Quietly pushing the right-wing Israeli government’s agenda in the U.S.
Sheree Roth of Palo Alto, Calif., holds up a sign during a demonstration and vigil outside the Sir Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco, Oct. 17, 2003. The Jewish Community Relations Council held the event. The JCRC's chapters around the country have been vocal supporters of the Israeli government for years. At this event, Dr. Nabil Sha'ath, the Palestinian Authority foreign minister was speaking to the World Affairs Council inside the hotel. | Eric Risberg / AP

WASHINGTON—In the months since the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks in Israel and subsequent assault on Gaza, political repression has reared its ugly head in many places, including here in the U.S. In many of the censorship and intimidation actions that have targeted ceasefire activists, the spirit of McCarthyism seems to live again.

An understated but effective national level network known as the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) has played a key role in some of the efforts, with most of its campaigns carried out by its local affiliates. Its Greater Washington chapter, for instance, achieved some recognition in the national press when it pressured Jackson Reed High School into canceling a planned showing of a film presenting a Palestinian viewpoint on the occupation.

But that incident was just one episode in a bigger recent campaign aimed at silencing critics of the war in Gaza and weaponizing anti-Semitism in the school districts.

The organization has conducted an extensive campaign to draw the public to its side, an effort that has included rallies, teach-ins, public forums, and panel talks. Arranging paid trips to Israel for local elected officials is another tactic to win support. As one article in Forward details:

“In Montgomery County, a nine-day trip to Israel was scheduled to leave September 2 and was expected to include council members and county officials from the region surrounding the nation’s capital. The JCRC of Greater Washington organized the trip and paid for all travel expenses, though the costs were reimbursed by a private foundation.”

Last, but not least, JCRC chapters across the country have also donated funds to ballot measures and local-level candidates to push its agenda.

So, just what is the JCRC? The organization was founded in 1938, with the core functions—according to its own advertising—of “promoting social justice, combatting anti-Semitism and other forms of hatred, serving as the chief government relations and interfaith arms for local Jewry, and beginning in 1948, defending and supporting the State of Israel.”

It has long been a prominent institution within liberal Washington circles. The organization proudly proclaims that some of its members participated in the Civil Rights Movement, joining Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for the 1963 March on Washington.

In recent years, its public events have featured U.S. Senators, members of Congress, governors and governors-elect, and other well-placed elected officials from the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area.

One publication, Maryland Matters, has called JCRC “a potent political force in the State House and the Washington, D.C., region” with strong “political influence” and a “lengthy and substantive policy agenda.” It “doesn’t just advocate for Jewish interests,” the Maryland magazine said in a flattering article, “but also for an array of social service programs, criminal justice reforms, and other good works.”

In the past, JCRC also devoted significant activist efforts to the “plight of Soviet Jews,” including organizing daily protests at the Soviet embassy in Washington from 1972 until the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. And even though the USSR is long gone, anti-communist causes remain dear to the JCRC. One page on its website focuses on the Uyghur “genocide” in China, but it provides only shoddy evidence to support the allegations.

Another part of the organization’s stated mission is to “empower the community through the training and mobilization of grassroots activists who advocate on behalf of the State of Israel.” According to information previously posted on the group’s website, it has trained 800 students to “advocate for Israel.”

Carried out through the Israel Action Center, JCRC says its trained advocacy includes “regular briefings and programming.” The question, of course, arises: What kind of briefings and programming is involved? Hosting and organizing campus activities? Executing social media influence campaigns? Recruiting others to repeat the Israeli government’s views of its policies and military campaigns? Other groups have been known to participate in some or all of these.

Then there’s the matter of the group’s financials and leadership. Cause IQ, a web-based profile system for accounting firms related to non-profits and foundations, details a handful of grantees and donors. For JCRC’s Greater Washington chapter, for instance, the list includes the Jewish Foundation of Greater Washington and Fidelity Investments Charitable Gift Fund. JCRC has used its funds to lobby against an educational policy that portrays Israel as an occupying power. Not just that, it has also lobbied for anti-BDS legislation in state legislatures, intending to crack down on progressive movements that challenge the Israeli government’s apartheid policies.

This is not merely a local issue for people in Washington, though, since JCRC has at least 24 chapters spread around the U.S. Its San Francisco Bay Area affiliate has called on Mayor London Breed to veto a resolution for a ceasefire. The group has a history that goes much further back than the current war. In 2015, it opposed an Arabic language program in the Bay Area. This particular action ended in failure.

It is easy to focus on the big and very public organizations like ADL that advocate for the positions of the Israeli government and miss the smaller leaves on the trees, like the local affiliates of JCRC. Mobilizing and organizing at the local level to resist their efforts in school boards and state legislatures is crucial because the small stuff builds the big stuff. It enables further concerted actions at the state and national level and by extension the international.

Whether it’s firing teachers or canceling out Palestinian and critical voices opposed to Israeli policy, these actions must be resisted.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the views of its author.

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Max Chandler
Max Chandler

Max Chandler writes from Washington DC.