*Warning: There is some coarse language in this article.
As the 2009 Gaza war known as Operation Cast Lead raged and rockets rained down upon Israeli civilians, New Israel Fund’s Ben Murane condemned the two groups he described as terrorist entities equally responsible for the conflagration; Israel and Hamas.
Fast forward to 2014 and Operation Protective Edge where the same Ben Murane has been welcomed into the most inner of inner Jewish leadership circles in Seattle, playing a key role in determining the community’s response to the latest war against the Jewish state.
Much has been written regarding Jewish-American millennials and their drift from the 20th century model of communal engagement. We are told that their relationship to organized Judaism and especially to Israel, is no longer central to their self identity.
Jewish Federations and other non-profits across the United States have rushed to understand and engage this new constituency, modifying their fund raising strategies to match their micro-targeted giving patterns. Meanwhile new organizations; more political, more partisan have sprung up in this new demographic reality. Of these, most well known is J Street, created as a sort of anti-AIPAC. No less influential though is New Israel Fund (NIF), a multi million dollar United Way of left wing Israeli causes.
NIF pours millions annually into projects which many believe undermine and foment animosity towards Israel, especially amongst Jewish young adults. Legacy organizations like the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) have criticized NIF for funding groups they say are opposed to Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.
Says ZOA National President Morton A. Klein “New Israel Fund pursues an anti-Israel, anti-Zionist agenda of funding and supporting numerous organizations that are working hard to demonize Israel in the international arena and also working diligently within Israel to hamper Israel’s ability to defend its citizens and even to maintain itself as a Jewish state.”
NIF is a primary funder of +972, a web-magazine that according to NGO Monitor serves as a platform for anti-Zionist advocacy.
In an analysis regarding the notorious Goldstone Report, student organization Im Tirzu found that 92% of the “evidence” presented against Israel in a critical subsection of the report were made by NIF grantees. NIF vigorously contests these findings.
Recognizing the unique opportunity presented by the combination of progressive politics and moneyed tech professionals, NIF has expanded their presence into the Puget Sound region, a burgeoning metropolitan area (Home of Costco, Amazon, Microsoft, Starbucks & Boeing) with a Jewish population of about 40,000. The public face of that expanded presence in Seattle is NIF Director of Outreach, Ben Murane.
For It Before He Was Against It
Since his arrival Murane has quickly made himself a central player in Seattle’s organized Jewish communal life; welcome in the classrooms of Hillel at the University of Washington, the pulpits of local synagogues and the halls of the Seattle Jewish Federation. Wielding his newfound clout, Murane played an important role in the planning of a Seattle Jewish Federation initiated community wide anti-BDS event this past May.
Murane acted as the representative of New Israel Fund which was a co-sponsor of May 28th Seattle communal gathering titled “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Campaign Against Israel: Bad for Jews in Seattle and Beyond?” The program was envisioned as a community-wide rejection of the BDS movement. The Federation flew in Ari Shavit as keynote speaker, probably the most left wing personality available willing to condemn BDS.
Murane participated in the planning and helped construct the excruciatingly negotiated title. Yet inexplicably the day of the event, Murane broadcast his displeasure with the very program he helped plan. Murane tweeted his consternation that the featured speaker, Ari Shavit, wouldn’t be speaking of “The Nakba, Mizrahi inequality or [the lack of] religious freedom in Israel”. Instead, lamented Murane “Shavit will talk about BDS”.
Murane’s actions intrigued. Why would a community partner lend their name to an anti BDS rally only to diminish the event just hours before it was held? Why would they help in the planning of the event only to declare ignorance and disappointment as to its message and theme?
Through an exploration of one of Seattle’s most prominent and influential Jewish millennials we hope to provide readers with a better understanding of a vocal and increasingly influential segment of an evolving American Jewry.
In a Jewcy.com profile the 31-year-old Murane self describes as an Army brat who grew up across the West Coast and Great Plains in fourteen homes, twelve cities, and eight states before age eighteen. Murane attended a Catholic High school where he and a Muslim student leader were co-presidents of the Israel-Palestine peace club. He entered Seattle University in 2001, graduating with a degree in economics in 2005 after a brief detour to the University of Haifa in 2004.
After graduating Murane gained employment with a series of left leaning nonprofits before beginning his relationship with New Israel Fund in April of 2008. One of Murane’s prior employers was Breaking the Silence , a traveling international road show of disgruntled former IDF soldiers who accuse Israel of having committed war crimes and atrocities.
Murane has been associated with J Street since 2006 and currently serves on J Street‘s National Advisory Board. He is the Co-Publisher and Treasurer of the progressive online magazine Jewschoool which he joined in 2005. Murane describes Jewschool as “the voice of critical progressive and pluralistic thought, where once-unpopular views got their first soapbox.” Says Murane. In essence, “Jewschool [provides] critical dialogue for disenfranchised Jews alienated—and bored to death—by the Jewish mainstream.”
In dozens of articles and thousands of tweets, Murane is very public in sharing his views on Israel, Jewish communal service and his Jewish faith. Let’s take a look.
