Jewish Fed raged at “so-called Jews” protesting Chicago-Israel police ties

Man speaks through bullhorn as protesters stand around

Rabbi Brant Rosen of Tzedek Chicago speaks at a September 2017 rally to demand that the Jewish United Fund of Chicago stop channeling donations to anti-Muslim hate groups. (JVP Chicago)

Steven Nasatir, president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Chicago, was enraged.

Speaking to his board on 17 December 2015, he railed at the “so-called Jews” who had protested outside the JUF’s headquarters days earlier, according to confidential approved minutes seen by The Electronic Intifada.

Members of Jewish Voice for Peace and the non-Zionist congregation Tzedek Chicago had rallied to demand that the JUF end its role promoting ties between the Chicago Police Department and Israel.

It was among actions all over the country called for by Jewish Voice for Peace in solidarity with communities facing racism and Islamophobia.

According to the minutes, Nasatir was satisfied, at least, that “there has been no media coverage of this” and he hoped that “if it is left alone, it will not be seen again.”

However, he pointed out that many of those at the December 2015 rally had previously protested a JUF fundraiser attended by Rahm Emanuel, Chicago’s mayor at the time, in August 2014 while Israel was bombing Gaza.

“It would be one thing for the president of the JUF to privately refer to us as ‘so-called Jews’ and another to say it out loud,” Brant Rosen, the rabbi of Tzedek Chicago, told The Electronic Intifada on Sunday.

“But the fact that Nasatir said this at a board meeting – and actually recorded it in the minutes – tells you everything you need to know about the culture of the Jewish United Fund,” he added.

“On the other hand, the fact that they made a point of mentioning our protest in their minutes means they are taking our challenge seriously, and that’s ultimately a very good thing,” Rosen, who helped organize the 2015 action, said.

Killing and cover-up

As the recent murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis has fueled the Black Lives Matter movement, the JUF’s rage at the 2015 protest shows how invested Israel lobby groups are in racialized police violence.

“The truth is JUF is proud of its collaboration with [Chicago Police Department], FBI, Homeland Security and all the other municipal, state and federal agencies,” Nasatir told the board. “It is an important part of the work we do.”

“Connecting the Chicago Jewish community to 16 bullets in 14 seconds is vile and dangerous,” Nasatir added, according to the minutes, implying that his organization alone represents “the Jewish community.”

The 16 bullets he was referring to were those fired by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke into the body of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald on 20 October 2014.

McDonald’s killing and the subsequent cover-up spurred demands to rein in Chicago’s out of control police department.

Chicago has a long history of police shootings, abuse and torture, particularly targeting Black men.

In a rare, though hardly adequate, moment of accountability, Van Dyke was eventually convicted of McDonald’s murder and sentenced to more than six years in prison.

A long-suppressed dashcam video of the shooting, which a judge forced the city to release in November 2015, proved crucial to the jury that convicted Van Dyke.

The Emanuel administration had managed to hide the shocking video from public view long enough to secure his 2015 re-election. But mounting anger over the cover-up effectively forced him to abandon plans to seek a third term in 2019.

Police junkets to Israel

For the JUF – along with Israel lobby groups such as AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee – fostering cozy relations with elites, especially police, has been key to maintaining influence and marketing Israel.

These organizations have junketed thousands of federal, state and local law enforcement officials in recent years for training with Israeli police, military and the Shin Bet secret service.

According to Deadly Exchange, a campaign supported by Jewish Voice for Peace that aims to end these programs, “these trainings solidify partnerships between the US and Israeli governments to exchange methods of state violence and control.”

These methods include “mass surveillance, racial profiling and suppression of protest and dissent.”

The JUF took Garry McCarthy, Chicago’s police chief at the time, on a trip to Israel in November 2014 – just after the killing of Laquan McDonald.

According to a JUF news release, the Chicago delegation led by McCarthy visited sites including Israel’s police headquarters in occupied East Jerusalem as well as a military training center.

McCarthy attended the JUF board meeting the month after he returned, full of praise for what he had seen.

According to the minutes, McCarthy told the sponsors of his junket that it had “enhanced relationships between Chicago and Israel” and that “he intends to learn more.”

But McCarthy didn’t get the chance: In December 2015, Rahm Emanuel fired him, no doubt seeking to deflect blame for Laquan McDonald’s killing and the police cover-up.

Powerful local lobby

The JUF is recognized as one of the more powerful constituents of the Jewish Federations of North America, a network of pro-Israel Jewish communal organizations that raise billions of dollars each year.

In 2018, the Chicago JUF alone raised $87 million. On his retirement in 2019, Nasatir bragged that during his four decades in charge, the JUF had raised $8 billion.

The organization has wielded the power that comes with so much financial clout to press its agenda, especially on Israel’s behalf.

“The power of the purse and the federation’s influence over Chicago Jewish institutions meant that JUF can effectively decide which groups and views are funded in the Jewish community there and which are in and out of the communal umbrella,” the Jewish Telegraphic Agency said in a profile of Nasatir.

In 2017, research revealed that the JUF has in recent years channeled hundreds of thousands of dollars of charitable donations into anti-Muslim hate groups.

That prompted more protests by members of Jewish Voice for Peace.

JUF becomes police “operations center”

Despite all that has happened in Chicago, the JUF has continued to collaborate with the police and ferry city officials on junkets to Israel.

In May 2019, JUF executive vice president Jay Tcath wrote that his organization “maintains its own collaborations with law enforcement agencies,” including the FBI, the Department Homeland Security, the Secret Service, the Illinois State Police and departments throughout the Chicago area.

“The benefits of these relationships are not just mutual, they are multilateral,” Tcath added. He bragged that the JUF had allowed its headquarters to be used as a Chicago police “operations center” during the 2012 NATO summit in the city.

Tcath had nothing to say about the police attacks on protesters and media during the summit.

He also boasted that JUF had organized “three law enforcement missions to Israel for CPD’s SWAT, Counterterrorism and Intelligence Bureau, Organized Crime Unit and the chief of police.”

Israel lobby dilemma

As the Black Lives Matter movement grows, some Israel lobby groups have faced a difficult challenge: How to posture as if they are on the side of anti-racist protests while at the same time defending their support for Israel, an inherently racist state that commits massive human rights abuses.

But not so for the JUF: The organization has published no statement condemning the killing of George Floyd.

Nor did it ever publish a word about Laquan McDonald.

“In the current political moment, we need to take every opportunity to call out the forces that enable racist state violence,” Rabbi Rosen said.

“There is absolutely no good reason for the JUF to use Jewish communal funds for collaborations with the Chicago Police Department, FBI and Homeland Security,” he added.

“The JUF was on the wrong side of this issue five years ago and they’re on the wrong side now.”

Ali Abunimah is executive director of The Electronic Intifada.