If ever the myth of Jews controlling Hollywood and politics manifested itself in a real-life entity, it would probably be the Jewish Council for Education & Research (JCER), a Jewish SuperPAC behind some of the most visible and viral videos of the past two presidential elections. On closer examination, however, the group shatters the myth.
In the age of Internet 2.0, social media and sharing are increasingly the venue for political discourse. Campaign spending on online ads increased some 250 percent since 2008. The JCER, one of the “outside groups” made legal by the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision, is at the forefront of Web advocacy, and is responsible for viral pro-Obama videos featuring a panoply of celebrities such as Cher, Sarah Silverman, Kathy Griffin, Samuel L. Jackson and Rosie Perez.
But how is this SuperPAC different from the others? Unlike larger SuperPACs such as PrioritiesUSA and American Crossroads, which are awash with cash from deep-pocketed donors, taking in millions of dollars each month and spending heavily on the kind of political ads Americans have gotten used to through the years, JCER has relied on humor and celebrity to stretch out its relatively meager $400,000 budget.
The group’s founders, Mik Moore, 38, and Ari Wallach, 37, first got together in 2008 to create The Great Schlep, a video starring Sarah Silverman that encourages young Jewish activists to “schlep” to the largest of the swing states, Florida, and convince their grandparents to vote for Barack Obama.
For Wallach, the idea sprouted from an interaction with his mom. “I got an email from my mother saying Obama was born in Kenya, he’s a Muslim,” he says. Worryingly, the email had been forwarded from person to person before it reached him, meaning the false information was spreading unchecked. So he threw together a tiny website called Obamaonisrael.com— “it took literally 20 minutes”—providing links to articles and facts on the then-Senator, and emailed it back. Unexpectedly, the website went viral, getting hundreds and thousands of hits. “I realized that Obama had a Jewish outreach problem, but more than that, we had a problem: We were allowing these smears to spread, whether against a Republican or a Democrat.”
The Great Schlep was a merger of sorts between that insight and a project that Moore, whom Wallach met at a Jewish convention, had run in 2004 entitled Operation Bubbe, a get-out-the-vote effort in Florida that hoped to prevent the drawn-out electoral calamity that befell the state four years earlier.
Over two million YouTube viewers (and at least 2.6 million more on other sites) watched The Great Schlep, in which the foul-mouthed Silverman warns viewers not to be complacent “douche-nozzles.”
“You don’t have to use facts, use threats!” she urges. If bubbe and zeyde don’t vote for Obama, they don’t get a visit this year, and “let’s just hope they stay healthy enough until next year.” In that election, Florida went blue.
Four years later, Wallach and Moore decided they had created something too good to leave dormant, but the issues had changed. The public knew Obama and his record, and two organizers felt that they had to respond to what they call a “disinformation” campaign from Republicans.
As a result, they (somewhat reluctantly) converted their group into a SuperPAC, allowing them to accept a major donation from Alex Soros, the son of billionaire George Soros. The outcome was “Schlep Labs,” a website to harness ideas of how to get the word out in creative ways, and turn them into a reality.
“Our experience was that there were a lot of creative smart people who had good ideas but didn’t have a home for them,” says Moore. With suggestions coming in from the Web, they embarked on a series of celebrity-based clips, many of them using profanity and shock humor, to nudge viewers into taking concrete step, often by visiting a specially-designed microsite. “The call to action is really key. We’re not trying to entertain people – that’s not our goal,” Moore explains.
For example, for their first effort they went back to Silverman to create a video on the issue of voter ID laws. Democrats have accused Republicans of promoting laws requiring very specific forms of identification for voting, ostensibly to prevent voter fraud, in order to suppress turnout by Democratic-leaning groups. The elderly, for example, may not have driver’s licenses, so in the Let My People Vote video, Silverman encourages her “nana” to get a gun license, an acceptable form of ID.
The 2.5 million people who watched the video were directed to a website with information on specific voter ID laws in different states to ensure that people weren’t turned away from voting because they lacked the right identification card.
In a subsequent video, Silverman offered to perform lewd acts to Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire who broke records funding Republican SuperPACs from the primaries on out, in exchange for offering his funds to Obama instead. “I think Citizens United was a terrible decision. I think that campaign finance that is in place for the current elections is embarrassing and frankly dangerous,” says Moore, fully aware of the irony that he now controls one of the groups he opposes. “I’m not interested in losing the election while other people come in and spent huge sums of money to influence the outcome of the election. I don’t believe in unilateral disarmament.” Over 1.7 million people watched the Adelson clip.
After their successes with Silverman, the celebrity issue videos just kept coming. Finding the stars for their videos wasn’t very difficult with a little networking, Wallach says. “If you’re born and raised in the States and went to Jewish camp, you can reach anyone through three or four people.” The celebrities themselves were also excited to use their visibility for a good cause.
In an effort to rejuvenate the Democratic base, they produced a clip called Wake the F*$& Up, featuring Samuel L. Jackson gently reminding nearly two million viewers not to take the election for granted. The associated microsite provided links to sign up for canvassing and phone-banking or donating to the campaign.
A project called “Actually…” that came in through the SchlepLabs suggestion box worked on a series of anti-Romney issue ads targeting electorally important populations.
Actress Rosie Perez, for example, starred in a video aimed at the coveted Hispanic vote, in which she rebuffs a Romney quip from the infamous “47%” tape saying that if his parents were Mexican he would have a better shot of winning the election. “Actually…” Perez replies, “Hispanics represent seventeen percent of the population, and account for less than 2% of all elected and appointed officials.” Remember all those Latino presidents “like Jorge Washington?” she asks.
Just days ahead of the election, an ad on women’s rights starring Cher and D-list star Kathy Griffin asked voters not to “Turn Back Time” on the progress of the Obama years.
Republican groups, too, have tried to harness celebrities such as Clint Eastwood and Chuck Norris, but have failed to create the sort of viral sensations as the JCER. “I don’t know any celebrity under the age of 80 that would come out in support of Romney. There’s a very small pool to fish from,” says Wallach, although Romney did manage to get the somewhat backhanded endorsement of The Simpsons’ coldest rich businessman, Mr. Burns.
Despite the fact that the JCER has broadened its horizons, its founders still very much consider it a Jewish group. “We reject the idea that to be a Jewish PAC you can only speak about a limited number of issues,” says Moore. Even so, he says, “we are making more of effort on getting the Jewish community to get excited about reelection, remind them about the accomplishment of the last four years.”
Israel, in particular, has become a worrying wedge issue for Democrats. “Jews broadly expect their representatives to support the state of Israel, care about its security, make sure it provides for it a certain level of aid, stand with Israel in the UN,” Moore says. Republican attacks against the president for his position on Israel and his frosty relationship with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Moore says, has led to a “raising of the bar in a way that I think is really dangerous.”
Wallach concurs. “Do the current leaders love each other? Doesn’t look like it. Do they have to? No. Their interests are 100% aligned, they just don’t make for a perfect fairy tale connection,” he says. “There’s a feeling that if you’re not pro-Likud, you’re not Jewish, or not Jewish enough. That’s very scary for the future of Judaism.”
Sparking conversation, especially between generations, is a priority for the group beyond winning the election. “I keep coming back to the Passover story and the four children and why we do it,” says Wallach.” People opening up to their families to discuss the issues of the day is “what sustains us as a people, as a culture, as a civilization. If we catalyze that, I consider what we’ve done an amazing success,” says Wallach. “If we elect a president, that’s great too.”