in the room

Inside Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s speech to the Jewish Federations’ board

Gillibrand discussed her trip to Israel and Abraham Accords countries, antisemitism on campuses with Federations leadership

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) (R) arrives for a vote at the Senate chamber at the U.S. Capitol June 22, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) spoke yesterday to the Jewish Federations of North America’s board meeting about her recent trip to Israel and the other signatory countries to the Abraham Accords, addressing concerns surrounding the new Israeli government as well as prospects for regional peace, an individual in the room told Jewish Insider.

JFNA’s board came together on Sunday and Monday to approve the Federations’ policy agenda for the year, with about 150 board members in attendance, half of whom participated virtually.

The New York senator, who visited Israel last month with members of the Abraham Accords Caucus, told JFNA that she does not agree with Israel’s proposed judicial reforms — which critics say would erode the separation of powers and the judiciary’s ability to act as a check on other parts of the government — but added that it was not her place to discuss Israel’s internal processes, the individual said.

However, she said, “I can tell you when I met with Israeli civil society members and local leaders, they’re very worried. They were very worried that it would destroy the democracy of Israel, and that it would change the balance of powers that they believe Israel has always had.”

Gillibrand echoed comments she has made publicly about the prospects for regional peace, saying that she has “never been more optimistic.”

“I’ve never seen Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu have a path for peace in his mind before. In fact, every meeting I’ve had up until this one, he didn’t have one; he just said, ‘I can only protect my people,’” Gillibrand told the Federations leadership. “But right now he has a vision about what it would look like, how it could be done, and what allies he needs right now to get that done. And that started with the Abraham Accords.”

She elaborated on opportunities she sees for progress for the Palestinians under the Abraham Accords, arguing, “We should ask that these Arab countries invest in the Palestinians,” because the Palestinians would accept the Arab nations’ aid even if they will not accept Israeli help.

Gillibrand touched on rising antisemitism on college campuses, noting, “If you are a college kid on a campus today and you are Jewish, there might be efforts to make sure you can’t be in student government and their efforts to make sure you don’t have a voice, their efforts to demean you and to diminish you and for college kids that has a lot to handle.” 

She also more broadly addressed the “prolific and prevalent and wide ranging” rise in antisemitism and reiterated her support for the nonprofit security grant program.

The New York senator is up for re-election in 2024.

JFNA leadership discussed the group’s own position on the new Israeli government, according to an individual familiar with the meeting. Board Chair Julie Platt told the group that JFNA’s support for Israel is “unconditional and eternal. Full stop,” but also that the group has discussed with members of the new government its concerns.

Platt said that JFNA is urging the government not to differentiate between Jews based on denomination or identity, according to the individual. She also touched on proposed changes to the Law of Return and the judicial reform efforts.

Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, addressed the conference, following a Times of Israel op-ed last week, in which he and his co-authors urged American supporters of Israel to speak up against the proposed judicial reforms. Halevi told JI that the speech was “a briefing about the ideological meaning of the government’s twin assault on the liberal understanding of Israel’s identity as a Jewish and a democratic state.”

Also at the meeting, the Federations board voted to approve JFNA’s 2023 public policy priorities statement, which includes issues such as support for Israel; combating antisemitism; community security; incentives for charitable giving; health and human services support like Holocaust survivor support funding, Medicare and Medicaid; expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit; and refugee and immigration support, as well as other initiatives supporting the local federations across the country.

JFNA’s senior vice president for public affairs, Elana Broitman, told JI last week that the group has “seen an enormous amount of new work, new approaches in the antisemitism and pro-Israel space” in the initial weeks of the new Congress.

Broitman said that JFNA will be working on both increasing funding for the office of the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism as well as “other approaches to strengthen that office,” such as additional “authorities,” through initiatives that have not been introduced publicly yet.

She said the Federations will be supporting the newly reintroduced HEAL Act, which aims to audit the state of Holocaust education nationwide. The group will also remain engaged, Brotiman said, with the Abraham Accords and the Middle East Partnership for Peace Act.

On community security, JFNA will continue to push for $360 million in funding for the Nonprofit Security Grant Program, a longtime funding goal, as well as looking for “some additional authorities” through NSGP and supporting other Department of Homeland Security and Justice Department programs that aid in community security.

“We also recognize that there might be some constraints given the fiscal outlook, but this has been a bipartisan program,” Broitman said, referring to discussions around federal budget cuts. “I don’t want to be naively confident but I’m always optimistic because this program continues to be supported from all sides.”

Broitman and JFNA Associate Vice President for Public Affairs and Government Relations Darcy Hirsh said JFNA’s work on the Abraham Accords and people-to-people projects like MEPPA — which she noted have had strong bipartisan support — as well as security funding for Israel, will continue.

JFNA is engaged, with a coalition of other Jewish groups, in ongoing talks with financial services firm Morningstar over alleged anti-Israel bias in its Environmental, Social and Governance ratings. House Republicans have pledged to probe the ESG sector broadly, but Broitman said that JFNA has not engaged with them about hearings on Morningstar and that JFNA is “not taking a position against ESG as a sector.”

Hirsh highlighted that a JFNA-supported measure providing tax incentives for charitable giving passed at the end of the last Congress, and said JFNA will continue working on legislation relating to non-itemized charitable giving and other issues in the sector. Broitman said JFNA has also been “concerned” about the “attack on donor advised funds,” alluding to proposed legislation to place time restrictions on the charitable funding mechanism.

Brotiman noted that, in addition to long-running priorities, the statement also reflects “three things that happened last year that we were engaged in” — the passage of federal gun safety legislation, the passage of the Respect for Marriage Act and efforts to respond to the Dobbs decision overturning the national right to abortion. The statement also includes new language relating to supporting mental health care.

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