WASHINGTON (JTA) — The Jewish Council for Public Affairs has tapped Amy Spitalnick, who spearheaded a successful multimillion-dollar lawsuit against neo-Nazis, as its next CEO.
The decision is a sign that the group, called the JCPA, is pursuing a more assertively liberal approach. For nearly 80 years, it was an umbrella for local Jewish community relations groups, and was affiliated with the Jewish Federations of North America, which has historically been driven by consensus across local Jewish communities. But in December, it split from the federation system and rebranded as a more explicitly progressive group.
The statement Monday announcing Spitalnick’s hire highlighted her work at the helm of Integrity First for America, the nonprofit that underwrote a successful lawsuit against the organizers of the deadly neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. The statement emphasized fighting for democracy against hate as priorities, and called Spitalnick “a powerful national voice on issues of democracy, antisemitism, extremism, and hate.”
Spitalnick's goals in the new role
Spitalnick, 37, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that she would focus on building relationships with other communities that are vulnerable to hatred and erosions in democracy.
“There needs to be an organization that wholeheartedly recognizes how deeply intertwined Jewish safety is with other communities’ safety and how bound up that all is in a broader fight for democracy at this moment, and builds the sorts of coalitions within and across communities that are essential to moving the needle,” she said.
The organization will remain nonpartisan, Spitalnick said, but she made no secret that she especially opposed many of the tropes peddled by Republicans including former President Donald Trump, who is a leading contender for the 2024 Republican nomination.
“We are grappling with a wave of anti democratic extremism that is deeply tied to rising bigotry and hate,” Spitalnick said. “And we see this in many forms — we see this with the attacks on immigrants and how so many of the conspiracy theories that underpin, for example, election lies, happen to utilize anti-immigrant and antisemitic conspiracy theories. We see this with the attacks on the trans community and on drag shows, where for example, neo-Nazis are using those attacks and those flashpoints to actively recruit for their violent antisemitic hate.”
Spitalnick was a communications official at J Street, the liberal Israel lobby, before transitioning into the rough-and-tumble of New York politics as the communications director for Mayor Bill DeBlasio and then in the state attorney general’s office. Last year, she was named director of another progressive Jewish group, Bend the Arc, but ultimately declined the position.
She earned a reputation for giving as good as she would get from her bosses’ critics and rivals. An email exchange she had with Tucker Carlson in 2015 made headlines when Carlson and his colleagues lambasted her with misogynist and vulgar language.
She was characteristically blunt last week after Carlson’s firing from Fox News after a history of using racially charged language. “When reporters write the story of Tucker Carlson, do not gloss over who he is,” she wrote on Twitter . “He is a raging white supremacist, misogynist, and bigot who has done more to normalize violent extremism and hate over the last few years than nearly anyone else.”
Spitalnick’s style is a sharp departure from the tone that the 79-year old organization had taken until December, when it announced an amicable divorce from the Jewish federations structure and its emphasis on consensus. It also means the group will be led by a millennial woman, a rarity among large national Jewish organizations.
“This now makes two millennial women at the helm of legacy Jewish organizations,” said Sheila Katz, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women. “I’m looking forward to getting in good trouble together as we push Jewish organizations and leaders toward justice.”
Founded in 1944 as the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council — it changed its name in 1997 — the storied group was at the forefront of Jewish community advocacy for decades, from rescuing Europe’s Jews and opening up immigration to allow refugees to enter the United States to the Black-Jewish civil rights coalition, pro-Israel advocacy and advocacy for Jews in the Soviet Union. It received funding from dues paid by scores of local Jewish Community Relations Councils and from 16 national Jewish groups.
In recent years, as the American — and American Jewish — populations became more politically polarized, JCPA’s consensus-driven structure made it increasingly difficult for the group to take noteworthy stands on the issues of the day.
A turning point was the group’s decision in 2020 to sign a statement recognizing Black Lives Matter as a leading civil rights body. Officials in the Jewish federations system, which underwrote much of JCPA’s funding at the time, thought it was reckless to endorse a movement despised by most Republicans, and which has been accused of vehement opposition to Israel.
That spurred an effort to roll the JCPA directly into the Jewish Federations of North America, a shift that JCPA defenders said would place Jewish community relations under the purview of major donors, who tend to be more conservative than the grassroots.
Instead, the current chairman, David Bohm, led a split from the Jewish federations that would guarantee JCPA’s independence. Bohm and one of his predecessors, Lois Frank, joined UJA-Federation of New York in providing a substantial cash influx that would allow JCPA to function for three years.
That led to the divorce from the Jewish federations, and the end of dues that had come into the organization from the local and national groups. A JCPA official said Spitalnick would be expected to diversify the funding base, and did not count out a return to the dues-paying format.
Freed of the fear of alienating a multitude of stakeholders, the announcement in December laid out two prongs that located JCPA robustly in the liberal camp: One would focus on “voting rights, election integrity, disinformation, extremism as a threat to democracy, and civics education.” The other would focus on “racial justice, criminal justice reform and gun violence, LGBTQ rights, immigration rights, reproductive rights, and fighting hate violence.”
Bohm, in restructuring JCPA, brought in the heads of two local community relations councils — Jeremy Burton of Boston and Maharat Rori Picker Neiss of St. Louis, who had previously said the old structure — and its inhibitions — made it increasingly irrelevant. The JCPA announcement this week came with quotes from Neiss and Burton lavishing praise on Spitalnick. Also consulted on the restructuring was the San Francisco JCRC.
“Through her unwavering commitment to social justice and her demonstrated leadership in public policy advocacy, Amy is poised to usher in a new era of progress and impact for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs,” Neiss said.
The release said JCPA would continue “to support a democratic, Jewish, and secure state of Israel” but otherwise did not address the divisions over democracy and the judiciary currently roiling the country and its supporters abroad. It also didn’t address the erosion of support for Israel on the American left in an era when Israel’s governments have trended increasingly to the right.
Asked about differences between the Jewish community and other communities over Israel, Spitalnick said it was important not to cut out other communities. “It means working across those differences where possible, and building those relationships, and sometimes that means staying at the table even if we have fundamental disagreements,” she said.