Will standard activist toolkit be enough to fight delegitimization?

When a Miami community organization first conceived of holding a Jewish summit to address the campaign to delegitimize Israel, it expected 400 people might show up.

Instead, 1,200 people packed a Miami auditorium for the Jan. 16 event, including an all-star cast of Israel’s most prominent defenders: Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, former Canadian Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky and Israel’s U.S. ambassador, Michael Oren.

The summit, sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Miami, was the highest profile meeting of the minds on combating Israel’s delegitimization since the Jewish Federations of North America announced last November at the General Assembly in New Orleans that it would be tackling the issue head-on.

Participants at the Miami conference were encouraged to use the standard tools of political advocacy—contacting elected officials, calling in to talk radio—and they were given information sheets to help them do so more effectively.

“We really laid the foundation for our community to respond when they hear myths, misinformation—whether its bloggers, radio talk shows, newspapers—to be able to respond,” said Carol Brick-Turin, director of the Miami JCRC. “We’re hoping to set a model for the nation.”

Yet it’s not clear whether a strategy that relies on what is essentially the standard activist toolkit will be enough to set back the campaign of delegitimization. The campaign encompasses a broad range of tactics from the official to the grass roots: picketing stores that sell Israeli products; urging corporations, universities, and state and local municipalities to stop investing in Israel; and pressing the case against Israel in Washington and foreign capitals, and at the United Nations.

On the pro-Israel side, a national strategy is taking shape under the direction of Martin Raffel, a senior vice president at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. Its main focus will be on civil society—the trade unions, liberal churches and university campuses that have proven receptive to the claims of Israel’s detractors.

Among the initiatives planned is a move to bring civil society leaders on trips to Israel and to provide financing to communities to conduct meetings with key local leaders. All this and more will be financed by a budget of just over $5.5 million over three years from the JCPA and the Jewish Federations of North America.

Much of the concern over delegitimization stems from the global rise of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, or BDS, though several figures prominent in the pro-Israel counter-delegitimization effort took care to note that the two are not synonymous.

In New York, the Jewish Community Relations Council is seeking part of that money to conduct outreach to liberal Jewish groups and the civil society targets of BDS initiatives: trade unions, churches and the like.

“This effort is clearly labor intensive and demands significant resources,” said Hindy Poupko, the council’s director of Israel and International Affairs. “Micro-grants from the JFNA/JCPA initiative would enable communities like ours to devote the resources necessary to combat the BDS movement on the ground.”

Raffel also promised to exploit the vast network of relationships built by Jewish groups throughout the United States and organize a grass-roots response as necessary. But he offered few specifics.

“We will be seeking to mobilize the grass roots,” Raffel said. “And we will also try to encourage messaging and tactics by those who are not necessarily a part of the organized Jewish community that are consistent with our goals and strategies.”

There are some success stories in the counter-deletimization movement.

A move to divest from companies deemed complicit in Israeli “war crimes” was defeated last year at the University of California, Berkeley. So was a referendum to provide an alternative to Israeli-made hummus at Princeton University. Both measures were turned back the old-fashioned way—through relationship building and grass-roots politicking.

“Our focus on campus is to build relationships with decision-makers, to build relationships with students, to build relationships with other organizations on campus, so that we can tell the true story of the State of Israel and not the story that Israel’s enemies would have us believe,” said Jeff Rubin, spokesman for the Jewish campus group Hillel.

The BDS movement was launched in 2005 with three official objectives: ending the “occupation and colonization of all Arab lands,” full equality for Arab Israelis and promoting the return of Palestinian refugees. Many supporters of Israel interpret the movement as an effort to destroy the Jewish state.

But most BDS supporters who talk to the media portray their effort in starkly different terms, saying it’s a peaceful way to effect political change. Frequently they invoke high principle—respect for international human rights law, equality before the law and the end of occupation.

“For me, there is no wrong type of human being,” Ali Abunimah, a prominent BDS activist, said at a speech last November in New Mexico.

Abunimah’s speech criticized Israeli policies that, he said, failed to grant Palestinians equal rights because they are not Jewish.

“There is only one type of human being,” Abunimah said. “And that is the vision we have to work towards.”

Jewish views of BDS are not monolithic across the political spectrum. Rabbi David Saperstein, who heads the Reform movement’s Washington arm, the Religious Action Center, called BDS “neutral tools.”

