‘None of this is a science,’ one pro-Israel professional says. ‘It’s an art.’
Melanie Goldberg, one of the four pro-Israel students ousted earlier this month from a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions event at Brooklyn College, recalls a calmer, more positive moment last year, when she and others at the campus Hillel organized a forum involving several Israelis.
The Israelis had come to New York for a nationwide tour, Faces of Israel, sponsored by Israel’s Ministry of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs and, locally, by the Israeli Consulate and the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.
They drew a diverse audience at Brooklyn College, Goldberg recounts, largely because they themselves were a diverse group, including a gay, Russian-born singer, an Ethiopian-born law student and an Israeli Arab. What’s more, Goldberg adds, what they said about life in Israel left a “definite impression” because the event was such a personal one, bringing people face to face and allowing time for questions.
In more ways than one, last year’s panel discussion would most likely please the communal professionals who work solely to counter the delegitimization of Israel. Like many of the “best practices” described by these professionals, including Geri Palast of the Israel Action Network and Steven Kuperberg of the Israel on Campus Coalition, the panel focused on Israel and its many qualities, rather than the country’s detractors. It was part of Hillel’s efforts to educate students about Israel year-round, rather than just wait for the next crisis; and the means of doing so was through personal exposure to ordinary Israelis.
ICC is an independent, Washington-based organization that works with campus Hillels, while IAN is a project of the Jewish Federations of North America in partnership with the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the community-relations arm of the Jewish community.
Both organizations have conducted reams of research into past anti-Israel activity, how the Jewish community responded in each instance and the outcome of those efforts. But IAN last month published some of its research in a booklet of 14 case studies, each offering a brief description of the episode, the community’s plan for countering it, various lessons, and “action tips” for those faced with a similar situation.
The booklet examines episodes involving not only two campuses, the University of Pennsylvania and Rutgers University, but also the Park Slope Food Co-op, a film festival, church groups and various populations, such as the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community.
Discussing the booklet during a recent interview, Palast, IAN’s managing director, described BDS and Israeli Apartheid Week as “merely tactics” of the delegitmization movement, which opposes the right of Jews to live in a sovereign, democratic Jewish state. IAN is a “strategic initiative” to counter that movement by utilizing “the unique assets of the mainstream Jewish community and its grassroots,” Palast said, adding that the community’s power rests with the vast network of groups on which it could call.
While fighting that battle, one of the lessons IAN has learned is that “engaging in a right-wrong debate” does nothing to persuade an outside audience, said Palast, who was joined in her Manhattan office by David Dabscheck, IAN’s project leader and deputy managing director.
Surveys have consistently shown that only 7 percent to 8 percent of Americans would call themselves anti-Israel, Palast explained, while the vast majority of Americans are supportive of the Jewish state. “If you spend your energies trying to counter the 7 to 8 percent, you’re not going to get anywhere. … We’re not going to convince Judith Butler or Omar Barghouti,” the two speakers at this month’s controversial Brooklyn College event.
Instead, Palast said, the objective should be to reach those in the “moveable middle” — a segment that includes some Americans who may be misinformed, others who don’t care one way or the other, and still others who have valid criticisms of particular Israeli policies.
What works in reaching those audiences is a nuanced approach that takes into the account the message and the messenger, Palast continued. The community should also be addressing those audiences at all times — not just when a crisis hits.
Some people listen to those words and believe that Palast is advising supporters of Israel not to speak out against BDS. But no one is saying that, Palast said. “What we’re saying is, you have to speak out effectively.” That means assessing the audience, whether it’s the members of a mainline church, students at an urban campus or members of a politically progressive food co-op, and tailoring your message for that audience.
Other lessons found in the booklet involve allowing the local community to take the lead and building coalitions to oppose whatever anti-Israel tactic is being used. Those lessons come across in one study after another, including one involving the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church and the other involving the Park Slope Food Co-op — all institutions that faced BDS battles.
In the church-related battle, rabbis representing a broad spectrum of denominations and political views joined forces, drafting letters or statements. And in the Park Slope fight, which involved a politically progressive community, progressive organizations like J Street and Americans for Peace Now helped defeat the BDS resolution.
The one case that most resembles this month’s battle at Brooklyn College took place last year at the University of Pennsylvania, which gave space to a national BDS convention, Palast said. Although the two cases differed in several ways — Penn’s administration, for instance, separated itself immediately from the convention and BDS, while Brooklyn College’s political science department co-sponsored the forum — both involved BDS, both touched on academic freedom and both were connected in some way to student safety.
The response at Penn included Shabbat dinners throughout the campus hosted by students affiliated with Hillel, said Rabbi Howard Alpert, executive director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia. More than 700 students attended those dinners, where, in each case, the discussion revolved around the host’s experiences of Israel.
“The precise subject didn’t matter,” Rabbi Alpert said. “What mattered is that the tenor of the conversation was positive and that it came from your peers.”
On another occasion, Hillel of Greater Philadelphia took advantage of a nearby Israel jazz festival by hiring some of the Israeli musicians to jam with students at a University of Pennsylvania dorm. The musicians also spoke about the music scene in Israel and, in the process, “talked about playing with Muslim, Christian and Palestinian musicians,” the rabbi recalled. “Their stories proved the lie of Israel as an apartheid state.”
Locally, various agencies are also heeding the lessons learned by leaders of IAN and ICC.
At the JCRC of New York, Hindy Poupko, director of Israel and international affairs, said one of her agency’s “guiding principles … is to separate the critics [of certain Israeli actions] from the delegitimizers. As a community,” she said, “we need to drive a wedge between members of the pro-Israel camp who criticize Israel’s policies and those who seek to delegitimize the state.” One way to achieve that, Poupko continued, is to make sure that people understand the nature of the BDS movement, which she called deceitful, manipulative and destructive.
“One of the things we do locally is temperature-taking,” Poupko said — assessing a community’s knowledge and views about Israel. “If that community knows nothing about BDS, we’re not going to be the ones to tell them about it. But if we learn that the BDS movement is making inroads in a certain community — or is likely to make inroads — then we’ll go in and educate the people about BDS goals.”
Poupko said some of that education could take place behind closed doors, while some may take place publicly. “None of this is a science,” she said. “It’s an art. It’s not as if we have a map telling us where BDS will be next.”
At Brooklyn College’s Tanger Hillel, most of the focus is on building contacts with other students and clubs on campus, promoting Israel in a positive light and giving those students affiliated with the organization the tools and knowledge to discuss Israel with their peers, said Nadya Drukker, its executive director.
Programs hosted by Hillel include a Thanksgiving dinner for homeless New Yorkers, weekly tutoring sessions for children from homeless shelters, and an annual trip to an amusement park in Orlando, Fla., where participants help the terminally ill children served by the facility. Each of those programs draws students of all religious backgrounds, Jewish and non-Jewish, Drukker said.
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