In 2008 the Jewish Federation of San Francisco stunned the Jewish world with the selection of Daniel Sokatch, the founding director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), as CEO. Last week Sokatch announced he is leaving the federation to take the top job at the liberal New Israel Fund. Sokatch spoke to The Jewish Week about the Jewish establishment, Israel and connecting to new generations of Jewish activists.
Q: When you left the PJA, you said one of your goals was to move the federation toward a new mode of progressive activism. Did you succeed?
A: We had mixed results. In some ways, we made progress in changing the way this federation sees its role, and in how it is perceived in the
community. We were able to continue and enhance its long tradition of standing with the LGBT community. We got a lot of buy-in for ‘next-gen’ projects for energizing a new generation, Jewishly.
What were the frustrations?
In any big organization there are people who are resistant to change, just as those who welcome change and are excited by it.
Where I found the conversation most difficult was around Israel. This federation does amazing work in working for pluralism and inclusivity for all Israelis. But over and over again, we saw a highly mobilized, motivated and determined minority that found any change in the status quo in the conversation about Israel very threatening. That’s not something indigenous to the federation; it’s a factor in the whole Jewish community.
How did that resistance manifest itself?
There were relentless efforts to quiet the diversity of opinion when it comes to Israel by going after professionals who were deemed insufficiently pro-Israel. … I think this points to the limits of the Federation, at least for now, as something that can be a tent for all pro-Israel voices.
Your activism over the years has been primarily in the domestic realm. Now you’re moving to a group with a strong Israel focus. Why the shift?
Actually, PJA was one of few Jewish social-justice organizations that focused on Israel as well as domestic issues. … And personally, it’s always been incredibly important to me. My graduate and undergraduate work was in Israel studies; I’ve lived in Israel; I’ve been passionately pro-Israel.
Ultimately, NIF is not an advocacy organization, like J Street, but rather one that promotes, incubates and sustains social justice organizations and infrastructure, a la PJA. So it’s a good fit for me.
It’s frequently noted that Israel is a focus for a declining proportion of American Jews. What role do you see NIF playing in reversing that trend?
It’s critically important that American Jews, and particularly the coming generation, possess the tools they need to build a positive relationship with Israel during complicated times. When confronted with a simple Israel-right-or-wrong dichotomy, progressive young Jews, the vast majority, increasingly walk away from the conversation. NIF, which is the premier organization in building an Israel that reflects Western, liberal values, can be that central vehicle in showing American Jews that there isn’t just one way to love and support Israel.