Nevertheless, a consensus exists, even among more dovish Jewish groups, that the effort to delegitimize Israel is real and must be countered. It’s not clear, however, that a broad coalition can be held together, particularly if it includes groups whose objectives occasionally overlap with the professed goals of BDS.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, the director of the political lobbying group J Street, agrees that a counter-deligitimization campaign is necessary. But he says the effort cannot succeed without addressing humanitarian and peace issues by ending the occupation.

“You can’t stop the delegitimization of Israel without ending the conflict,” Ben-Ami said. “That’s the root issue.”

POINT: Caveat Conlator: Funder beware

The entire Jewish community should applaud the recently announced plan by The Jewish Federations of North America, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and several major Jewish federations to invest millions of dollars over the next few years to fight the delegitimization and demonization of Israel. These groups understand that if academic and cultural boycotts are legitimate when aimed at Jews in the West Bank today, they will soon become legitimate when aimed at Jews in Tel Aviv tomorrow; and, you can be sure that after that, the boycotters will set their sites on Jews in New York, Los Angeles, Peoria … and everywhere else that Jews live.

Unfortunately, on the ground, anti-delegitimization efforts are being undermined by some of the very organizations that the mainstream Jewish community actually finances. The JCC of Manhattan recently invited boycotter Tony Kushner to speak at the opening night of its “Other Israel Film Festival.” American Friends of Hebrew University bestowed their prestigious Scopus Award on boycotter Frank Gehry. The JCC of San Francisco made boycotter Stephen Sondheim a keynote speaker at their Ideas Programs. And, the executive committee of the Foundation for Jewish Culture, an organization with a proud history of support for Jewish scholarship and art — though also with a recent history of funding several highly controversial projects that many critics consider anti-Israel propaganda — recently overwhelmingly rejected a simple resolution to condemn “academic or cultural boycott of Jews or Israel, their academics and artists, or their academic and cultural institutions.”

This vote was disturbing for many reasons. First, the mission of the foundation is to “nurture a vibrant and enduring Jewish identity, culture, and community.” What could be less nurturing to Jewish culture than cultural boycotts? Second, the foundation had a special obligation to distance itself from boycotters; a number of artists and academics whom it has honored, funded or placed on grant panels during the past decade are some of our people’s most prominent boycotters — Kushner, Theodore Bikel (a board member of the foundation), Sheldon Harnick, to name a few.  In recent years, the foundation has funded some of the most anti-Israel propaganda, on the principle that artists and academics were entitled to “freedom of expression.” In rejecting the above resolution, the Foundation apparently concluded that some Jewish and Israeli artists and academics’ rights were not as important as others.

Most troubling of all, however, is that the Foundation for Jewish Culture is funded by many Jewish federations, foundations and philanthropists. Ironically, at just the time that so many of these major funding entities are investing millions in efforts to combat delegitimization and demonization from one pocket, they are actually (unwittingly) supporting delegitimization and demonization from the other pocket. 

I would maintain that Jewish communal money should never be used to provide artists or academics with a platform (i.e., funding, honor or visibility) for their art, scholarship or political views, if such a platform would be denied to another Jew or Israeli — anywhere in the world. Therefore, I propose that every Jewish federation, foundation and philanthropist that opposes academic and cultural boycotts — and every Jewish organization that receives community funds — enact a simple board resolution or grant policy (and require that each of its beneficiaries do the same), as follows:

BE IT RESOLVED that [name of federation or organization] condemns any attempt or implementation of any academic or cultural boycott of Jews or Israel, or Jewish or Israeli academic and cultural institutions, and will take any and all future action that it deems appropriate to publicize its position on the above, to distance itself from those who participate in such boycotts, and to ensure that it in no way aids or abets such boycotts through its funding programs.

Some boycotters may believe that by participating in international boycotts, they are merely protesting a policy of the Israeli government, when, in fact, they are fueling what the Reut Institute has called the Delegitimization Network, a loosely aligned group of radical leftist organizations and individuals who seek to “negate Israel’s right to exist.” Reut continues that the “effectiveness of Israel’s delegitimizers … stems from their ability to engage and mobilize others by blurring the lines with Israel’s critics.” Unfortunately, as Hannah Rosenthal, U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, recently told a conference on combating anti-Semitism: “Opposition to a policy [of] the State of Israel morphs into anti-Semitism easily and often.”

A resolution such as this would, first and foremost, ensure that these funders — who are avowedly anti-boycott — not unwittingly fund organizations that do not share their values. Second, Jewish organizations have an opportunity to educate and inform the general public, as well as well-meaning, non-enemies of Israel, of the unintended destructiveness of boycotts in fueling the Delegitimization Network. 

