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Can usual tools beat anti-Israel efforts?
February 3rd, 2011
New York (JTA) — When a Miami organization first conceived of holding a Jewish summit to address campaigns to delegitimize Israel, it expected 400 people.
Instead, 1,200 people packed a Miami auditorium on Jan. 16. They included prominent Israel 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 was sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Miami. It was the highest profile meeting on combating anti-Israel efforts since the Jewish Federations of North America announced last November in New Orleans that it would tackle the issue.
Participants in Miami 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.
Moreover, 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 the standard activist toolkit will be enough to set back the campaigns.
The anti-Israel efforts encompass a broad range of tactics: picketing stores that sell Israeli products; urging corporations, universities, and state and local governments 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 — 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 stems from the global rise of the “boycott, divestment, and sanctions” movement, or BDS.
There have been some successes. 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 through relationship building and grassroots politicking.
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 Israel.
But most BDS supporters who talk to news media portray their effort as a peaceful political change movement. Frequently they invoke high principles — respect for international human rights law, equality before the law, and the end of occupation.
Jewish views of BDS are not monolithic. 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 lobbying group J Street, agreed that a counter-deligitimization campaign is necessary. But “You can’t stop the delegitimization of Israel without ending the conflict,” he said. “That’s the root issue.”