JFREJ was founded to focus on local organizing for racial and economic justice in NYC. Our founding members knew then, as we do now, that our liberation as Jews is tied up with the liberation of all people around the world. We are connected to what happens in Israel-Palestine. We are connected as a Jewish organization, and an organization in the United States — whose government provides more than $3 billion in annual military aid to the State of Israel. We are connected as a community with members who have lived there, loved there, put down roots there, protested there, and have friends and family there. And we are connected as a New York City-based organization, navigating Israel-Palestine’s impact on NYC organizing and politics. We are a big-tent community where progressive and Leftist Jews can come to learn and build together. What we all share is our commitment to JFREJ’s values & principles.

JFREJ organizes locally while orienting internationally. We are part of a broader global movement that calls this orientation grassroots internationalism — an orientation that requires mutual solidarity, forged over time between frontline communities around the world who are suffering from the impacts of oppressive global systems. We are committed to fighting racism, displacement, and domination; to fighting for the right of all people to participate democratically in the governance and decision-making that shapes the material reality of our daily lives. We know our power and safety as Jews do not lie in police, militaries, the borders of any nation-state, or the oppression of others, but in solidarity and community, wherever we live. We strive to support local efforts led by our partners for Palestinian rights and freedom, and against Israeli apartheid, occupation, displacement, annexation, aggression, and ongoing assaults on Palestinians.

We are especially called to respond to instances that have an unjust impact here in our own city. Too often our opponents successfully use legitimate Jewish fears about antisemitism to divide and distract New Yorkers from our goals. Too often, Israel-Palestine is a vehicle for this division. Our closest allies in City Hall and Albany — particularly Black and brown women socialists fighting to build the care economy and dismantle corporate monopolies and the carceral system — are targeted for their support for Palestinian human rights. Public institutions like CUNY are pressured by the right-wing pro-Israel lobby and its aligned activists to repress nonviolent political activity and silence dissent. This repression is just the beginning of the political right’s long-term campaign to undo democratic rights across the board. These are local matters and JFREJ recognizes — and acts on — them as such.

JFREJ has always taken a clear position against the occupation. But until now, we have held back from articulating or formalizing an actual strategy for Israel-Palestine as a local issue. We have not made sure our members are familiar with JFREJ’s long and complex relationship with the subject. Our engagement with the issue has fluctuated over time, without a particularly coherent, transparent, or explicit approach. In 5783, that changes.

The History

Israel-Palestine has been a subject of debate within JFREJ for over thirty years, starting at the moment of our founding in 1990. In June of that year, we held JFREJ’s first public event: a Shabbat service that welcomed Nelson Mandela to New York City as he embarked on a world tour just months after his release from 27 years imprisoned in apartheid South African prison. New York was his first stop, and the city went all out to honor him.

But in the days before Mandela’s arrival, leaders of mainstream Jewish organizations – claiming to speak for all New York Jews — announced that they would not participate in the city’s celebration. Why? Because Mandela had expressed support for the human and political rights of Palestinians. Incensed by this decision, JFREJ’s first members — who were meeting to form the organization at the very time this announcement was made — decided that very night to extend the great anti-apartheid leader a whole-hearted and warm Jewish welcome.

The vast majority of the people gathered at JFREJ’s founding meeting had been deeply engaged in activism around Palestinian liberation, and had no intention of giving up that work. But at the same time, JFREJ’s first members saw how the Jewish Left’s focus on Israel-Palestine had ceded local New York City organizing to the conservative mainstream. They founded JFREJ specifically to work on local issues in New York City, while remaining active in various other groups that kept working on Palestine-Israel. JFREJ’s founding members understood from the get-go the connection between the mainstream Jewish organizations' growing abandonment of local social justice concerns and their insistence on a militant right-wing Zionism — and the connection between addressing racism and injustice in New York and across the globe.