A resolution, such as the one proposed, would not be unprecedented for federations or foundations. Today, many impose upon their grantees various obligations, which range from practicing and promoting ethical business practices to maintaining an open and diverse workplace. Some go further and require grantees to commit to principles of pluralism, and some even fund only organizations that express a positive attitude toward the State of Israel.

What can individual Jews do? First, you should inquire of the federations and organizations that you support what they are doing to combat delegitimization and demonization of Israel, and suggest that they institute an anti-boycott measure, such as the one outlined above. Second, individuals who patronize the arts and culture should educate themselves about artists and institutions that support international boycotts.

Think twice before going to a performance or supporting the work of artists like Daniel Barenboim, Stephen Sondheim, Tony Kushner, Harold Prince and Julianne Moore; think twice before you patronize any number of organizations that have allowed their boycotting staff to associate their organizations’ names with the boycott movement: Playwrights Horizons theater, New York Theatre Workshop, the Public Theater and even the New York Foundation for the Arts. At a minimum, do what you can to educate these individuals and organizations — and the hundreds of others like them — about how their actions violate other artists’ rights to free expression and play so perfectly into the hands of Israel’s biggest enemies.

David Eisner is CEO of a financial data company and an active philanthropist from New York. He previously lived in Westwood.

COUNTER-POINT: Boycott the boycotters?

What a wonderful idea. Let us counteract a boycott by engaging in a boycott of our own; let us boycott the boycotters who in turn can retaliate by boycotting the boycotters of the boycott.

There are several problems with the arguments advanced in this resolution.

The opening sentence troubles me: Should we really applaud the announced plan that the Federations and Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) are about to invest millions of dollars to counteract the delegitimization and demonization of Israel. Is there any empirical evidence that this investment of funds will be effective — or any more effective than the dozens of organizations large and small that are currently fighting Israel’s delegitimization? What will they do that others have not tried to do? The Federation is dealing with it.  Perhaps the money could be better spent by feeding the hungry in Israel and at home and teaching the young.

I have been in Jewish public life for more than three decades and have seen these fads come and go; these expenditures have usually been ineffective, and once they have given the funders a sense that “we are doing something about the problem,” they are usually buried quietly, having achieved exactly nothing.

The final sentence of that opening paragraph is equally troubling, equally exaggerated: The author suggests that there will be an escalation, first boycott the West Bank, then Tel Aviv, then the Jews in New York, Los Angeles and Peoria. Get serious! We’ve been down that road and it was called Nazism, which attempted to get the Jews out of German culture; ironically, the result has been that German culture deteriorated dramatically in its world influence in music, art, literature and science. American culture was the chief beneficiary of this boycott.

The author seems to have little confidence in the quality of Jewish creativity and its integration into world culture. If the English academics were serious about boycotting Israel, they would not use their Intel chips, Windows operating systems, their Apple iPads and iPhones, their cell phones and they would refrain from inoculating their children against diseases major and minor. They are making noise, and our major mistake is to take them seriously. Challenge them to be consistent. Israel is an integrated part of world culture and of the scientific and technologically interconnected global universe. Even its enemies now make use of its products. During the oil crisis of 1973 and 1979, we thought that power in the future would lie in the control of natural resources. We live in a knowledge-based universe, and Israelis and Jews have considerable power.

The issue of delegitimization is not a public relations issue but a question of actual policy not easily counteracted even by slick PR. Republican talking point guru Frank Lutz advised Jewish leaders as to how to package the pro-Israel message. His efforts were somewhat futile.

They cannot compete with what is happening in Israel. When prominent Israeli rabbis announce that Jewish law prohibits renting apartments or homes to Arabs within Israel, we don’t need our enemies to proclaim that Zionism is racism; we have rabbinical rulings endorsing a racial policy that reminds many Jews of German policy toward the Jews in the pre-exterminationist years. Their statement was so offensive that it drew the ire of the prime minister, virtually the entire non-Israel rabbinate whether Orthodox, Charedi or Liberal, and many Israeli rabbis.

When the foreign minister addresses the United Nations and undermines the policies of his own government or when he addresses Israeli ambassadors and undercuts the policies these ambassadors are assigned to represent, what is a PR effort to achieve?

Look at who is being targeted by this resolution.

