Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb speaks to fellow pro-cease-fire protesters in the rotunda of the Ronald V. Dellums Federal Building in Oakland, Nov. 13, 2023. (Photo/Courtesy JVP)
Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb speaks to fellow pro-cease-fire protesters in the rotunda of the Ronald V. Dellums Federal Building in Oakland, Nov. 13, 2023. (Photo/Courtesy JVP)

How a new group is convincing Democrats to separate Israel criticism from antisemitism

This story was originally published in the Forward. Click here to get the Forward’s free email newsletters delivered to your inbox.

Rep. Jerry Nadler, the New York Democrat, raised many eyebrows last month when he declined to support a resolution condemning antisemitism and criticism of Israel. Instead, Nadler, the unofficial dean of the Congressional Jewish caucus, said “the cynicism of it makes me sick.” 

Progressive critics of Israel had insisted for years that mainstream politicians — including Democrats — were invoking antisemitism in “cynical” ways. But the December vote marked a significant shift in the debate, with dozens of stalwart Democratic supporters of Israel, including Nadler, rejecting the House measure because, they argued, it conflated anti-Zionism with antisemitism and represented “gross overreach.”

Behind the scenes was a group called the Nexus Task Force, a group of academics and liberal Jewish political leaders and philanthropists, that had been lobbying President Joe Biden since shortly before he was elected president to avoid “turning antisemitism into a partisan issue.”

Lay leaders associated with the project had previously met with Nadler’s office before the vote and helped shape the views of Amy Rutkin, his influential chief of staff, during a series of meetings early in the Biden administration. “What they are so very good at is helping the Beltway understand when people are using antisemitism — and using the Jewish community — for political purposes,” said Rutkin, who retired this month after nearly 25 years working for Nadler.

But Nexus has largely been an academic working group with little infrastructure to support sustained lobbying. That will change next month, when it will evolve into a formal organization with the hiring of Kevin Rachlin, who is stepping down as one of J Street’s top lobbyists to lead the new Nexus Washington office.

The Nexus Leadership Project will seek to influence policymakers more than the general public, and is positioned to the left of the Jewish establishment, which has been increasingly adamant that harsh criticism of Israel is antisemitic. But Rachlin said he expects that the organization will still operate in the world of moderate Jewish politics and avoid the oppositional tactics of some progressive groups that have protested Israel in recent months.

Rachlin will be joining a crowded field of antisemitism advocacy that has shifted focus over the past several years from raising awareness of the issue to debating how to define and stop antisemitism. One of the task force’s members, Derek Penslar, found himself at the center of one such firestorm this week after he was appointed to help lead a new Harvard committee to address antisemitism on campus and was quickly accused of antisemitism over his criticism of Israel.

Nexus quickly rallied Jewish scholars to Penslar’s defense, and for the last few years it has played a prominent role in seeking to augment the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism so that it is not used to classify harsh criticism of Israel as antisemitic.

But despite all this, Rachlin said he hopes to stay out of debates over antisemitism and Israel as much as possible. “We’re not anti-IHRA,” he said. “We’re pro-‘ensuring the U.S. has an effective national strategy to combat antisemitism.’” 

Deep divisions over definitions, strategies

Rachlin insisted that he is eager to work with organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, and he came close to matching their position on antisemitism: “not all anti-Zionism is antisemitism,” he said in an interview. “But most is.”

Jonathan Jacoby, who has overseen the task force and will serve as director of the new Nexus organization, has said that the group’s definition is meant to serve as a complement, not rival, to the IHRA definition.

Despite those perspectives, its credibility on Capitol Hill, and a list of supporters that includes former State Department antisemitism envoys, U.S. ambassadors and major Jewish philanthropists, Nexus has already run into a buzzsaw of establishment opposition.

As the White House prepared to release the first federal strategy to combat antisemitism last spring, leading Jewish groups sprang into action over fears that the plan would not offer an explicit — and exclusive — endorsement of the IHRA definition.

“No other definitions work,” Jonathan Greenblatt, the ADL’s chief executive, said on Twitter. The White House eventually mentioned both IHRA and Nexus in its plan.

Rachlin is used to helping lead an organization at odds with the Jewish establishment. J Street, the liberal pro-Israel group where Rachlin served as vice president of public affairs, has been repeatedly rejected from membership in groups like the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the American Zionist Movement.

“I had that thought: am I doing this again?” Rachlin said of taking the job with Nexus. 

Others backing the new organization have made their peace with any fights to come. Alan Solow, a former chair of the Conference of Presidents, will serve on its board and said he embraces the fact that Nexus has a “different point of view” than the establishment groups.

“There’s a long history among the Jewish people of wise dissent,” Solow said. “It doesn’t bother me in the least to be a dissenter.”

Definitions landscape grows

Nexus will be joining another Jewish organization defending critics of Israel from claims of antisemitism. The Diaspora Alliance was created two years ago, following the release of the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, which includes a definition that explicitly defends anti-Zionism and boycotts of Israel from claims of antisemitism.

While the Diaspora Alliance has a staff of more than 15, including a roster of organizers with deep roots in left-wing politics, they are spread around the world and focus much of their work on Europe.

Carinne Luck, the organization’s international director, said that Diaspora Alliance is broadly aligned with Nexus. “We are aiming in the same direction and we’re just doing a different piece of the work,” she said. The group mostly does education and training. “We’re not a lobby.”

While they suggested a series of people for First Gentleman Doug Emhoff to meet with during his trip to Poland Germany last year, the Diaspora Alliance rarely puts out press releases or weighs in on Congressional resolutions. In contrast, the Nexus group expects to lobby both the White House and Congress on policy and legislation, and work with Washington think tanks to shape ideas around antisemitism and Israel.

Palestinian advocacy groups in the U.S. have also been drawn into the issue. Local governments considering endorsing the IHRA definition can now count on large showings from organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace and the Council on American Islamic Relations, who turn out members to oppose the resolutions. 

These groups often object to classifying any criticism of Israel as antisemitism, whereas the IHRA definition, Nexus and the Jerusalem Declaration all set certain limits. For example, all three consider it antisemitic to deny Jews the right to live in Israel.

While the IHRA definition was endorsed by an international alliance focused on Holocaust remembrance, the group itself does not lobby for the definition in a traditional manner. “IHRA is not sending delegations to Capitol Hill or parliament,” said Mark Weitzman, who is part of the U.S. delegation to the organization, and oversaw the definition’s adoption.

One top priority for the new Nexus Project is to help push through Congress a bill sponsored by Nadler to fund Biden’s strategy to counter antisemitism and federal investigations into campus antisemitism.

Rachlin knows that political fights are inevitable, but believes the work is worth the grief. He grew up in Dayton, Ohio, and was one of the few Jewish students in school, where kids nicknamed him “Jesus” to poke at his religion.

“I’m excited,” Rachlin said. “But beyond terrified.”

This article was originally published on the Forward.

Arno Rosenfeld
Arno Rosenfeld

Arno Rosenfeld is a reporter at the Forward. He is a former J. intern and has worked as a correspondent for JTA and The Times of Israel.