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What Makes an American Jewish Hero?

The JTA has published another article on the ousting of a Jewish Voice for Peace activist from the Jewish Federations of North America’s “Jewish Community Heroes” contest. While this specific tempest in a teapot has
thankfully received little traction to date, it nevertheless points to a debate about whether or not to welcome Jewish anti-Israelists into the communal fold that will likely figure at the center of American Jewish discussion for years
to come.

The JFNA is the organizing body for the many Federations around the continent, which collectively raise and distribute more than $3 billion annually for communal needs. The heroes contest is a three-year-old affair designed to garner greater, and well-deserved, attention for this work by allowing anyone to nominate individuals as a “hero.” Nominees can then collect online votes, and the top 10 finalists in two categories move on to a panel of judges, who
select a “hero” of the year who gets a $25,000 grant, as well as another four finalists who also get grants in the thousands of dollars, all through the Federation structure. Jay Feinberg, founder and head of the eminently worthy Gift of Life foundation dedicated to finding Jewish bone marrow donors and last year’s winner, is a good example of an ideal candidate.

Jewish Voice for Peace had the clever idea this year of nominating its deputy director for the contest. A few weeks ago, it was noticed that she was running number 10 in the voting, putting her on pace to at least be named a semi-finalist. When the alarm was raised, JFNA quickly removed her from the contest, releasing a statement that read, in part, “A central value of The Jewish Federations of North America is to support Israel, and the Jewish Heroes rules preclude us from accepting any nominees whose aims run counter to that mission.” In other words, a laudable statement of moral clarity that did not shy away from the basic truth that whatever else JVP might be, its inability to voice support for Israel’s continued existence as a Jewish state, regular partnerships with the most radical anti-Israel groups, and support for BDS, means it is most certainly beyond the pale.

It is a central marketing premise of JVP, though, to play up the allegedly “silencing” of both Israel-critical Jews and gentiles in America. Exactly the formula used to such successful PR effect by other noted conspiracy-mongers who cried about their silencing all the way to the bank to deposit their $750,000 advance from the most prestigious publishing house in the country.

You see JVP’s total adoption of this meme nearly everywhere, from the title of its blog (“Muzzlewatch”) to an April
2011 San Francisco Chronicle op-ed
complaining that efforts to remove university sponsorship from an anti-Israel event held at Berkeley’s law school threatened free speech. So it is no wonder that the group is using its most recent ousting to try to galvanize a campaign against JFNA.

Of course, pro-Israel Jews can’t prevent JVP from speaking any more than we can anyone else. Lack of confidence on this point though can make Jewish organizations an easy target. So when JVP and its staff aren’t being named to the Forward 50 list or invited to sit at panels at prominent synagogues, they’ll be whining about their silencing, and at least sometimes getting in the door for it.

Reason enough to do whatever one can to let JFNA know leaving JVP outside to sulk was the right thing to do.



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