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Jewish Journal

Will standard activist toolkit be enough to fight delegitimization?

By Ben Harris, JTA

January 31, 2011 | 10:39 am

Prominent Israel defenders, from left, Alan Dershowitz, Natan Sharansky, Irwin Cotler and William Daroff at a Miami summit addressing the campaign to delegitimize Israel, Jan. 16, 2011. (Greater Miami Jewish Federation)

Prominent Israel defenders, from left, Alan Dershowitz, Natan Sharansky, Irwin Cotler and William Daroff at a Miami summit addressing the campaign to delegitimize Israel, Jan. 16, 2011. (Greater Miami Jewish Federation)

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.”

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