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Strength in numbers: Major Jewish organizations join forces for Israel advocacy

With efforts to delegitimize Israel gaining increasing traction in the U.S., Jewish organizations have been taking Israel advocacy more and more seriously. One of the newest voices is the Israel Action Network, a joint effort of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) and its Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA).
The IAN was first organized last November at the annual JFNA General Assembly as an organized response to the growing global boycotts, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. Martin Raffel, JCPA senior vice president, served as interim director. Geri Palast was appointed managing director in March.

Geri Palast

An attorney, Palast has spent most of her professional career in the political world and as a volunteer in various Jewish activities.
Still in its startup stage, the IAN was formed in the face of the most recent expression of historical attacks against the democratic Jewish state of Israel and antisemitism, in the form of the Global BDS Movement (boycotts, divestment, and sanctions). “What we have now is delegitimization and demonization of Israel,” Palast says.
“This is an effort to organize the Jewish community – federations, Jewish Community Relations Councils, and allied organizations – so that our activists and advocates can reach out to the broader community – campuses, churches, labor unions, progressive political people, etc.,” she notes. “In this way, we can get our side of the conversation out there, our view of the Jewish state of Israel and the kinds of threats the peace process is under, so that when skirmishes arise in any given community, we can build a sense of support and defuse controversy as we go through these difficult times of the peace process.”
This effort has proved increasingly critical over the last several years, Palast says, as many in the Palestinian, Middle East and (mostly) western European communities have worked together to brand Israel an apartheid state.
This effort, organized from within the international human-rights community, uses the tools of boycotting, divestment, and sanctions. The message spread to organizations like churches and universities is one of Israel as pariah state, Palast says, rather than as a viable democratic state concerned about all its citizens and thoughtful in its attempts to satisfy its security needs.
“Good people can differ over policy, but in the way you might disagree with U.S. policy – wars, the Civil Rights movement,” Palast says. “That doesn’t mean either is not a democratic state with a viable right to exist.”
The IAN works to get behind the source of these attacks against Israel and their main purpose – to delegitimize Israel and efforts to achieve peace through a two-state solution. “These two efforts are linked,” says Palast. “Countering the delegitimization of Israel is very important, to make sure that preconditions exist to get to peace in the region.”
Bob Fishman, executive director of the Jewish Federation Association of Connecticut (JFACT), hopes to host regional IAN workshops and conferences as a way to address growing BDS activities on Connecticut college campuses.
“The delegitimization effort is more of a concern now because it’s appearing in places where you don’t expect it,” Fishman says. While Central Connecticut State University is known as an active BDS campus, other schools – even those with a strong Jewish, pro-Israel presence – are beginning to invite anti-Israel speakers, he says.
So far, much of the IAN’s work has involved consultations with Jewish federations around the country, to develop an educational and training prototype, and to work on messaging and polling strategies with particular constituencies – labor unions, political and cultural elites, college campuses. The IAN’s current priorities are to hire staff and to help communities deal with skirmishes as they arise, Palast says.
“As each issue manifests, we need to first determine how big a deal to make of it – when to really bite and when to just bark, and whether our involvement will draw too much attention,” Palast says. “Some issues will just dissipate naturally if we don’t get involved in the first place.”
For example, a Jewish campus organization recently contacted the IAN to report an active divestment effort. Together with Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, and the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC), the IAN reached out to the university’s decision-makers and were able to get the resolution for divestment tabled. An effort to get Sabra hummus out of college dining halls was also prevented.
“We’re fortunate in that these tend to be just skirmishes right now,” Palast says. “Our community-relations strategy is that if we can reach out to the administration and the relevant students in an educated approach, we have success. The question now is, how do we build on that success?”
The IAN is already looking ahead. “There are potential things coming up – the UN vote on a Palestinian state, conversation and news of another flotilla in June, and international incidents – that can be sparks,” Palast says. “So we want to be up and running sufficiently to be involved in thinking through human-rights issues strategically in those efforts.”
The approach is one of dialog, Palast says. “Whether groups consider themselves on the left or the right of the issue, the polling is showing the same thing: the vast majority of Americans and American Jews continue to be sympathetic to Israel, but their ties to Israel are getting weaker and the old arguments don’t work the way they used to.”
“What we’re learning is that the best way to reach people is not to speak from what’s important to you, but to determine what’s important to them and to speak that language. While the Holocaust and Jewish history might be most important to many Jews, what might be most important to a human-rights activist is what’s happening to women and children in the Palestinian territories. So how do we engage in that conversation? It won’t happen if there’s no way to communicate and if people are angry and feel that they aren’t being understood. You have to find ways to communicate and engage in a dialog so that there’s some basis to engage in a conversation.”
The common ground, Palast says, must be the belief that peace is good for everybody, the context the IAN is operating in. “How do we achieve peace in the region? Through working with the community that believes that there must be an effective two-state solution, where people can live in peace and prosperity in their own democratic states,” she says. “How do you get there? We’re designing those steps. But we must be armed with an authoritative view of what’s going on: what are the needs of each people, and what are the steps to move forward? We’re creating convincing ways to talk about this and to train people so that they’re effective at it.”

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