By RON KAMPEAS
WASHINGTON (JTA) — The Israel Project’s chairman says that reports of the advocacy organization’s demise are premature in the wake of the surprise departure of its CEO.
An insider told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the organization has let go of all of its staff without notice or their final salary.
The advocacy group’s board is meeting Friday to consider what to do next. Allan Myer, The Israel Project chairman, told JTA that its future was yet to be determined.
“From the reports I’ve heard, much of what is being said is premature, to say the least,” he said in an email. “Our Board of Directors is meeting tomorrow to discuss the situation. There are a number of options and considerations that will be discussed, including staffing, finances and the future of The Israel Office. So, here on the 4th of July, there may be conjecture, and I understand that, but once the Board has taken full measure of the situation, the best I can say is … stay tuned.”
A pro-Israel insider in Washington with firsthand knowledge of the status of The Israel Project’s staff told JTA that all 13 staff in Washington, D.C., and Israel were let go this week without notice, without their final salary and without severance pay. The group cannot pay some of its debts, the insider said.
The turmoil within the organization, one of the major players in promoting Israel’s image in the U.S., made news with the announcement this week by Josh Block, its CEO, that he is leaving the group after seven years of leading it. Some staff learned of Block’s departure through JTA, which broke the story of Block’s departure on Monday. At its peak in the late 2000s, The Israel Project had 80 staffers.
There is an effort, first reported by Haaretz, to keep the Israel office going. The office is helmed by Lior Weintraub, a former spokesman and chief of staff for the Israeli embassy in Washington.
Under Weintraub, the Israel office of the group has maintained some of the activities that brought the group to a high profile in the mid-2000s: organizing meetings for journalists with top Israeli officials and politicians, and bringing diplomats and reporters to areas of Israel afflicted by terrorist attacks, including along the border with the Gaza Strip.
On Friday, Dor Kaidar, the Israel office’s communications director, sent contacts and reporters a farewell note. “Whether TIP survives the current financial bind or not – the need for a user-friendly, thoughtful pro-Israeli operation, based in Jerusalem, is paramount,” Kaidar said.
Block suggested in his departure note to supporters, which he subsequently posted on social media, that recent polarization in the United States, coincident with the election and presidency of Donald Trump, made it difficult to fundraise.
“The polarized political climate in the United States, both in the wider body politic and inside the Jewish community, is making it increasingly difficult for non-partisan organizations … to enlist passionate, committed supporters willing to set aside differing views in pursuit of common purpose,” Block said.
JTA has learned that conversations among former and current staffers, board members and others close to the group have already begun about how an organization that once was able to raise close to $20 million a year in donations at the beginning of this decade had fallen so far by its end.
From 2015 to 2016, the year of Trump’s election, contributions to The Israel Project dropped by almost half, its most recently available tax returns show: from $8,696,052 in 2015 to $4,922,854 in 2016. The 2016 return lists Block’s salary as just under $440,000, on the high end for a Jewish organizational CEO and president.
Some former staffers would not speak with JTA, citing non-disclosure agreements they were required to sign under Block. Others were ready to go full bore with their frustrations with its apparent demise. At least one who was laid off in 2017 sent JTA a set of on-the-record complaints that JTA was unable to confirm with a second source.
The group, founded by philanthropist and activist Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, at first emphasized friendly outreach to media, even outlets often perceived as hostile to Israel. It offered reporters detailed backgrounders, access to Israeli officials, tours of Israel and access to pro-Israel spokespeople. It expanded its reach to other media markets, including in Europe, Asia, and Latin America, and used polling to test language and concepts for successive Israeli governments.
Laszlo Mizrahi left in 2012 and founded a disability advocacy group, Respectability. Many of the non-American press outreach operations devolved away from The Israel Project into independent groups, including Fuente Latina, which advocates for Israel in Latin American countries.
Block concentrated more on U.S. advocacy and took an approach that at times was more pugnacious than under his predecessor. In 2015, he blasted the Obama administration’s Iran policy that culminated in the Iran nuclear deal. Block’s then-deputy, Omri Ceren, maintained a lively Twitter presence, at times debating with and criticizing Obama administration officials and supporters, as well as journalists.
Block launched a lively online magazine of ideas, The Tower, and under his watch, The Israel Project helped lead state-level lobbying for laws that target the boycott Israel movement.
Block, a former spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, has a reputation as a pro-Israel fighter. In 2012, just before he took over The Israel Project, he led a public fight to get the Democratic Party-affiliated think tank, the Center for American Progress, to push out staffers he believed were unfriendly to Israel to the point of being anti-Semitic. At the time, the pro-Israel establishment preferred to deal with the matter behind the scenes and was wary of Block’s more public and in-your-face approach.
Under his watch, The Israel Project got into trouble a handful of times for social media posts seen as objectifying women. Most recently, in April, it posted a “birthday card” to Israel that read, “She’s thin. She’s tall. She’s hot. She’s 71 and everyone wants a piece of her.” It was taken down after complaints.
A former staffer, Calev Ben-David, who founded The Israel Project’s Israel office under Laszlo Mizrahi’s tenure, posted a note on Thursday on Facebook, lamenting the strategic shift of the organization.
“Looking from outside, I have to agree with the source who says ‘the organization was losing its direction,’” Ben-David, now the co-anchor of i24NEWS’ “The Rundown,” said, linking to the Haaretz story.
“When I was recruited, I made clear to founder Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi that as a career journalist, I saw my role only to constructively engage and assist the media in its coverage of Israel/Mideast, and not to (publicly) criticize or dispute with it,” said Ben-David. “To her immense credit, Jennifer never deviated from that mission or allowed TIP to take a partisan tone. Josh Block decided to take a different direction, and however effective or not he was as an outspoken advocate of Israel, that made TIP somewhat redundant in the Jewish organizational landscape, especially in an era when the Trump administration is itself Israel’s most unabashed booster.”
It appeared from the replies to Ben-David’s post that the post mortem had just begun. Among those effusively agreeing with him were Laszlo Mizrahi and her co-founder, Sheryl Schwartz, who left the board after Block took over.
Block declined a JTA request to respond to Ben-David.
Others in the pro-Israel establishment said Block effectively represented Israel’s interests.
“Under Josh Block’s leadership, The Israel Project was a consistent and reliable source of information and important analysis rather than ideology or propaganda,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s associate dean. “It helped contextualize emerging trends. Josh Block is a thoughtful, knowledgeable Jewish leader. I hope he will continue to make a significant contribution to our community in the future.”
Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, called Block “a valued colleague and friend. He built on the work of his predecessors in fulfilling TIP’s important mission.”
Block’s successor at AIPAC, Marshall Wittmann called Block “a very talented media professional who has made an important contribution as the leader of the Israel Project to strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
Aaron Keyak, a partner at Bluelight Strategies, a consulting firm for Jewish and liberal groups, described Block as a fighter.
“Having worked with Josh over the years — sometimes on the same side and sometimes not — there’s no question that he’s an aggressive and talented operator, along with being a passionate leader in advocating for the U.S.-Israel relationship,” he said.