Meeting mess

Mainstream Jewish groups pull out of Dept of Ed meeting over inclusion of far-left activists

One of the invited groups is closely associated with IfNotNow, the far-left Jewish advocacy group that has allied itself with anti-Israel organizations

Colin Myers/Claflin University/HBCU via Getty Images

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona

Several mainstream Jewish groups pulled out of a meeting on Friday with high-level Biden administration officials about campus antisemitism after learning that the Department of Education had also included a number of left-wing groups not usually included in White House convenings, including one organization that is closely aligned with the far-left Jewish activist group IfNotNow.

The meeting with Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and White House Domestic Policy Adviser Neera Tanden was requested by Jewish advocacy groups that had previously met with Cardona in October, shortly after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks that set off a wave of antisemitism in the U.S. Friday’s meeting was scheduled in light of rising antisemitism at anti-Israel protests at U.S. college campuses. The meeting took place a day after President Joe Biden condemned violent protests and antisemitism.

“The groups who had requested the meeting found out at the last minute that the meeting was not going to proceed as planned and it’s now being rescheduled,” said one source familiar with the meeting. Another participant told Jewish Insider that they decided to sit out the discussion after the Education Department sent a list of participating organizations 20 minutes before the meeting was scheduled to begin. 

Jewish Federations of North America, Hillel International, the Anti-Defamation League, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Orthodox Union and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law either did not participate in or dropped off the call, another source familiar with the meeting told JI. 

These groups, along with the National Council of Jewish Women and the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, wrote to Cardona last Friday to ask him to meet with them within a week. Their email to Cardona asked him to join the Jewish advocates “to discuss concrete actions the Department can take to support the restoration of order, compliance with civil rights laws and the protection of Jewish students,” according to a copy of the letter obtained by JI. The letter said that actions previously proposed by the Jewish organizations in meetings with senior Education Department staff “were not taken and now we confront the current crisis.”

Representatives of the groups that pulled out were frustrated to see the inclusion of some progressive organizations that oppose the use of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, including T’ruah, the Nexus Leadership Project and Bend the Arc. They were also surprised — and puzzled — to see a group called the Diaspora Alliance, which many had never heard of. 

The Diaspora Alliance group is closely associated with IfNotNow, which since Oct. 7 has aligned itself with Jewish Voice for Peace and other anti-Israel advocacy groups. Three of the Diaspora Alliance’s staff members — including the group’s international director, Carinne Luck, along with Simone Zimmerman and Emma Saltzberg — co-founded IfNotNow a decade ago. Diaspora Alliance opposes the use of the IHRA definition, which has been endorsed by the Education Department, calling it “bad for Jews and Palestinians, and for human and civil rights.”

IfNotNow’s New York City chapter released a statement this week “in support of student activists” at Columbia University and other campuses in New York, calling the activists “brave students [who] have spoken up in solidarity with Palestinians as they face a genocide in which our country and their universities are complicit.” IfNotNow has been calling for a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war since days after the Oct. 7 attack and advocating for the U.S. to stop sending military assistance to Israel. The group has been referring to Israel’s war against Hamas as a genocide since mid-October.

The meeting was organized by the Department of Education, which did not notify the White House of the attendees, according to a Biden administration official, who said the White House does not meet with the Diaspora Alliance. In the meeting, Tanden conveyed that fighting antisemitism is a top priority for the White House, the official shared.

An Education Department spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

“I think it’s a good thing that Secretary Cardona wants to meet with a broad swath of the Jewish community to get the fullest possible picture of what’s happening,” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah, a progressive rabbinic human rights organization. “If there are centrist groups that refuse to be in a Zoom with an organization that represents more than 2,300 rabbis, including campus rabbis and rabbis who are in touch with college students from their communities regularly, they might want to reconsider that.” 

The groups that pulled out of the morning Zoom call scheduled a separate meeting with the Education Department on Friday afternoon, according to a source with knowledge of the groups’ plans. 

Amy Spitalnick, the CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, described the meeting as constructive, and said that the administration “has repeatedly made clear its commitment to countering antisemitism on campus and keeping Jewish students safe,” including on the meeting, but highlighted that the Education Department needs additional resources.

Department officials shared that Office of Civil Rights staffers are currently each handling 50 open cases, given the volume of complaints filed in recent months, one participant shared.

Another source said that officials discussed previous and upcoming steps to address campus antisemitism, including an upcoming guidance to be issued next week around free speech on campuses. They said that the officials “clearly understand the issue” and are “very concerned about antisemitism and student safety and the difference between the right to protest.”

On Friday morning, Cardona sent a letter to college and university presidents condemning “abhorrent” instances of antisemitism on college campuses and directing them to resources to better combat it.

“As the 2023-24 school year comes to a close, I remain incredibly concerned by the reports of antisemitic hate directed at students on some campuses,” Cardona said in the letter, which was published by CNN. He described a “sharp rise in reports of antisemitism targeting Jewish students on some college campuses.”

Other organizations who attended the Friday meeting include Agudath Israel, the American Jewish Committee, J Street U, the National Council of Jewish Women, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, UJA-Federation of New York and the Rabbinical Assembly. 

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