'Do People Care?' Jewish-American Activism on Israel Struggles to Survive Coronavirus

Pro-Israel and Jewish groups on both sides of the political divide are rushing to connect with supporters online as coronavirus crisis threatens to cut off vital funds, posing what could be the greatest challenge to Jewish peoplehood in our lifetimes

Allison Kaplan Sommer
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A member of the audience looks on wearing a United States-Israel themed custom suit during the AIPAC convention at the Washington Convention Center in Washington, U.S., March 2, 2020.
A member of the audience looks on wearing a United States-Israel themed custom suit during the AIPAC convention at the Washington Convention Center in Washington, U.S., March 2, 2020.Credit: TOM BRENNER/ REUTERS
Allison Kaplan Sommer

It’s a well-worn lament that has intensified during the Obama and Trump years: Israel and American Jews are drifting apart, and the gulf between them has become impossible to bridge. But that cry was always a metaphor. There was never a real physical divide between America and Israel, nothing that physically kept them from traveling back and forth, and sharing in each other’s joys and sorrows. 

Until now. 

Today, even those with the closest ties to members of the tribe on the other side of the Israel-Diaspora divide must stay put. Moreover, as Israelis and American Jews cope with the deadly and frightening new realities in each of their countries, they have little mental bandwidth for what is happening far away, even when it is happening to their brethren.

In short, COVID-19 presents the greatest challenge to Jewish peoplehood in most of our lifetimes. 

It is an environment in which American Jewish groups focusing on Israel advocacy and Israel fundraising must tread carefully. In the hierarchy of Jewish organizations – particularly in New York City, which has been hit hardest by the coronavirus – the welfare arms are clearly the top priority at the moment when it comes to allocating resources, which many fear will soon become scarce as the economic impact of the shutdown is fully felt.

Next on the ladder: religious institutions, to meet the spiritual needs of a ravaged and suffering community. 

Yet while political action, advocacy and fundraising related to Israel may not top the communal priority list at the moment, these groups are forging ahead, with no intention of freezing their activities.

“All of us are very much focused on the health and economic crises facing the U.S. and its impact on our loved ones. But that doesn’t take away from our connection to, and concern about, what’s happening in Israel – politically, economically and in terms of public health,” said Mark Mellman, president and CEO of the Democratic Majority for Israel. 

“That bond wasn’t broken throughout 2,000 years of exile, persecution and plagues. It’s not going to be broken by this pandemic either,” he added.

An ultra-Orthodox man walking next to the nearly deserted Western Wall in Jerusalem, March 31, 2020.
An ultra-Orthodox man walking next to the nearly deserted Western Wall in Jerusalem, March 31, 2020.Credit: AFP

Quick thinking

Many groups are more active than ever, pivoting both to refocus their mission on coronavirus-related issues, and moving their activities to the virtual realm as quickly as possible. They are aware that those who are quickest on their feet have the best chance of surviving an era where conferences, gala fundraising dinners and cocktail party “meet and greets” are off the table.      

Soon after the coronavirus crisis hit, the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby J Street quickly inaugurated J Stream, bringing all of its programming online as “a resource to keep our movement connected to the issues we care about, even in this time of social distancing.”

Designed for “this time of physical isolation,” the J Stream web page this week offered online programming like a briefing on easing economic sanctions in Iran and Venezuela in the shadow of COVID-19, with Senator Chris Murphy (Democrat of Connecticut). 

But coronavirus concerns are not the only things on the agenda. Concern that the deal being negotiated for Israel’s national unity government will involve a push toward annexation of parts of the West Bank has sounded alarm bells for the Israel Policy Forum, which, like J Street, created an online page for its digital offerings.

Although all of his group’s activities are clearly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, Executive Director David Halperin said his forum remains focused on its fight to keep the two-state solution alive. 

“We have been warning about the dangers of unilateral annexation for more than two years. To advance such a measure will have lasting negative ramifications, and to do so amid an unprecedented health crisis would be especially reckless,” said Halperin. 

In that vein, the group put together a letter pleading with Kahol Lavan leaders Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi to “remain steadfast” in opposing annexation, which would further alienate American Jews who support a two-state solution

Caving on this issue, they warned, “will call into question the Israeli government’s priorities during a global and national emergency. ... It will be viewed as political opportunism by proponents of annexation during the worst possible moment and will make it more challenging for American Jewish leaders as they seek to maintain strong support for Israel and pro-Israel policies at this time.” 

Even as the coronavirus dominates the agenda in the United States, the clock continues to tick toward the 2020 elections

Mellman said his group is forging ahead, “even though the inability to do in-person meetings together with the economic crisis have made fundraising much more difficult.” Although the Democratic Majority for Israel’s concerns regarding Bernie Sanders have receded, with former Vice President Joe Biden having all but locked down the party’s nomination, there are still many Senate and House contests to resolve and other fights ahead.

