Op-Ed: The Zionist Girl the Jewish Federations Love to Hate
Note: This article is written from the writer's point of view. and Arutz Sheva will post any official response to it.
Remember "Zionism is racism?" That was the high tide in the battle to turn the word Zionism from a mantle of national pride in Israel as the Jewish Homeland, to one that carries the toxic undercurrent of ultra-nationalism and oppression of the “other.”
The UN resolution equating Israel's existence with evil was rescinded in 1991, but the fallout continues. Haters of Israel to this day employ variations of the term Zionism - ZioNazi, Zionist Occupying Government - as synonyms for what they most want people to associate with Jews and the Jewish State, thereby subtly winning adherents to their cause.
The battle against Zionism continues today, only now it seens as though it is also being fought inside the gates of the world's biggest Jewish charity. It’s not that the Jewish establishment actually opposes Zionism. But Israel’s detractors have been so successful that, to put it bluntly: the term Zionism doesn’t poll well. And if Zionism doesn’t poll well, and your goal is to raise money to support Jews and the Jewish Homeland, you’re left with quite a conundrum, indeed, a veritable hornet’s nest.
One former high-ranking leader of global Jewish philanthropy has claimed that the largest Jewish charity in the world succumbed to the polling/fundraising dilemma by rejecting the use of the term Zionism because that term is “too controversial” - at a recent high level meeting. When this reporter tried to investigate the truth, she unwittingly became, like the title of a popular book, the Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.
My news article about the Jewish Federations of North America alleged decision to avoid the use of the word Zionism in a major planning document unleashed a firestorm response by JFNA leadership so relentless, one-sided and shrill that their behavior, rather than the underlying original story, must now be laid bare.
Here are the facts.
On July 27, 2012, my article ran in The Jewish Press.
In writing the story, I did what reporters are supposed to do. First I researched and then interviewed the person making the claim. I then reached out to JFNA people who were at that meeting, and/or who are major players within the JFNA world. I reached out to them for hours, across several states, time zones and levels of leadership, in attempts to include in my story the JFNA response. I was explicit about who I was and what I was making contact about.
I contacted New York City UJA-Federation Chair John Ruskay, his press contact person Jane E. Rubinstein; president of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland Steve Hoffman; JFNA’s senior vice president for Global Planning, Joanne Moore; JFNA Vice President for Public Policy and Director of the Washington, D.C. JFNA office, William Daroff; and JFNA spokesman Joe Berkofsky. I was stonewalled at every turn: I got literally nothing of substance back.
After receiving repeated deadline extensions from my editor in Israel - as a daily reporter I am expected to submit a news story every day - I then engaged in a final, harried hour-long Direct Message Tweet exchange in which I implored Daroff to help me find someone from JFNA to comment on my story. I told him who I had already contacted, and explained, “I’d hate to run the story without your input.” Ultimately, after receiving an autoreply from the only person he finally suggested I contact whom I hadn’t yet, Joe Berkofsky, I sent my last message to Daroff: “Joe is out of the office until Aug. 6th. I’ll have to file it without a comment from any Federations folks. Too bad.” I got nothing back from that message either.
I then, after numerous deadline extensions, finally delivered the story to my editor, Yori Yanover, in Israel (it was after 3:00 a.m. there). That story laid out what I had learned from Richard Wexler, a credible source whom I named in my story. I wrote that my source was a long-term JFNA critic, but I also explained that he was, nonetheless, someone who had been at the forefront of Jewish philanthropic giving for decades and who was still a major player in the Federation world. The article informed my readers --twice -- that JFNA officials involved in the decision had been contacted but had not responded. The article also pointed out that the alleged decision to remove the term “Zionism” was not, according to Wexler, a final decision and was one made only at a planning meeting, about a document that had not been finalized.
And then it really hit the fan.
What should have been a minor story about a credible critic’s claim that JFNA leadership had rejected the term Zionism as “too controversial,” followed by a JFNA response denying that that’s what happened, and making clear Federation’s Zionist credentials, disappeared in a barrage of personal and unfounded attacks on me.
I began receiving emails early the next morning, informing me that I would soon receive a JFNA statement to include in my (already completed and online!) article. Several hours later I was emailed a statement that did not in any way address the actual question I had raised with any of the half dozen JFNA leaders the day before, nor Wexler's claims in my article.
The JFNA statement did not deny that the term Zionism had been removed from a Federation planning document because it was “too controversial.” JFNA ignored that factual claim -- which was the sole point of my article. Instead, JFNA announced it was absurd to accuse them of abandoning Zionism - which I had not done - and then trumpeted its Zionist credentials. In their statement there is literally no reference to the factual claim to which Federation was supposed to be responding.