In many of his essays Murane has written of his and his generation’s rejection of what he sees as an insular, self serving Jewish communal structure. An article he wrote for Jewschool under his pseudonym Kung fu Jew provides a window into Murane’s worldview. Said Murane:
There are plenty of Jews in my world of the predominantly young and unaffiliated who are tired of the drumming of “Jew Jew Jew” and recoil from its incessant self-centered, self-referential, selfish concerns. Every synagogue is just a ghetto to lock out the goyyim, they feel, every Jewish social event serves the agenda of the claustrophobic “marry a Jew!” crowd. Tied to a community that is lacking in fulfillment yet insists on their loyalty, they can’t stand to be around it. I feel the same.
Recent studies have shown US Jews to be the most generous religious group in terms of charitable giving. The 2013 Connected to Give study reports that US Jews are more likely than any other religious group to direct their dollars to non-religious identified organizations. Also unique to American Jews is their particular focus on social justice causes such as the environment, health and international aid.
Nevertheless Murane describes Jewish communal life as a zero sum game, one in which our core Jewish institutions are inherently selfish, racist and classist. Says Murane:
Our communal infrastructure — federations, hospitals, schools, etc. — becomes an entrenchment of race and class privilege, where Jewish needy get saved and the rest are abandoned.
(Seattle’s own Jewish Family and Child Service for one may take umbrage with those remarks, providing food to any needy person within their Zip code and assisting refugees from across Africa and Eastern Europe with zero regard to their faith or racial background.)
Troubled by his perception of Jewish legacy organizations as callous facilitators of institutionalized racism, Murane sees the Jewish communal model as not dissimilar from that of anti-Semitic tormentors of years past. Laments Murane:
The effort then to sort between the Jewish and non-Jewish — be it in ideas or genes — smells of what we learned at the hands of our cruelest rulers in times we’d rather forget.
Murane’s concern for the fallen state of the Jewish communal soul does not stop at the water’s edge. His criticism of Israel is infused with revulsion at what he sees as a dangerous mixture of trauma fueled Jewish fear combined with an ingrained sense of Jewish exclusivity.
Israel becomes a place where the ends justify any means because we must secure safety for the Jews first, foremost and instead of all other peoples.
Murane explains that Israel arose as a noble struggle but degenerated into a festival of greed. In his words:
A country born of a global struggle for self- sovereignty and participation among the discourse of nations becomes a bitter fest of greed to hoard and preserve power for ourselves to share with no one.”
The Israeli culture of greed and power, according to Murane, does not just reflect on the Jewish state but is a manifestation of an overall Jewish ideal of domination and thwarting of independence. This attitude explains Murane, does not reflect well on the Jewish people:
Israel is not just a bomb shelter, it’s the largest symbol of what Jews believe. Dominating neighbors and obstructing the self- determination of others in the UN, these actions tell the world self-defacing things.
Murane’s palpable despair over what he sees as an Israel that has sunk into the same amoral morass as her adversaries is a frequent theme. During the 2009 Gaza war Murane was especially troubled by what he perceived as an Israel acting on an equal moral plane as terror group Hamas.
In response to news of a UN school being struck by Israeli rockets Murane declared:
The culpability is equal when two forces choose to stare each other down and play chicken with civilians’ lives. Israel is just as at fault as Hamas for the deaths of those civilians. Israel chose to accept civilian deaths as collateral. Israel is counting on civilian suffering to loosen the power of Hamas. This is a big game of chicken.
He goes on to assert in the same thread that what he sees as Israel’s strategy of using civilian deaths to achieve their political goals is terrorism.
Israel never has the moral high ground when it uses civilian suffering as a tool of statecraft. It’s stooping to terrorism.
Murane regards himself and those like him as rare elevated souls; the rest of the Jewish world being indifferent to the suffering of innocents. He dismisses Jewish expressions of grief over the death of innocent Palestinians, declaring such gestures to be cynical and self-serving.
The Jewish world doesn’t seem to care about Palestinian deaths except where it impacts their PR. The proper response is “Gee, you’re right, civilian deaths are bad, so let’s cut a ceasefire deal!” Outside the peacenik quartet (APN, Brit Tzedek, J Street, IPF) the response to civilian deaths is, “It’s Hamas’ fault.” Hardly.
And to whom is Murane referring when he excoriates the callous “Jewish world”? Murane explains:
The Jewish world for purposes of my rants are all the Jewish newspapers, Israeli spokesmen, rally signs, communal public affairs councils, the right-wing yap machine, oh, and anybody with clout over Congress. The recognitions of mutual culpability, concern for both sides’ deaths, and moral voices against both sides using civilians as a tool of statecraft (as I outlined above) are limited to me, my friends, and a quartet of four small Jewish organizations.
Although many American Jews share Murane’s view that Israeli disengagement from Judea and Samaria is a necessity, his enthusiasm for a Jewish withdrawal from post ’67 territories is uniquely robust.
Before the 1929 massacre and for centuries prior; Hebron, resting place of the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs, was home to a vibrant Jewish community. From the 1929 massacre until 1967 not a single Jew tread upon the holy soil. Following the Six Day War, several Jewish families returned to the historic Jewish neighborhood of the ancient city.