JFREJ made a commitment then to always support movements we know are part of the struggle for justice for all people, but that might be alienated for expressing solidarity with Palestinians. While staying active in groups working specifically on Israel-Palestine, our founders and early leaders established JFREJ as part of the wider Left ecosystem of New York, working on local issues from housing to policing to worker justice to education, and more. But they saw how Israel-Palestine often affected and even distorted the political and rhetorical climate in our home city.

In moments we can be proud of, we spoke out. One example was our annual award ceremony of 2003, now called The Mazals. Among our five honorees was Adam Shapiro and the Shapiro Family. A Brooklynite from a Jewish family, Shapiro worked with the International Solidarity Movement, which called on civilians to participate in non-violent protests against Israeli military presence in the occupied territories. During IDF incursions into the West Bank in 2002, Shapiro rode along in ambulances to help bring aid and medical supplies to the wounded; one of them headed to Yassir Arafat’s presidential compound in Ramallah. He was unintentionally trapped in the besieged compound by Israeli fire, and forced to spend the night there, prompting The New York Post to label him the “Jewish Taliban.” Despite his commitment to nonviolence, Shapiro was widely branded as a supporter of terrorism, and his parents received death threats from right-wing Jewish groups — they even had to move out of their home for a time. JFREJ wanted to recognize Shapiro’s commitment, and his family’s courage and decency in standing behind their beloved son – and to publicly express our outrage over their mistreatment. Some months after our announcement of our awards for that year, the American activist with ISM, Rachel Corrie, was crushed to death by an IDF armored bulldozer while she tried to protect Palestinian homes in the Gaza Strip from demolition. Her mother, Cindy Corrie, spoke at our event.

JFREJ experienced significant backlash for honoring the Shapiros and hosting Corrie’s mother. The event lost the support of some elected officials, and even some JFREJ members and leaders. It was also, at that point, our best-attended event ever.

But at other times, JFREJ has been behind the curve, not as courageous as we could or should have been. In 2016, for example, JFREJ spoke out against the state senate’s effort to cut millions in funding from CUNY to “send a message” that it had not done enough to fight antisemitism on campus. But we failed to address that these efforts were directed at shutting down student activism in support of Palestinians, sparked by a letter from the right-wing Zionist Organization of America targeting Students for Justice in Palestine.

Being a JFREJ member means being part of an organization with this founding story, legacy, and history. This is what we are rooted in as we develop our strategy for Israel-Palestine as a local issue.

Israel-Palestine as a Local Issue

Over the summer of 2021, given conditions on the ground and the ways in which our allies were approaching the issue, we surveyed our membership on the subject in order to open up space for community-wide discussion about Israel-Palestine. Hundreds of JFREJ members took the time to fill out the survey and shared with us their thoughts, fears, and hopes about the organization’s approach to Israel-Palestine. After collecting responses, we hired an expert to begin analyzing the data, and assembled a JFREJ Israel-Palestine team of members to identify JFREJ’s unique positioning and opportunities, and develop clear criteria for when we act and when we don’t.

As the above history indicates, JFREJ has always been clear that Israel-Palestine shows up in New York as a local issue. Increasingly, it is one that cannot and must not be avoided if we are to fulfill our core mission of transforming New York from a playground for the wealthy few into a real democracy for all of us, free from all forms of racist violence.

Too often our opponents successfully use legitimate Jewish fears about antisemitism to divide and distract New Yorkers from our goals. Too often, Israel-Palestine is the vehicle for this division. Too often, our closest allies in City Hall and Albany — particularly Black and brown women socialists fighting to build the care economy and dismantle corporate monopolies and the carceral system — are targeted for their support for Palestinian human rights. Their every word and tweets are scrutinized to find any possible reason to direct accusations of antisemitism against them. It’s a paralyzing microscope that makes it near-impossible for them to actually govern and enact our transformational agenda.

JFREJ’s unique and profound power is in holding localized diasporic struggle, rooted in solidarity. This is the power that allows us to stay grounded in who we are — with our unique history and strengths, and our principles and core mission — while confronting Israel-Palestine’s impact on our local work.