After Shabbat and Tisha B’av services in Israel, my editor posted - boxed and highlighted - JFNA’s response as an update to my article. He noted that it did not address the issue raised in the article -- whether the term Zionism had been removed from a JFNA Global Planning Table document because that term was deemed “too controversial.”
But in addition to ignoring the question actually raised in the article, we learned something had been removed from the JFNA Statement they sent us. I received copies of the full statement from people all across the country. And what they removed from this document made clear their strategy.
Kathy Manning, Trustee Board Chair, and Jerry Silverman, President/CEO of JFNA, had sent out a mass email to all Federation executives, the subject line of which was “Urgent!”. That email began: "On July 27, 2012, Lori Lowenthal Marcus wrote accusing the Jewish Federations of North America of moving away from its support of Israel and Zionism." Of course, as anyone can see from reading the article I wrote, I had not done that at all. And I had tried repeatedly to get their rebuttal, which they refused to give. Some Federation executives merely forwarded the statement, but some of them went further.
Certainly those at the top knew I had made repeated efforts to include JFNA’s view of the alleged removal of the term Zionism from a global planning document. Yet JFNA's version was written as if all I did was read a nasty blog and that I then “ran with it,” merely reprinting in The Jewish Press what I had read elsewhere.
Sunday evening I called JFNA CEO Jerry Silverman at his home. I hoped we could discuss the situation and salvage what was becoming a different JFNA disaster than the merely alleged one I originally tried to cover. Silverman didn’t take, and never returned, my call.
Eventually a JFNA statement was released that finally addressed, at least tangentially, the factual claim I had made. It presented a detailed, “official” version of what happened at the June Global Planning Table Committee meeting. This statement was also posted on The Jewish Press website.
Silverman’s July 30th statement admitted that a choice had been made not to use the word Zionism in the document. In this version of the story the decision was simply made not to use, rather than to remove that word from, the document, but that decision was pooh-poohed as a mere matter of “wordsmithing.”
If the reality was so benign, why all the non-denial denials, and why all the attacks on me? Had this, minus all the hysteria, been their response to my pre-publication inquiries, the story would have been small, and with no legs. That would have been true even if Richard Wexler continued to claim, as he does,(July 26 - Aug. 12), that (multiple) people in the room when the “mere wordsmithing” decision was made insist the “official” JFNA version is false.
But the hornets were angry; I kept getting stung.
I and my article were labeled "scurrilous," "vituperative," "false," "evil," misleading,” and “lashon hara.” And in their latest statement, JFNA leadership used the most somber day in the Jewish calendar to reprimand me and to accuse me publicly of “sinat chinam”-- the baseless hatred of one Jew for another that, according to Jewish tradition, caused nothing less than the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of Jewish sovereignty in Israel for 2000 years. In Federation's narrative, I was presented as the one who needed to repent.
This “baseless hatred” statement not only went out to Federation executives, and was placed in the Comments section under my article on The Jewish Press website. It was also posted on the JFNA website, was sent out in Federation newsletters, and was emailed to thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of Federation subscribers across the country. It showed up in the emailboxes of people from Boston to Los Angeles, from Phoenix to Florida, from Detroit to Philadelphia, and many places in between. Federation officials also strong-armed people who had sent out the original article, telling them to atone for that sin by sending out their statement which, essentially, called me a liar.
On Wednesday, August 1, Zach Goldberg, whom I later learned works for a DC public relations firm, called about the telephone message I left at Silverman’s home the previous Sunday. I told him about the nastiness being distributed on Federation letterhead and over Federation signatures. Despite my anger, I told him I would like to meet with Silverman or someone else to try to end this growing nightmare in a positive, productive way. I never heard again from Goldberg.
So what actually happened at the meeting out of which this ugly fight arose? We have two accounts. One account has remained consistent - Wexler’s. The other, JFNA’s, began as a stubborn silence, then morphed into a personal attack on a reporter, which lasted through several iterations, then shape-shifted again into a long-winded explanation about “mere” word-smithing, capped off with a high-handed and self-serving invocation of the religious obligation - but only of others - to repent.
My editor joked that he wouldn’t be surprised to see me being used in JFNA fundraisers the way Rachel Maddow is used by Republican fundraisers and Sarah Palin by Democrats. He wrote: “I can see it now, a local Federation brochure: 'Lori Lowenthal Marcus wants you to hate Jewish Federations, but we won’t let her. Send your checks to the address below.'"
What I released when I inadvertently kicked that hornet’s nest is an unnecessarily ugly side of organized Jewish life. I am sure our true enemies - the ones who turned Zionism into a dirty word - are delighted.