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, 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.
Allen is no anomalous gadfly buzzing at the periphery. He is an activist who has unified an ad hoc, semi-cohesive army of independent pro-Israel and pro-Jewish defenders who have changed and continued to change the Jewish communal landscape. Jewish media can sometimes erroneously refer to them as “grassroots.” They are not grass roots 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 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 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 on 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 labeled 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 defendersstate 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 their doors to groups such as Breaking the Silence, J Street, B’Tselem and others anathema to many in the pro-Israel community — all directly, claims Allen, due to “lack of leadership” by Hillel International CEO Eric Fingerhut (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 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 traveling partners is long, stretching from Americans for a Safe Israel to the Zionist Organization of America to the Endowment for Middle East Truth to a collection of Israeli Knesset leaders, such as MK Yariv Levin, now the minister of tourism.
No one should dismiss the power of vest pocket grassroots 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 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. StandWithUs 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 has in the last year alone 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, Richard 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 the Jewish Rapid Response Coalition 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 side stream, 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 and regularly emails to a list of 2,000 people, confirms, “Whatever Richard Allen has done, he has done with us. We work with CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America), [StandWithUs] and the ZOA.”
Carol Greenwald echoes Freedman. Greenwald is the 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 has expanded her involvement from COPMA to CAMERA and, from there, to COPIA (Coalition of Pro-Israel Advocates) and even JADL (Jews Against Divisive leaders).
Grassroots groups like JCCWatch, COPMA, and Americans for a Safe Israel 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, the Israel Project, the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, EMET, the Israeli-American Council and a fast-growing coterie of 21st-century groups which 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.” She continued, “We like disrupting.” Referring to a recent cinematic superhero hit, Eve added, “After all, we are a group of Jewish Avengers.”
Historian and journalist Edwin Black is the author of “IBM and the Holocaust” and “Financing the Flames.”