” for the Oct. 7 massacre from being “upset by the death toll” of Israel’s bombing campaign in Gaza since then.

“There’s this dichotomy that has been created that you’re either on Israel’s side or you’re on Hamas’ side,” he said. “And I just don’t think that it’s true.”

Obviously the conflict isn’t that simple, Gregory said. There is room for conversation even though JCRC fully support’s Israel’s right to defend itself.

“We also welcome complicated feelings. We don’t think that it’s inappropriate to be empathetic with the suffering of the Gazan civilians that are caught in the middle,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.