Jewish Funds for Justice (JFSJ), the George Soros-funded activist group that recently made headlines for its high-profile war against Fox News host Glenn Beck, has received over $1 million from the UJA-Federation of New York since 2008.
Over the past three years, at least seven Federation grants have been awarded to the JFSJ, ranging from $75,000 to $219,000. Some of that money has gone toward JFSJ’s Hurricane Katrina disaster relief efforts. But, according to Federation spokesperson Samantha Kessler, the bulk of the funding has gone toward the group’s “Congregational-based Community Organizing” programs.
“Congressional-based Community Organizing” is pretty much exactly what it sounds like – Chicago-style community organizing, except in the synagogue.
According to the Federation website, the JFSJ program was designed to “develop strong and effective social-justice networks in up to eight Manhattan synagogues.”
In an e-mail, Kessler explained that the goal was to “strengthen synagogues by building meaningful relationships among their members, attracting additional Jews and Jewish families to congregational life, and developing more robust leadership for synagogues.”
The Federation felt the JFSJ “had a proven model for congregation-based community organizing that provided a unique way to accomplish this.”
The JFSJ’s community organizing expertise may explain how it was able to quickly coordinate 400 rabbis to sign an anti-Glenn Beck letter published in the Wall Street Journal in January. The letter was criticized by Commentary magazine as well as prominent members of the Jewish community, who called it a partisan attack.
“[The Anti-Defamation League] does not support this misguided attempt to embarrass Fox News,” ADL Director Abe Foxman told the Forward. “[S]urely there are greater threats to the Jewish people than the likes of Roger Ailes, Glenn Beck and Rupert Murdoch, who are professed and stalwart friends of the Jewish people and Israel.”
In a letter to the Forward, Deborah Lipstadt, professor of Holocaust Studies at Emory University, wrote that “One need not minimize the danger of Beck’s rhetoric in order to wonder why JFSJ – which has significant credibility among progressives – has not mounted an equally passionate critique of misbegotten analogies on the left. Is this about principle, or is it about politics?”
Despite calling itself a non-partisan group, JFSJ officials and members often weigh in on politics on the organization’s blog.
In one post, the group’s senior vice president of philanthropic giving, Jeremy Burton, dubbed President George W. Bush “our hatemonger-in-chief,” and accused him of “spreading fear and loathing of other Americans as a tool for political gain.”
Other posts supported calls to impeach Bush and labeled former vice president Dick Cheney a racist.
Needless to say, it’s difficult to imagine the Federation funding a right-wing activist group that made similar statements about President Obama or Nancy Pelosi, and ran a prominent campaign targeting MSNBC.
The appeal of Jewish Funds for Justice’s work has been rooted in its commitment to helping the poor and providing Jewish communities with a distinctive way to help. This has given it credibility and made it an attractive venue for Jewish philanthropic giving even among mainstream groups like Federation whose major donors may not share the JFSJ’s left-wing sensibilities.
However, the decision to go political in a big way with an attack on Beck and Fox News makes it more difficult for the group to position itself as a non-controversial forum for Jewish charitable fundraising. The point is, if it is going to be soliciting and getting huge grants from mainstream groups like federations, then maybe it should stick to what it does best and stay out of politics.
This isn’t an isolated incident. Some federations have alienated members of the Jewish community with other controversial funding decisions, such as the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s financing of the anti-Israel Theater J. And the issue isn’t just the funding – it’s also the lack of transparency.
Federations are already considered to be in decline due to most donors preferring boutique causes rather than umbrella philanthropies. But unless federations reestablish trust with the Jewish community, this trend will only get worse.
Alana Goodman is online editor for Commentary magazine, where she covers news and politics for its “Contentions” blog, where this originally appeared.