Grass Roots Jewish Organizations Roar

Edwin Black Investigative Journalist
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Richard Allen is not a careful, polished Jewish communal leader with a seasoned staff operating from a mid-town Manhattan office, ensconced behind a stylized logo, fortified by tax-exempt donations and burnished advisors. Allen is a private businessman. He wields his entire “organization” from a computer in his office and, not infrequently, from a phone in his pocket. One moment he can be alone with his message, staring at his device screen with no one peering over his shoulder or blue-lining his message. Then, an instant later—from his office, from his home, from a sidewalk in New York City— he hits the SEND button. Instantly, he is no longer alone. Like an excitated neutron firing on a neural network, he is connected to 10,000 recipients who believe that he is a one-man crusade for Jewish issues, especially where establishment Jewish organizations have, from their perspective, failed to do the right thing. Those 10,000 recipients repeat, re-fire, and forward Allen’s calls-to-arms throughout their overlapping networks. Social media lights start blinking. Within minutes, a community of like-minded believers is mobilized against what they perceive as threats to Jewish and Israeli interests.

Many sometimes erroneously refer to Allen and his cohorts as “grass-roots.” Rather they are power mowers, hedgers, edgers, and cross-cutters—the disruptors, if you will—who charge full-speed into the thickets of hot-button issues in a way that both expresses their disdain for establishment Jewish organizations and their fear that the Jews are “losing.”

Losing what? Jewish safety on campus, the war against antisemitism, and also Israel. They understandably see a daily barrage of antisemitic attacks against Jews that could not have been imagined just a few years ago.

A white-hot gamut of issues and controversies spur such activists to action. Allen began his one-man crusades in 2010, when he became dismayed over the so-called Other Israeli Film Festival at the JCC of Manhattan. He formed JCCWatch. Immediately, Allen and JCCWatch unabashedly took mainstream New York Jewish groups to task for amplifying the message of such groups as the New Israel Fund (NIF) and B’Tselem, which Allen openly called “despicable BDS groups.” Both New Israel Fund and B’Tselem deny the charge.

“JCCWatch.org’s message to the board of directors of the JCC in Manhattan,” Allen loudly proclaimed, “is that they cannot live in two worlds: one where they state they support the people of Israel, and another where they abandon them by turning a blind eye to their links and partnerships to BDS and its non-governmental organization (NGO) supporters.”

Allen’s unthinkable brashness struck a receptive chord with thousands of Jews and Christian supporters who echoed his objections. An economic reality underpinned that resonance as Jews began to see that their tax-exempt communal dollars might be used against their own self-interest. See it clearly: the complaint was more than mere mistaken mission; it was misused money.

With no pretense of tax-exempt status, JCCWatch stamped its identity at an eponymous website. Quickly, Allen expanded his portfolio to other irksome issues. High among them was whether New York’s famed Israel Day parade, largely co-sponsored by New York’s Jewish Community Relations Council, would permit the New Israel Fund to march. Controversial programs of the NIF have been labelled by several Israeli officials as a campaign “to destabilize the IDF,” a charge the NIF scoffs at. At the height of his daily protests, Allen organized a crowd of 100 shofar blowers at the UJA-Federation’s New York building to cacophonously blast their condemnation.

Other Allen crusades include opposing the United Jewish Appeal’s financial links to the New Israel Fund and similar groups through the UJA’s donor-advised Communal Fund (The Fund’s defenders state it is obligated to honor donor-advised giving) and the fractious Iran nuclear deal that split Jewish leadership.

When asked, “Are you still the JCCWatch or are you really just Richard Allen?” he readily replied, “It is all now much bigger and JCCWatch was just a vehicle.”

Despite being dismissed by his establishment targets as a “nobody,” and a “fringe element,” many at all levels of Jewish and Israeli communal life have raced to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Allen and his protests. The list of travelling partners is long, stretching from Americans for a Safe Israel to the Zionist Organization of America to the Endowment for Middle East Truth [EMET] to a collection of Israeli Knesset leaders, such as MK Yariv Levin, then Knesset Coalition chairman and now Minister of Tourism. Indeed, Allen works with multipliers and amplifiers rooted throughout the Jewish communal topography.

A 2015 full-page ad for a massive Times Square rally against the Iran nuclear deal, organized and supported by Jewish Rapid Response Coalition of several dozen North American pro-Israel groups acting together, advertised such named speakers as former New York Governor George Pataki and former CIA director James Woolsey.

Helen Freedman, New York-based director of Americans for a Safe Israel, which has now established chapters across several states, confirms, “Whatever Richard Allen has done, he has done with us. AfSI says it regularly emails to a list of 2,000.

Carol Greenwald echoes Freedman. Greenwald is a Washington D.C.-based co-leader of Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art (COPMA), which opposes Jewish communal involvement with what the group sees as anti-Israel plays, operas, films, and exhibits. She explained, “We are driven by the issues not the organization. First we have the issue, and then we create the organization.”

Grassroots groups like JCCWatch, COPMA, and AfSI function at the ground level, but they interact freely with entrenched, well-honed special-purpose pro-Israel groups that have likewise emerged out of a perceived mission need.

As activist Eve Stieglitz, a founder of Jewish Rapid Action Coalition summed up, “We like disrupting,” adding, “We are a group of Jewish Avengers.”

Historian and journalist Edwin Black is the author of IBM and the Holocaust and Financing the Flames, has written about Jewish organizations for almost a half-century.