(JTA) — Tensions among Jewish groups allied with the Biden administration blew into the open this week when a Democratic pro-Israel group briefly called a longtime Jewish leader an enabler of antisemitism — a sign of how potent a debate over a definition of antisemitism has become.
Nancy Kaufman led Boston’s Jewish Community Relations Council for 20 years, from 1990 to 2010. She has also led the National Council for Jewish Women. Many progressive Jewish leaders have said she would be a good choice for President Joe Biden’s antisemitism monitor, a position she has said interests her.
Then, on Monday, the Democratic Majority for Israel, or DMFI, which backs Democrats who hew to traditional pro-Israel orthodoxies, tweeted about Kaufman: “Too often she has enabled, rather than battled, antisemitism.”
The Boston group Kaufman helmed called for an apology and a retraction.
“This is reprehensible and uncalled for,” it said in a tweet. Kaufman’s “20 years leading our JCRC are evidence of her deep commitment to the welfare of the Jewish people and her yeoman’s work combatting antisemitism.”
Following a hailstorm of outraged calls from an array of liberal Jewish groups for a retraction, DMFI deleted the tweet and acknowledged its error.
“Nancy Kaufman is a forceful advocate for the Jewish people,” DMFI said. “Nonetheless, we would oppose her nomination to be our antisemitism ambassador. We were wrong to suggest she supports antisemitism and we apologize for any such implication.”
The DMFI attack was an expression of an increasingly fraught debate between mainline pro-Israel groups who want Biden to hew to a standard that keeps publicly expressed criticism of Israel to a minimum and progressive groups that want the administration to openly ratchet up pressure on Israel.
The battle has expressed itself in Congress recent months with competing legislative initiatives all launched by Democrats. Some call for increased pressure on Israel; some say that aid to Israel is sacrosanct; some argue for a full speed ahead reentry into the Iran nuclear deal; some counsel wariness.
AIPAC, the pro-Israel powerhouse, backed the more traditional pro-Israel initiatives. DMFI and AIPAC have no formal affiliation, but an array of Democrats who routinely appear at AIPAC conferences are on DMFI’s board and staff.
So far, the influence of the pro-Israel and Israel-critical factions among Democrats on the Biden administration has amounted to a split decision. Biden officials have rejected any calls to pressure Israel on peace issues, but they are pushing ahead with talks to reenter the Iran deal.
The tone of the DMFI attack reflected how high the stakes are for both sides.
DMFI’s tweet ostensibly had to do with Kaufman’s bid to be the Biden administration’s antisemitism monitor. It was attached to a month-old Forward story about progressives backing Kaufman.
But the timing was odd: The administration is no closer to selecting a nominee from an array of candidates for the job, insiders close to the administration have said, and Kaufman is not believed to be on the shortlist.
Before retracting the tweet, a DMFI spokeswoman would not elaborate on the record what it was about Kaufman that “enabled” antisemitism. Kaufman did not reply to a request for comment.
Jewish Middle East policy groups are waging an intense battle over how best to define antisemitism. Multiple definitions advanced by various organizations overlap, but differ on how to apply the term when it comes to Israel.
Much of the Jewish establishment backs the definition embraced by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which includes this phrase: “Applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”
A number of liberal Jewish scholars and organizations, including several that back Kaufman in her antisemitism monitor bid, say the IHRA “double standards” language is too broad and have published definitions this year that allow for harsh definitions of Israel as not being antisemitic.
Kaufman told the Forward in the article attached to the DMFI tweet that she sees value in all the varied definitions.
“I think there should be lots of discussions about what is the best way,” she told the newspaper.
Democratic Majority for Israel backs the IHRA definition and has attacked progressives for opposing it.
DMFI, which has an affiliated political action committee, spars frequently with progressives on social media and elsewhere. It has come under fire from progressives who say it expends more energy attacking other Democrats than it does getting Democrats elected. Open Secrets, a group that tracks election spending and donations, shows the DMFI political action committee spending about a third of its money as of May 2020 attacking fellow Democrats.
Sometimes the exchanges get personal. A DMFI board member apologized last month after complimenting the “wordplay” of another Twitter user who mocked the Arab name of a fiancé of a founder of IfNotNow, a progressive Jewish group critical of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.
DMFI sees itself as a bulwark against elements on the progressive left who it says seek to delegitimize Israel, and aims to preserve the close ties that endured for decades between Democrats and the pro-Israel community.
“We will work to maintain and strengthen support for Israel among Democratic leaders including presidential and congressional candidates as well as with the grassroots of progressive movements,” it says in its mission statement.
Instead of strengthening support for Israel among Democrats, DMFI’s broadside against Kaufman alienated a rafter of groups that otherwise share its stated mission of advancing progressive causes while preserving the Israel-U.S. relationship.
Rabbi Jonah Pesner, who leads the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, called the DMFI attack “unfounded.”
“We can debate about how to best fight rising antisemitism at home and around the world,” he said. “But there’s no debate that attacks on a respected Jewish professional are unfounded and unbecoming.”
Rabbi Jill Jacobs, who directs T’ruah, a rabbinical human rights group said after DMFI posted its retraction tweet that the group is an outlier among liberal Jews and among Democrats.
“The actual majority of Jews in the US oppose white nationalism, and support human rights for both Israelis and Palestinians (which includes an end to occupation and a state for both peoples),” she said. “DMFI does not represent Democrats or the majority.”
As Boston JCRC director, Kaufman oversaw an often fractious community where left-right divides run deep. She worked closely with Republican and Democratic administrations in the state. After leaving the JCRC in 2010, she led the National Council of Jewish Women for nearly a decade.
“It is egregious to accuse someone with a record as strong as Nancy Kaufman’s as being insufficiently opposed to antisemitism,” Kaufman’s successor at NCJW, Sheila Katz, said in a statement. “It’s a blatant lie easily disproven by the countless actions and statements she has made throughout the years both in her role as CEO of NCJW and beyond.”
As the National Council of Jewish Women’s CEO in 2018, Kaufman pulled the group out of the Women’s March because of allegations of antisemitism in the movement’s upper reaches, but she later appeared on a panel with two of the accused women leaders and said she credited them with reaching out.
J Street, the liberal Jewish Middle East policy group, which like DMFI has an affiliated PAC and has often sparred with the group, called its attack on Kaufman “disgusting.”
Kaufman, J Street said on Twitter, “has spent her impressive career fighting for the Jewish community and our democratic values.”