For young activists charging that the mainstream American-Jewish establishment is actively working to muzzle criticism of Israel, the revelation Wednesday of a major donation funneled by the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco to shadowy blacklist group Canary Mission represents an “I told you so” moment.
“It opens a window into the lengths that the American-Jewish establishment will go to silence dissent around the occupation,” said Sarah Brammer-Shlay, a leader of the anti-occupation Jewish group IfNotNow.
Brammer-Shlay, a 27-year-old rabbinical student whose arm was broken in a violent dispersal of demonstrators in Israel during Jerusalem Day last year, said the news had made it “increasingly clear that the pro-occupation stances of the American-Jewish establishment is in deep contradiction to the values of my generation.”
Following the Forward exposé about the $100,000 donation from the Helen Diller Family Foundation (a “supporting foundation” of the San Francisco Federation), the federation released a statement Wednesday saying that the 2016 gift had been “a one-time grant” to Canary Mission, and that it would not be giving to the organization in the future.
An official IfNotNow statement said the donation represented “one more piece of evidence in the ever-growing list of ways that the American-Jewish establishment is actively supporting the occupation.” It called on “every single Hillel director [and] every single federation CEO” to “take a stand here: Condemn Canary Mission and commit to never supporting it, financially or otherwise.”
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Canary Mission has previously been criticized by a number of pro-Israel student groups for its aggressive tactics. Its website says it tracks and documents “people and groups that promote hatred of the U.S.A., Israel and Jews on North American college campuses.”
While she said she “wasn’t shocked” by the news of the donation, IfNotNow founding member Simone Zimmerman told Haaretz that “it hurts.”
In August, Zimmerman was detained at the Egyptian Taba border crossing into Israel and questioned by the Shin Bet security service – part of a wave of detentions of foreign citizens, both Jewish and non-Jewish, who are believed to be left-wing activists.
In some of these cases, the detainees reported that their interrogators referred to information obtained from the Canary Mission website.
The Jewish establishment, Zimmerman said, is “showing its true colors” by both “funding leadership programs for young people, while secretly also supporting an effort like Canary Mission that harasses young people who dare to criticize Israeli government policy – putting them at risk of losing jobs and being banned from Israel. What kind of commitment to the next generation is that? This reeks of hypocrisy and betrayal,” she said.
Zimmerman added that the secrecy surrounding the donation, which was revealed in the investigative report in The Forward, “highlights their desperation. They know how immoral this is and how bad it looks. They know if we knew they were supporting it we would feel disgusted and betrayed. So instead of grappling with why young people are criticizing Israel, they are secretly working to intimidate and shame us into silence.”
Sarah Anne Minkin, a lecturer at the University of San Francisco and a political activist, said she was deeply disturbed to learn that the S.F. Federation had been instrumental in delivering such a substantial sum of money to Canary Mission, and that the donation “should stain the name of both the Diller Foundation and the federation.”
“It’s very upsetting to me that San Francisco’s central Jewish institution – one that claims to organize and galvanize the resources of the Jewish people of my community – would do this,” she said. “It is all part of an effort to blur the distinction between Palestinian solidarity activism and anti-Jewish, anti-Semitic activity.”
In both San Francisco and the national Jewish community, the Diller Foundation is best known for its selective and generously funded Diller Teen Fellows program, which began in San Francisco in 1998 and grew with branches across the country. It now includes 32 participating communities worldwide and boasts over 3,400 graduates.
The program is a 15-month experience for high school students and, in contrast to Birthright Israel, markets itself as being more in-depth, with leadership training and volunteer activities in local U.S. communities. It culminates in a three-week experience in Israel, with the emphasis placed on interacting with their communities’ “twin cities,” hosting and being hosted by their Israeli counterparts.
Abraham Zuraw, now a freshman at Amherst College, participated in the 2016 Diller Teen Fellows program as a Chicago high school student, and said he “never imagined there could be any kind of connection between the Diller Foundation and Canary Mission.”
Zuraw said that while “nothing egregious” happened, his impression – as well as that of some other participants – was that the program was as “tolerant, pluralistic and thoughtful as advertised,” but that it presented a one-sided narrative and discouraged any debate over Israeli policy.
“There was no real indoctrination, but I had expected there would be a little more critical thinking and discussion of current events,” said Zuraw. “I came away a little disappointed. A lot of us were really interested in talking about the West Bank and politics in Israel. In Chicago, many of us are concerned with the direction of Israeli politics and wanted to bring that up – and they weren’t really prepared, capable or willing to have those conversations.”
He recalled that his group visited a rural Israeli community that had been under intense rocket fire during the Gaza war in the summer of 2014, and discussed the experience with their Israeli counterparts. “I tried to bring up whether they could perhaps empathize with the Palestinian civilians in Gaza who had been hit by rocket fire. The director swooped in and said, ‘We’re not talking about that – we are talking about the experiences of the people living in the moshav.”
Overall, he said, while there was no “overtly right-wing influence,” Zuraw felt “there was an avoidance. … They wanted us to come away with a ‘feel-good’ message about Israel and Israeli politics, and an interest in staying away from questions that would lead the fellows to look at things differently. They put a big emphasis on Diller Fellows becoming Israel advocates when they got to college.”
Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, said that if the foundation’s goal was to improve the atmosphere on college campuses regarding Israel and to fight the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, supporting Canary Mission was an utterly misguided way to accomplish that.
“It’s completely counterproductive,” she said. “Groups like Canary Mission just reinforce the idea popular on the left that there’s a Zionist conspiracy determined to shut down left-wing voices. This has a negative effect, it backfires. … If the funders of Canary Mission think that somehow intimidating pro-Palestinian students is going to generate love and support of Israel, it’s the exact opposite – it attracts support to boycotts of Israel.”