Do we really want to drive these artistic men and women out of Jewish life? They are not dependent on the community financially or creatively so our only success will be in alienating them. I have known Theodore Bikel for decades. I have marched arm in arm with him to support Soviet Jewry, to rally on behalf of the State of Israel. I have seen him act in support of Jewish causes publicly and privately. His performances in cities across the world of “Fiddler on the Roof,” his shows of Yiddish songs and the way he has comported himself as a proud, informed, passionate Jew have brought honor to the Jewish people; and now this author suggests that he not be invited to Jewish events because he insists that settlements are antithetical to the interests of the State of Israel and to the Jewish people and refuses to perform in these settlements.

I have seen the work that Frank Gehry has done to recover his Polish Jewish roots. I have reviewed his unrealized design for the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem. Do we want to circle the wagons so that Jewish life welcomes only those who endorse the right wing of Likud’s policies and that a rigorous standard of political enforcement determines who is kosher and who is not kosher to participate in Jewish life? Should we read out of the Jewish community talented and committed Jews who do not support parts of the current government policy and who see a danger that the failure to relinquish the territories will lead to the Jews being a minority in the lands between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea? Some of us believe that a two-state solution is the only way that Israel can remain Jewish and democratic, that a two-state solution is as important to Israel’s future as it is to the Palestinian one.

I prefer a Jewish world in which Jews care enough about Israel to be impassioned enough about its policies and its future to shout and scream even while I personally prefer civility. And I prefer a Jewish community that welcomes men and women of talent and of diverse views that contribute to this conversation.

Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University.

Op-Ed: On Israel delegitimization, media matters

Comedian Jon Stewart’s recent selection as the most influential man in America in a poll by AskMen.com, a popular online magazine, is more than just an inane piece of trivia. It can help inform the international Jewish community of the approach we must take to confront the very serious and growing threat posed by Israel delegitimization.

So, too, can a look at the public relations strategy of Israel’s biggest delegitimizer, Iran.

Stewart, of course, is the American comedian and star and executive producer of the widely popular and critically acclaimed “The Daily Show.” His satirical TV news program lambastes mainstream TV news, particularly Fox, CNN and MSNBC, the three major 24/7 cable news channels in the United States. His show has the highest ratings of any American late-night TV show; it’s is the only source of news for many young Americans.

So Stewart receiving the most votes of the 500,000 respondents tells us something important about the influence of the media among Americans, especially the younger demographic.

The Israel Project (TIP) long has understood the importance of Stewart’s “fake” news program. Quite often it deals with Israel and the Middle East conflict, mimicking how the American media inordinately and sometimes perplexingly focuses on Israel. TIP sends the show’s producers the same news releases and background information we send to tens of thousands of “real” journalists across the globe. And each year for the past five years, our summer media fellows go to a taping of the show live in New York City and meet with some of the writers and producers.

“The Daily Show” is no joke for any strategic communications professional whose job it is to influence public opinion.

In fact, those who work on public opinion issues know full well that the vast majority of Americans of all ages get their news from television. Poll after poll conducted by The Israel Project demonstrates that 62 percent of Americans acquire their information on the Middle East from TV. That number is similar throughout Europe and 90 percent in the Arab world.

The Internet ranks second at 36 percent, but that, too, is derived mainly from the websites of mainstream news sources. Newspapers came in third at 23 percent. Contrast these figures with the 4 percent of Americans who say their Mideast views are shaped by schools and universities, and 3 percent from lectures or events.

It couldn’t be any clearer where the bulk of the Jewish community’s pro-Israel strategic communications efforts should be placed, especially in combating Israel delegitimization.

This issue and what it portends for Israel and Jewish communities around the world have become a rallying point and cause of great concern. Israel’s image in many countries has suffered in the past few years, particularly since the Gaza War and even more since the flotilla incident, according to recent opinion polls.

Boycotts of Israel by performers and academics persist, though they are only moderately successful. The sanctioning of Israel in international bodies is going strong, requiring us to contend with the resources and might of nongovernmental organizations and their backers who work tirelessly to weaken Israel. The red-green unholy alliance of extreme left-wing groups and extreme Islamists is alarming and a security concern for Israel.

Israel’s biggest delegitimizer and greatest enemy is Iran. A look at its public relations strategy for weakening Israel is instructive for the pro-Israel community.

The Iranians have invested tens of millions of dollars on PRESSTV, a 24-hour, global news network broadcast in English that also started Spanish broadcasts last month. PRESSTV is available free in much of the world on cable and satellite TV, and can be seen live online. It generally reports the news straight—except on Israel and Iran. In covering Israel, PRESSTV uses blatant and subtle anti-Israel and anti-Semitic messages.