“While we don’t yet know the form this year’s Democratic National Convention [originally scheduled for Milwaukee in mid-August] will take, we still assume there will be a discussion of the Israel plank in the platform, and we’re continuing to implement our multifaceted plan to ensure it remains pro-Israel,” Mellman noted. 

The group, he said, has worked to keep its donors and activists engaged through Zoom events: one in coordination “with leaders of the Arizona Democratic Party to beat back an anti-Israel resolution”; and another when the group’s PAC arm held a Zoom “meet and greet” with pro-Israel, congressional candidate Kweisi Mfume, the former national president of the NAACP. 

Palestinian artists working on a sand sculpture depicting the Earth with a message reading "Stay Home," along a beach in Gaza City, March 31, 2020.
Palestinian artists working on a sand sculpture depicting the Earth with a message reading "Stay Home," along a beach in Gaza City, March 31, 2020.Credit: AFP

On the other side of the political map, the far-left, anti-occupation collective IfNotNow is persevering in advocating for the Bernie Sanders campaign, arguing that, at a time like this, the nomination should go to a “true mensch.”

At the same time, co-founder Yonah Lieberman said, “We have spent the past two weeks working hard to pressure the Israeli government to lift the blockade of Gaza and provide medical supplies to the Palestinians living there.”

The group launched a petition that garnered 13,000 signatures and hosted a mass call with Palestinians living in Gaza. The group has also been raising funds for the British organization Medical Aid for Palestinians, which is working to fight the spread of the coronavirus in Gaza. 

A primary concern

As a major funder of nongovernmental organizations in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, the New Israel Fund has felt an “extra responsibility” to remain financially stable, because in addition to its own global staff, so many NGOs in Israel are dependent on its support, said Libby Lenkinski, the group’s vice president for public engagement. 

“Because we are the preeminent funder and engine of Israeli civil society, if we are unsuccessful in maintaining some semblance of our operating budget, it puts another swath of people at risk,” she said. When “it’s a really hard and uncertain time for all nonprofits that depend on donations,” the group felt it needed to be “proactive very early on,” she added.

The group has vowed to support “an equitable and inclusive coronavirus response in Israel,” approving emergency grants “to provide food, supplies, medical assistance and legal resources to asylum seekers, who have no safety net.”

In addition, its grantee, Physicians for Human Rights Israel, is promising to “respond to requests to support emergency services for people with disabilities, victims of domestic violence and Palestinian laborers stranded in Israel with no place to go.”

Lenkinski said she feels lucky because despite the focus on the crisis in the United States right now, “for a large number of NIF supporters at all levels, what is happening on the ground in Israel is really still primary for them. … Many of them have lived in Israel for extended periods of time, speak Hebrew, have close extended family and travel there very often.”

She said she realized this soon after the crisis hit, when the group’s prescheduled webinar on the March 2 Israeli election was better attended than previous similar events. 

“The turnout was a big clue to me. Until then, it was a big question: Do they care? Will they show up? It seemed the answer was a resounding yes.”

A member of the Orthodox community moving past a special coronavirus intake area at Maimonides Medical Center in the Borough Park neighborhood, April 5, 2020.
A member of the Orthodox community moving past a special coronavirus intake area at Maimonides Medical Center in the Borough Park neighborhood, April 5, 2020.Credit: AFP

That is when they began intensifying their online work: scheduling webinars about their various grantees’ responses to COVID-19.

A wider challenge, she said – assuming social distancing is here to stay for many months – is replacing the “feeling and sense of community” that in-person events help to generate and preserve. One out-of-the box experiment that is succeeding, Lenkinski said, is a New Israel Fund online film club. They are sending out announcements with links to films with themes about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with a scheduled Zoom event in which the filmmakers speak and answer questions.

The third “meeting” takes place this week, she said, and so far hundreds have signed up and participated in each session. 

In a similar vein, the American Jewish Committee said it had beefed up its digital offerings for its online community of over 2.3 million people – which it claims is the largest of any major Jewish organization – and moved its advocacy operations into the digital realm.

“We launched a new online platform, Advocacy Anywhere: Powered by AJC, in mid-March and have since offered dozens of live online programs to various audiences – college students, young professionals, our donor community and the general public,” said Avi Mayer, the group’s managing director of global communications.

The content, he said, has included “talks by the Israeli, Italian and Spanish ambassadors to the United States; sessions with members of Congress; a briefing from Israeli experts at the forefront of the battle against the coronavirus; discussions with officials from several Jewish communities on how they’re handling the crisis.”

Although times are tight financially for nonprofits, AJC announced last week it would provide a total of $150,000 to help COVID-19 efforts in New York City, to the MIGAL Galilee Research Institute in Israel, and to the Italian government and the country’s Jewish community. 

“While this period of physical distancing is necessary to save lives, we must remain as connected as ever – to government interlocutors, to our partners in other faith and ethnic communities, to the global Jewish family, and to the entire AJC community – to ensure that we are able to weather this storm together and emerge reinvigorated,” Mayer said.

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