Following critiques by the media and by activists of the Jewish Federation of Durham-Chapel Hill’s and local synagogues’ “light” response to the employment of anti-Israel activists within their organizations, the Jewish Federation of Durham-Chapel Hill released a May 9 letter addressing the situation.

The letter detailed efforts made by the Jewish Federation of Durham-Chapel Hill against the Durham City Council decision last month that prohibits police exchanges with Israel’s military, and discussed where the Federation stands on employee-hiring decisions and the group Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP).

In response to the original submission of the petition by the Durham2Palestine coalition, the Federation submitted letters to the council members and Mayor Steve Schewel “expressing our concerns with the anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist rhetoric that was included and urged the removal of all language referring to Israel.”

When the resolution was revised but still included Israel, the Jewish Federation of Durham-Chapel Hill attended the City Council meeting and immediately following the adoption of the statement, Jewish Federation of Durham-Chapel Hill president Larry Rocamora and CEO Jill Madsen both wrote letters to Schewel.

The Federation letter stated: “When we learned about the anti-Semitic flyers around town, we immediately connected with the local police that we work closely with.”

Backlash ‘stirs strong emotions’

However, the letter added, “as if these two situations alone were not enough, most troubling have been the most recent articles in Jewish publications challenging the fabric of our organization.”

The letter stated that the articles “questioned the connection between JVP and a number of our local Jewish organizations,” and have “caused concern and stirred strong emotions within our community.”

In addition to critiques of the Jewish Federation of Durham-Chapel Hill by members of the press, various pro-Israel groups have also criticized the Federation for its tempered response, even calling for a “Close Your Wallet Campaign” against the Federation and the related Jewish Community Center.

Sloan Rachmuth, North Carolina chapter president of Proclaiming Justice to the Nations (PJTN), an organization that creates dialogue between Jews and Christians about anti-Semitism and American BDS, is leading one of these campaigns and told JNS: “Like everyone else, I was horrified when I learned of the pending City Council vote to boycott Israel. Then after watching the actual video of the meeting itself, where JVP and their leader Sandra Korn demonized the Jewish people and Israel, I knew I had to step up to counteract this false campaign.”

When Rachmuth learned that “the very people responsible for this BDS campaign were employees of the Federation and JCC, and held positions of leadership and of educators within each synagogue in Durham,” she went to the leaders and board members of each organization “to beg them to separate from these JVP activists.”

Rachmuth reported that “leaders are doubling down to support them while calling us ‘misguided.’ They are arguing against BDS, but are defending their right to hire these activists to plan attacks from within. There is not much we can do to fight BDS when our institutions are giving them platforms to act against us.

“We want their financial supporters to know that by elevating these BDS activists to prominence within our own community,” continued Rachmuth, “the Durham Jewish Federation and the JCC is, in fact, endangering all families in our community.”

Establishing clear expectations regarding employees

Since receiving critiques on a lack of transparency as to the Jewish Federation’s policies on employees, the Federation noted that while it does not support JVP—nor do the two missions align—it will not “publically call out and renounce individual members of JVP,” and instead chooses to “embrace pluralism and welcome diverse beliefs and opinions within the community.”

As the letter read: “While we have no business having a political litmus test for employees, we did embark on a process of speaking with a diverse group of community members and conducted an evaluation of our personnel handbook to think deeply regarding what our expectations should be.”

According to the Jewish Federation of Durham-Chapel Hill, this review led to revisions in their handbook that outline various expectations of employees.

“We have also begun working to establish a clear statement of our position and practices with respect to Israel so we can provide better transparency for the community regarding our mission, vision and values,” the letter added. “We know that these changes will assist us moving forward as an organization, and that these new components will guide our hiring decisions in the future.”