Brooklyn-based marketing firm walks back dumping potential client over Israel ties

JTA — A marketing firm facing claims that it has refused to work with a Jewish group with Israel ties is blaming the controversy on a misunderstanding.

Big Duck Studio, based in Brooklyn, says it does not support the boycott Israel movement and will continue working with organizations with Israel ties.

It also says that its staff, including a Jewish director, has faced hateful and antisemitic messages in response to what it said was the inaccurate perception that it had declined to work with the Shalom Hartman Institute because of the group’s attachments to Israel.

A conversation last week between Farah Trompeter, Big Duck’s co-director, and an official at the Shalom Hartman Institute resulted in Big Duck’s “mistaken” perception that Hartman would not work with a marketing group that included staffers who question some of Israel’s policies, Big Duck Studio said in a statement posted on its website late Thursday.

“Big Duck’s decision to decline to work with the Hartman Institute was due to multiple reasons, one of which was our perception at the time that they would not be open to working with a company whose employees and clients hold a range of views on the Israeli government’s policies and practices,” the Big Duck statement said. “We have since learned that our perception of the Hartman Institute’s position was mistaken, and we regret that the way we raised the topic caused harm.”

The Hartman Institute meanwhile stood by its version of the conversation, in which it said that Big Duck declined to work with Hartman because the think tank is Zionist and opposes the boycott Israel movement.

The controversy comes at a time when many in the pro-Israel community have expressed concern about the tenor of Israel criticism among progressives, including increasing attempts to extend boycott efforts to Jews and Jewish groups that support Israel. Big Duck’s most recent statement — insisting it was simply trying to alert a potential client to the Israel views of some of its staff — seems to reflect another concern, about the tolerance of pro-Israel Jewish groups for engaging with critics of Israel.

Big Duck’s statement was signed by the marketing firm’s co-directors, Farra Trompeter and Elizabeth Ricca. Trompeter made her Twitter account private this week after facing a barrage of what the statement said had been “hateful and threatening public and private messages”; one prominent account, Stop Antisemitism, published her picture while tagging her and calling her stance “truly sickening behavior.”

Farra Trompeter (Screen capture: YouTube)

The messages came after the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that Dorit Rabbani, a Hartman Institute official, said Trompeter had asked her in a conversation last week whether Hartman was Zionist and whether it opposed the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel. When Rabbani answered in the affirmative to both questions, according to Rabbani’s account, Trompeter declined Hartman’s offer to do business with the marketing firm.

Asked to comment on Big Duck’s latest account of the conversation, Yehuda Kurtzer, the Hartman Institute president, said “We don’t agree with that narrative.”

Big Duck’s version of the exchange, that the marketing agency had a policy of disclosing to prospective pro-Israel clients that some of its staffers are Israel-critical, comports with the recent experience of another Jewish group, the Women of Reform Judaism.

Elisa Heisman, the marketing manager for Women of Reform Judaism, told JTA that her group approached Big Duck a year ago to handle a rebranding. Heisman said Trompeter told her that “there was a chance that members of [Trompeter’s] team could publicly express a position in support of BDS.”

As a result, Heisman said, Women of Reform Judaism “chose not to pursue a relationship” with Big Duck. The parting was “amicable,” Heisman said, and was her group’s decision.

In her initial statement to JTA, Trompeter had said the decision not to work with Hartman was mutual, which Hartman officials denied.

“Being more vocal and committed to fighting oppression has led us to more active questioning of working with organizations with significant programming in Israel, among other issues, and in those cases, we have mutually agreed that it does not make sense to work together,” Trompeter said at the time.

Trompeter told JTA on Friday that to the best of her recollection, Heisman’s account was accurate. She would not say what she had meant by “more active questioning of working with organizations with significant programming in Israel.”

As for whether Big Duck would work with Hartman, she said, “We wish the conversation with Hartman had unfolded differently and we remain open to productive dialogue. This has been an incredibly painful week for me and my colleagues, and many others, and I’m eager to find ways forward.”

In their statement, Trompeter and Ricca said the initial JTA article had mischaracterized their views, but added that “the comments we provided, written in haste, didn’t accurately represent our policies and practices and caused concern.” They went on to state: “Big Duck as a company does not endorse BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions). We do not apply a litmus test with respect to Zionism and/or work in Israel. We are committed to our partnerships with Jewish organizations, including those that work in Israel.” Trompeter at the time had said that Big Duck does not have litmus tests on Zionism or BDS.

At least one major organization, the Anti-Defamation League, said it would no longer work with Big Duck in the wake of the initial story. In an interview, ADL’s CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said the ADL’s decision was influenced by the recent intensity of rancor toward U.S. Jews related to their ties to Israel.

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO and National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 2, 2017. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

“This is happening in an environment in which Jews, many Jews are feeling besieged about Israel and where they stand on Israel,” referring to attacks on U.S. Jews during last May’s Israel-Gaza conflict, and calls last year by a chapter of an environmental group to boycott Jewish organizations with Israel ties.

Greenblatt, who spoke with JTA before Big Duck released its latest statement, said ADL would reconsider depending on how Big Duck explained the exchange with Hartman’s Rabbani.

“I don’t believe in cancel culture,” he said. “We have to give people the opportunity to acknowledge that they made an error.”

JTA has asked Greenblatt to review the latest Big Duck statement and add comment.

Big Duck lists a large number of Jewish organizational clients on its website. At least one of them, Keshet, a Jewish LGBTQ group, indicated earlier this week that it would continue to work with Big Duck. The Reconstructionist movement said it was not currently working with Big Duck and had no further comment. The Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary said, “We are in conversation with Big Duck’s new owners and having discussions about next steps.”

A number of sources close to the controversy have linked it to a recent change in ownership at the marketing agency, with the firm now describing itself as a “worker-owned cooperative.”

Kurtzer told JTA that Hartman was opposed to attempts to stigmatize or isolate Big Duck because of the encounter.

“If Big Duck made a mistake here, if this is about ignorance, if it is about miscommunication, we don’t believe that organizations have to get canceled,” he said. “Give people opportunity to grow and to change and to learn.”

In their statement, Trompeter and Ricca described a harrowing few days.

“Big Duck has been accused of antisemitism and our policies have been publicly mischaracterized,” they said. “Both of us are proud to have worked deeply with many Jewish nonprofits, including many with a presence in Israel. For Farra particularly as a queer Jewish woman, as well as a strategist, trainer, donor, and personal friend to so many Jewish organizations, these allegations of antisemitism are deeply upsetting.”