Groups see surge in activism since election

Washington Jewish Week
November 8, 2017
Jared Foretek

Rebecca Ennen clearly remembers the raw emotions of the day after Donald Trump’s election as president.

Ennen, deputy director of the progressive nonprofit Jews United for Justice, was in the group’s Washington office. JUFJ had put the word out to its volunteers, donors, petition-signers and anyone else to come by if they were in need of comfort. Soon enough a handful of people were holding hands in a circle on the floor, singing.

“It might sound a bit melodramatic,” Ennen said, looking back on what took place a year ago this week. “But it was a really raw day. People were looking for some kind of connection in that moment.”
Those raw post-election feelings have turned into a surge of activism in the year since Trump’s win, according to Ennen and staff at other nonprofit organizations. Even JUFJ, which largely focuses on local issues, has seen an influx of people looking for a way to take direct action in response to the new administration, according to Ennen.

And the energy isn’t just limited to progressive organizations — many of which call themselves part of the anti-Trump “resistance,” opposing the administration at every turn. Right-leaning groups have also reported increased enthusiasm, with some rewarded for their ties to administration officials.

At Washington-based Bend the Arc, resistance has become a central part of its brand. The group organizes campaigns supporting progressive policies such as comprehensive immigration reform and increasing the minimum wage. Its website includes a page with petitions targeting specific administration officials for what the group says are their “alt-right,” or white supremacist, beliefs and policies.

“The week after the election we saw 45,000 people join the organization in some fashion,” said Stosh Cotler, Bend the Arc’s CEO. “Over the course of the last year we’ve doubled in terms of people taking action.”

That ranges from signing a petition to hosting a fundraiser, and it’s the most activity she’s seen since taking over in early 2014, she said.

Cotler said the group had to change some of its structure to meet the demand from activists. Development Director Ava Shapiro declined to give numbers showing what she called a “significant upswing” in donations and volunteers. However, the group has expanded its paid staff and sharpened its focus on local organizing.

With Republicans in control of the federal government, Bend the Arc is using that money and staff to build up a network of volunteers in an effort to flip 16 congressional seats from Republican to Democrat in the 2018 elections.

At the same time, the group is providing resources to supporters attending congressional town hall meetings outside the group’s core areas of operations on the East and West coasts, giving them templates for signs, helping them arrange events and more. Cotler said Bend the Arc is also organizing what it calls “Moral Minyans,” small advocacy groups that it hopes will be difference-makers when the elections roll around.

On the opposite end of the political spectrum, the Zionist Organization of America, which regularly criticized the Obama administration and has supported Republican policies on Israel and immigration, is also reporting heightened interest.

Its president, Morton Klein, said that some donors have noted its close relationships with former administration officials Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka and been more willing to give, viewing the organization as more influential since Trump’s inauguration in January. Bannon, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman will be honored at the group’s annual gala on Sunday in New York City.

“When people see that we have close friendships with important people in the administration, it enhances our reputation,” Klein said. “The donors are making decisions about who to fund, and when they see we have strong connections which will enable us to be more effective, it makes them think it’s more worthwhile to support us.”

According to Klein, the ZOA is expanding its staff, hiring more campus professionals and lawyers, while opening offices in Boston and New Jersey. And as for activism — lobbying for stronger U.S.-Israeli relations and more scrutiny of Muslims — Klein described ZOA as finally having a seat at the table.

“We find we’re more readily welcomed places,” Klein said. “That could be in congressional offices or with members of the administration, but we’re being heard more than under Obama.”

HIAS, the veteran Jewish nonprofit refugee relief agency, has acutely felt the impact of the new administration, according to Mark Hetfield, president of the Silver Spring-based organization.
The administration’s repeated attempts to ban refugees from mostly Muslim nations has given the group a new mission: advocacy for refugees and against the administration’s policy through the lens of Jewish history.

“There would not be an American Jewish community if these kinds of restrictions existed during the first part of the 20th century,” he wrote in September.

According to the Pew Research Center, 97,000 refugees were resettled in the United States in 2016. Through the first nine months of 2017, 28,000 were resettled.

Fewer refugees entering the United States means fewer federal dollars for HIAS’s resettlement work, Hetfield said. But donations have offset losses in federal funding.

And administration policies have drawn people off their couches. In February, HIAS planned an information session for a new group for young adults, figuring 35 would turn out.

But instead, more than 500 people showed up and the event became a rally with speeches and chanting, Hetfield recalled.

That’s because the week before, Trump signed an executive order halting refugee arrivals and suspending travel into the United States from seven mostly Muslim countries.

Will the surge in activism last? Jewish leaders on the left and right said that with Trump’s penchant for abrupt and splashy policy announcements, as well as next year’s midterm elections, it shows few signs of abating.