Richard Allen is not a careful, polished Jewish communal leader with a seasoned staff operating from a midtown 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, home or a New York City sidewalk — he hits “send.” Instantly, he’s no longer alone. Like an excited neuron firing on a neural network, he’s connected to 10,000 recipients who believe that he’s 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, refire, and forward Allen’s call to arms throughout their overlapping networks. Social-media lights start blinking. Within minutes, a community of like-minded believers mobilize against what they perceive as threats to Jewish and Israeli interests.
Allen is no anomalous gadfly buzzing at the periphery, but rather a determined activist who has unified an ad hoc, semi-cohesive army of independent pro-Israel and pro-Jewish defenders that have changed and continued to change the Jewish communal landscape. Jewish media can sometimes erroneously refer to them as “grass roots.” They are not grassroots struggling for water and sunlight, but rather power mowers, hedgers, edgers and crosscutters—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? Israel, Jewish safety on campus, Israel, the war against anti-Semitism and also Israel. They understandably see a daily barrage of anti-Semitic attacks against Jews that could not have been imagined just a few years ago. Losing what? Losing at the perimeter and from within as more disaffected Jewish youth, beleaguered students and establishment liberals turn away from their traditions, from identity and from the hard-won home that is Israel.
A white-hot gamut of issues and controversies spur such activists to action. Allen began his one-man crusade 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 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 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 of New York’s 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); the fractious Iran nuclear deal that split Jewish leadership; the Lerner Jewish Day School in North Carolina, embroiled in a parent lawsuit arising from staff involvement with pointed BDS activities (Lerner insisted all its actions were within its legal rights) and recent controversial actions at certain Hillels such as the one at Brown University, accused of opening its doors to groups such as Breaking the Silence, J Street, and B’Tselem and others anathema to many in the pro-Israel community, all directly due to “lack of leadership” by Hillel International CEO Eric Fingerhut, claims Allen. (Hillel spokesman Matt Berger angrily dismisses Allen’s statements as mere “accusations.”)
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 “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 Israeli tourism minister.
No one should dismiss the power of vest-pocket grass roots to grow in effectiveness and stature. In 2001, during the Second Intifada, Roz and Jerry Rothstein, upset with fractured support for Israel, cobbled together a small group of pro-Israel friends and contacts creating StandWithUs (SWU) to educate people in America and worldwide about the Jewish State. Today, that small band of audacious, like-minded people arguably sits at the tip of the apex of American Jewish organizations. SWU today wields an annual budget of more than $11 million, deploying some 80 staffers in 18 offices in five countries. Cramming its energetic central staff into tight offices and even hallway spaces in its Los Angeles headquarters, the organization in the last year alone has supported 854 pro-Israel educational programs on 180 campuses reaching some 90,000 campus students who have helped crank the wheels on 21 anti-BDS campaigns, bolstered by 78 specially trained Emerson Fellows.
Right now, Allen works with multipliers and amplifiers rooted throughout the Jewish communal topography.
In 2015, a full-page ad for a massive Times Square rally against the Iran nuclear deal, organized and supported by Jewish Rapid Response Coalition, a group of several dozen North American pro-Israel groups acting together, advertised such named speakers as former New York Gov. George Pataki and former CIA director James Woolsey. So many logos, from organizations large and small, mainstream and sidestream, cluttered the bottom of the flyer that they could barely fit.
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. We work with CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America), SWU and the ZOA (Zionist Organization of America).” Freedman’s group says it regularly emails to a list of 2,000.
Echoing Freedman is Carol Greenwald, a Washington, DC–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 has expanded her involvement from COPMA to CAMERA and, from there, to Coalition of Pro-Israel Advocates (COPIA) and even Jews Against Divisive Leaders (JADL). 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, Americans for a Safe Israel and COPMA 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. Among the dozens of such groups are Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME), The Israel Project, the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists (AAJLJ), Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), Israeli-American Council (IAC) and a fast-growing coterie of 21st-century groups that have girded to do battle for Israel and Jewish causes in ways they are convinced their leaders and their establishment have not.
As activist Eve Stieglitz, a founder of Jewish Rapid Action Coalition summed up, “We are people from business. So we use a business sense. We take action. We like disrupting.” Referring to a recent cinematic superhero hit, she added, “After all, we are a group of Jewish Avengers.”
Historian and journalist Edwin Black, author of IBM and the Holocaust and Financing the Flames, has written about Jewish organizations for almost a half-century.