More than merely advocating for an Israeli withdrawal from the city, Murane proclaimed in a 2011 video that it would be a “mitzva” a “reconsecration” of Hebron to return it to its short lived status as a Jew free city. Below is an edited video excerpt from this statement, the full length video is here.
Murane seems to hold a particular lack of tolerance for practitioners of Orthodox Judaism, calling Orthodox Rabbis coarse pejoratives and accusing traditionalists of breeding xenophobia for holding fast to their faith.
Regarding a new crowd-rating app to assist Israeli newlyweds in finding the right fit of rabbi to officiate at their wedding, Murane recently quipped “Rate the Rabbinate app helps Israelis avoid “a**hole rabbis”.
Commenting on a sweet video put out by an Orthodox institution depicting an elderly Jewish scholar’s joy at witnessing the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple, Murane quipped “That video is that old haredi guy’s wet dream-“
Murane brings a robust enthusiasm to the phenomenon of intermarriage, condemning those who remain steadfast to tradition as breeders of xenophobia . Explains Murane:
I personally feel uncomfortable around any group that insists that only their members marry their members. It is an attitude that inherently breeds xenophobia. Yes, let’s discuss strengthening Jewish identity, but under no circumstances should we make fear of loving non-Jews a foundation upon which to build anything. What an ugly faith, one that fears love. – Your connections and commonalities with others are your strength. Intermarriage strengthens the Jewish people.
Murane is quite open about his contempt for the organized Jewish community, in fact many of his comments seem particularly designed to provoke and divide. Some insight into Murane may be drawn from a piece he authored in Jewschool in 2012. In an article about the BDS battle at the Park Slope Co-op in Brooklyn, he explained his understanding of the art of communal warfare as taught by radical provocateur Saul Alinsky.
“Advocacy involves the deliberate polarizing of public discourse, so as to motivate the middle ground to take sides”. This is the thirteenth rule of Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, “Pick a target, freeze it, personalize it, polarize it”
In contrast to the old-style consensus model of Jewish leadership, Murane explains that creating dissension in a community, labeling one side extremist and the other side enlightened, forces community members to choose sides and join the struggle. This may also explain Murane’s incessant comparison of centrist communal organizations as right-wing groups. Perhaps it is through painting the center as extreme that Murane can claim the center for himself (and J Street and NIF). An example of the practical application of this strategy is a 2010 attack against the Jewish National Fund [JNF should read Peter Beinart, then disappear] and similar Jewish communal organizations where he said:
The establishment isn’t just right-wing and morally pegged to odious Israeli policies. It’s lost. It has no moral compass, no calling, no grand mission statement. Raising money to feed a bloated infrastructure dedicated to fighting yesterday’s battles is the only motivation it seems to offer us.
Later in that same article Murane opines quite openly that…
I regard the organized Jewish community with distrust, distaste and disinterest because I have values-.
Why does Murane matter? Since arriving in Seattle Murane has systematically integrated himself into the inner leadership core of Seattle’s Jewish community. A man who declares Israel as guilty as Hamas of terror serves on the very *Jewish Federation ad-hoc committee that determines the communal approach to Israel advocacy. A man who decries the Jewish state as a “bitter fest of greed” educates our young at Hillel UW (Specifically having led a series of discussions for a hand picked group of student leaders titled “Love, Hate and the Jewish State“). A man who refers to Rabbis with whom he disagrees as “a**holes” gives classes and delivers guest sermons from the pulpit of a prominent Seattle synagogue.
And hence the conundrum, why is a man so imbued with an open “distrust, distaste and disinterest” in our Jewish community so determined to embed himself within its inner workings. After confessing that he can’t stand being around the organized Jewish community Murane ponders the same question:
Yet here I am, working in the Jewish world. A young career-nik.
and answers that his primary goal is to redirect the resources of the Jewish community towards the Other, “those outside my tribe”…
But I do it for the Other, not myself. For those outside my tribe, not ourselves, though beneficial to us it is.
In the final sentences of his illuminating essay titled Reinterpreting Jewish communal service Murane proclaims his end game in achieving his agenda; energizing some organizations “from within”, creating new ones and destroying or as he puts it “torching” some organizations “when necessary” …
My work here is to salvage what we can. A cadre of others works with me, reigniting some organizations from within, lighting new ones where possible, torching others when necessary.
The above insights are not obscure quotations dug out of a dusty archive but open, proud remarks made by one Jewish millennial who is determined to construct a new model of American Jewish life atop the ashes of the old. Warns Murane:
I am just one example of a brave new breed of Jewish communal professionals. We are the generation born in the wilderness, waiting to inherit the mantle once the memory of Egypt has passed.
Some will undoubtedly be enthused by some or all of Murane’s perspectives, others will be appalled. Either way, when passing on the “mantle” of of leadership in our communities it is probably best we do so with eyes wide open.
*Seattle’s Jewish Federation typically calls upon representatives of all local Israel advocacy organizations to formulate a unified communal response to Israel related crises like the recent Operation Protective Edge.