JFREJ’s work has always been about real material change — and that requires long-term strategy. As Marshall Ganz puts it, strategy is: “How to turn what we have into the power we need to get what we want.”

In the coming years, the Israel-Palestine team recommends that JFREJ pursue these four strategies:

  1. The Jewish Vote’s electoral strategy
  2. Countering antisemitism & authoritarianism, with a focus on defending free speech
  3. Internal education & engagement
  4. Speaking out in key movement moments

1. The Jewish Vote

Since 2018, The Jewish Vote has been JFREJ’s most powerful vehicle for material and rhetorical impact when it comes to Israel-Palestine as a local issue. In the years ahead, we will continue to build on this strategy and come out swinging against our opposition. We will highlight how groups like AIPAC are joining forces with big real estate, charter schools, and our other local opposition to keep progressives out of power. We will rally around and have the backs of our progressive champions working to advance our transformational agenda.

2. Countering antisemitism & authoritarianism, defending free speech

Since the 2017 publication of Understanding Antisemitism, JFREJ has been a leading voice in claiming the fight against antisemitism for the Left. There are real threats endangering Jews in New York, on campus, and nationwide; with the increase in antisemitism over the past few years, many Jews feel unsafe. Jewish fear is real. It is valid. It is also easily used to fuel division and impede solidarity.

In recent years, we have watched antisemitic rhetoric and violence increase – all while political leaders and movements around the world have used bad-faith accusations of antisemitism to promote authoritarian, racist, and misogynist polices and politics, and attack and silence Palestinians and their allies. Those instrumentalizing antisemitism are doing the opposite of what they purport to do: instead of offering safety, they isolate Jews and leave us vulnerable to real antisemitism; instead of promoting justice, they undermine the projects of democracy and social justice that our collective future on this planet depend on.

In recent years, our community’s inability or unwillingness to fight back effectively against the criminalization of BDS has expanded the state’s power to crush nonviolent protest and political dissent. Strategies that have been honed by the right-wing anti-BDS movement are now being adopted by other anti-democratic forces with ruthless impact. In the years ahead, we will step up our efforts to protect free speech and protest because these anti-BDS efforts are just the beginning of our opposition’s long-term campaign to undo democratic rights across the board.

In New York City, CUNY is a key site for this anti-democratic campaign. Defending CUNY at this moment in time matters. On the national and local levels, education in general and public education in particular are increasingly key sites of struggle, whether it’s attacks on Critical Race Theory and trans youth nationally, or Mayor Adams’ campaign against public education locally.

3. Internal education & engagement

We learned clearly in our survey of JFREJ membership and in conversations with our allies that JFREJ can and should remain a big tent — a place where progressive and Leftist Jews anywhere on the spectrum from J Street to JVP can come to learn and build together. Our ability to cultivate pluralism and principled struggle is one of our superpowers. We will continue to model to other organizations in the Jewish social justice sphere that it is possible to be bold on Israel-Palestine without falling apart. The JFREJ Israel-Palestine Team is thrilled to present a new series as part of a 5783 participatory process that engages our neighborhood groups, caucuses, campaign teams, allies, and full membership. Together, we will do some deep learning together; clarify when and how we take action and speak out on the subject; align around a theory of change; and develop a shared understanding of our strategy on Israel-Palestine as a local issue.

4. Speak out in key moments

We will continue to speak out in key moments for our allies in the movement for Palestinian freedom. We will continue to sign on and lend our power to these efforts whenever there is a clear intersection with New York. One such example is the Not On Our Dime campaign to end New York State's subsidization of Israeli settlements.

At the same time, we’ll take care not to expend massive capacity or resources in these instances so we can leave this lane to our partners whose primary mission is Israel-Palestine, and keep our focus on our priority campaigns. And we will speak out in support of our partners and allies when they are smeared with bad-faith accusations of antisemitism designed to weaken progressive power. This is the approach that maintains our big brave tent and is rooted in our history and responsive to our present.