The Iranians understand too well that the most effective way to sway opinions against the Jewish state is to relentlessly repeat the same anti-Israel messages again and again on the media that shapes view the most—TV and the web.

The Jewish community has the resources and know-how to fight Israel’s delegitimizers the world over. But we have to learn the lessons available from disparate, even incongruous, sources. These point us to the persistent and consistent use of television (though not to the exclusion of other media and communications and education vehicles.)  This communications strategy of focusing on television must be understood and utilized intelligently, applying the best research and tools at our disposal.

This is a battle for the hearts and minds of literally hundreds of millions of people whose genuine support Israel dearly needs. It is a battle with serious strategic consequences for Israelis and Jewish communities worldwide. It is a battle we must win.

Laura Kam is the executive director for global affairs for The Israel Project, a nonprofit educational organization that provides facts about the Middle East to the media, leaders and the public.

Can We Find the Golden Mean?

In the opening book of his monumental code of Jewish law, Maimonides declared, "We are bidden to walk in the middle paths which are the right and proper ways…." The great medieval sage was articulating the golden mean, the principle that we should avoid extreme behavior, ethical or physical, at all times. The person who succeeds — indeed, who navigates between indulgence and self-denial — is, by Maimonides’ standards, the wise one.

Wisdom, alas, has not always been present in the still-swirling Wolpe affair. At times, the two sides have vied to outdo one other in a cyclical game of delegitimization. Each side would do well to lower the rhetorical volume and adopt the golden mean in its behavior toward the other.

But this does not mean that the competing perspectives on whether the Exodus took place can be reconciled. Rather, it means that we in the Jewish world must tolerate radically divergent ways of understanding the world. The fact is that those who believe in the veracity of the Exodus account exist in a parallel universe to those who question it. The two can acknowledge one another, but they are unlikely ever to reconcile their distinct views.

Many noble and great thinkers have tried their hand at reconciliation. Medieval philosophers labored mightily to achieve a harmonious position between the truths of revelation and reason — before more modern figures like Spinoza overturned the cart. Undaunted, their Modern Orthodox descendants offered up a modified version of this reconciliation, insisting on the compatibility of Torah and science (Torah uMadah).

I am dubious about the prospects for success. The critical historical sensibility that Rabbi Wolpe invoked submits every event, actor or text — without exception–to the scholar’s scalpel. In this approach, evidentiary support and contextual corroboration are the essential tools of the trade. These tools are notoriously, even deliberately, indifferent to claims of sacredness.

And they have been applied to the Exodus story for some time now. It is in this regard that adepts of the modern historical approach found Rabbi Wolpe’s lecture anything but newsworthy. The Jerusalem Report, hardly the first word in archaeological research, devoted its April 8, 1993, cover story to the theme: "Did the Exodus Really Happen?" The author, Felice Maranz, canvassed a large number of historians and archaeologists with an intense interest in the Exodus story. Maranz’s conclusion, which drew upon scholars ranging from Jerusalem’s Benjamin Mazar to Toronto’s Donald Redford, was that "there isn’t a shred of hard evidence … to prove that the Israelites were ever slaves in Egypt or that they ever wandered in the Sinai desert."

But does this necessarily consign Exodus to the resting place of false legends? I believe not. The religious believer understands a sacred event as resistant to historical dissection. Such an event, by definition, assumes mythic proportions. This is not to say that it is false or illusory. On the contrary, myth connotes a truth that transcends a particular historical context. Its function, as Mircea Eliade wrote in "Myth and Reality," is "to reveal the exemplary models for all human rites and all significant human activities." It is precisely in this regard that Exodus has served and continues to serve as a grand myth. It is a sacred narrative of the creation of Jewish peoplehood, as well as an exemplary model for all who are intent on liberation. As such, it is true in ways that can not be disproved by historical analysis — much like Jesus’ divinity or Muhammad’s ascent can not be refuted for most believing Christians or Muslims.

Contrary to the fears — and hopes — of many, the advent of modernity has not put an end to such mythic thinking. Religion lives on — in fact, thrives — in much of the world. At the same time, many have embraced the contextual logic of the critical historical sensibility. Sometimes, those who maintain their faith and embrace history are the same people. I suspect that they maintain equilibrium between the two more by compartmentalizing than by reconciling. For this is the way of the bifurcated modern world that we inhabit. To the extent that most of us contend with competing sensibilities within us, we would do well to respect the divergent views of others — if only as a way of honoring ourselves.