Groups See Surge in Activism Since 2016 Election

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Mark Hetfield, president of HIAS, speaks at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in February, following the Trump administration’s first travel ban. | Photo courtesy of HIAS

Rebecca Ennen clearly remembers the raw emotions of the day following Donald Trump’s election.

Ennen, deputy director of the progressive nonprofit Jews United for Justice, was in the group’s Washington, D.C., office. JUFJ had put the word out to its volunteers, donors, petition-signers and whomever 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. “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 President Trump’s win, according to Ennen and staff at other nonprofits. 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.

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 Bend the Arc, resistance has become a central part of its brand. The group organizes campaigns supporting progressive policies like 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 action can range from signing a petition to hosting a fundraiser, but she said it’s the most activity she’s seen since taking over in early 2014.

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

Jews United for Justice staffers phone bank in September. | Photo courtesy of Jews United for Justice

With Republicans controlling the federal government, Bend the Arc is using that money and staff to build 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. Cotler said Bend the Arc is also organizing what it calls “Moral Minyans,” small advocacy groups that it hopes will grow in advance of the elections.

On the opposite side of the political spectrum, the Zionist Organization of America, which regularly criticized the Obama administration and has supported Republican policy relating to Israel and immigration, is also reporting increased 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.

“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 up new offices in Boston and New Jersey. And as far as the group’s activism goes — lobbying for stronger U.S.-Israeli relations and for 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 felt the impact of the new administration acutely, according to Mark Hetfield, president of the organization.

The administration’s repeated attempts to ban refugees from mostly Muslim nations has given the group a new cause: advocate for refugee 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 a statement 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, it has resettled 28,000.

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

Hetfield recalled a moment when Jewish political energy was on display. In February, the agency had planned an information session for its new group targeted at young adults.

Hetfield was planning for a turnout of 35 at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in Washington.

But the week before, Trump has signed an executive order stopping refugee arrivals and suspending travel into the United States from seven mostly-Muslim countries. Hetfield said what was supposed to be a low-key event into a rally with speeches and call-and-response chanting when more than 500 people showed up.

Will the activist energy last? Jewish leaders on the left and right said that with Trump’s penchant for abrupt and splashy policy announcements, coupled with next year’s midterm elections just a year away, it shows little signs of abating.

Jared Foretek is a staff writer with Washington Jewish Week, an affiliated publication of the Jewish Exponent.