David Brog, the 49-year-old head of the new, Sheldon Adelson-funded, multimillion-dollar effort to combat BDS (the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel), is well aware of the high — and no doubt unrealistic — expectations among pro-Israel advocates for him to succeed.
The BDS movement appears to be growing at a number of key college campuses and has become an increasingly important priority on the Jewish communal agenda. And with upwards of $50 million at his disposal for the Maccabee Task Force, launched earlier this year at an invitation-only Las Vegas summit, there is a sense among some Israel activists that Brog should be able to squash the opposition with a major offensive.
But throwing large sums of money at this complex problem is not enough. Neither is a frontal assault on Israel’s enemies on campus, since they are less the target of Brog’s efforts than the great majority of college students — Jewish and non-Jewish — who are either uninterested in or confused by the Israeli-Palestinian struggle.
“We need a very nuanced approach,” Brog told me in his first in-depth interview since becoming executive director of the task force four months ago. “Every campus is different, and the phrase ‘BDS’ is a catch-all for various efforts to demonize and delegitimize the State of Israel. Even if you could ban BDS activities on campus, the problem wouldn’t go away. The battle is bigger than BDS, so our effort has to be bigger.”
Brog has been learning on the job. By his own admission he did not come to his post as an expert on the subject of BDS. He spent the last nine years as executive director of Rev. John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel (CUFI), and many people are surprised to learn that Brog is Jewish.
CUFI promotes stronger Christian-Jewish relations, especially in support of Israel. It has not been without controversy over the years because of Rev. Hagee’s hard-line political and religious views at times. Brog was an intense and savvy advocate for CUFI, helping it become the largest Christian Zionist organization in the U.S. He hopes to use some of his connections in the evangelical Christian community in his new post, and points out that those in “the faith community” tend to respond positively to Israel.
In general, though, surveys show that young people today are not as favorably inclined toward Israel as their parents, and at the outset the task force will focus on campuses.
Brog’s first months at the task force have been spent listening to leaders of the various pro-Israel activist groups across the country, learning what they do, how they interact and perhaps overlap, and determining strengths and weaknesses in the field.
“We don’t want to reinvent the wheel,” Brog said. “I view these groups as an extended brain trust for us. We intend to find out who is doing good work and encourage them to work together.”
The task force will not have its own campus chapters, and it intends to keep a relatively low profile. It has solicited funding proposals from existing groups, evaluated them and is in the process of sending out an initial 10 grants of amounts “between five and six figures” to bolster their work, according to Brog.
Up to a dozen national partner groups and some local chapters of these groups, including students as well as professionals, are scheduled to meet Jan. 15-16 and engage in honest discussions about their successes and setbacks.
“We are trying to create a culture where we all can learn from each of the group’s experiences,” said Brog. “Which programs and projects are effective and which aren’t, and why. We have to get beyond our own echo chamber, and that’s not easy.”
The conference will be held in Las Vegas, where Brog is now based, close to his boss, Adelson, the casino billionaire whose outsized influence on Israeli and American politics is profound. His pro-Netanyahu newspaper, Israel Today, is distributed and delivered for free and is now the most-read in Israel. And his willingness to contribute large sums of campaign funds to pro-Israel candidates in the U.S. has made him a magnet for Republican candidates who seek to out-do each other in pledging their allegiance to Israel.
Brog is sensitive to the widespread perception that Adelson, who helped form the task force and is its primary funder, will seek to drive its agenda politically. Brog said it’s just not true, and he cites the fact that Adelson is the biggest funder for Birthright Israel but has not politicized that organization’s 10-day Israel trips.
Brog emphasized that the task force seeks to work with a wide range of pro-Israel groups, across the political spectrum. “We’re talking about groups that represent the broad mainstream of the pro-Israel community – groups that are dedicated primarily to make the case for Israel’s right to exist, to defend itself, and that seek to counter BDS efforts.”
He said the task force is well aware that “the vast majority of colleges are left of center, so we know that if we don’t speak to them in their language we are wasting our time.” He declined to name the groups the task force is working with but he singled out two groups that will not receive funding. They are Jewish Voice for Peace, which supports the BDS movement, and the dovish pro-Israel lobby group, J Street (and its campus organization, J Street U). Though Brog said he has been told that J Street “has been helpful” on the issue of BDS, he asserted that “we have a different approach.
“J Street may be committed to Israel in the abstract,” he explained, “but day to day, how do they spend their time — making the case for Israel” or criticizing Jerusalem’s positions? “Those are the questions we’re asking.”
As part of its research the task force sponsored focus groups of Jewish and non-Jewish college students in Southern California, Texas and New England to discuss their views of Israel, BDS and the Mideast conflict. Bill Knapp, the hired consultant for messaging, strategy and tactics, said the results of the discussions are still being analyzed. But he asserted that “facts alone won’t move people on this issue,” noting that “it’s a complex and emotional area” that entails young people’s views of themselves and their place in the world. Describing college students today as “smart but often uniformed,” he said “their opinion of Israel may be determined by their views on strong vs. weak, justice vs. injustice, life vs. death, or freedom vs. slavery.” Knapp added: “You don’t win this debate by yelling the loudest or having the longest list of facts,” suggesting that students’ views are “pliable.”
Brog said he was encouraged by the preliminary findings, noting that when students were made aware of some basic facts about Israel — that it is a vibrant democracy, that its peace offers have been rejected by the Palestinians, that it is home to many Jewish refugees from Arab lands, etc. — their sympathy for the Jewish state increased. He said the focus groups discussions also underscored that “how you share the facts, what tone you take, are important. It’s not just about the facts alone. People are motivated by what they feel.”
After the initial round of funding, the task force will start monitoring its investments while widening its reach beyond the campus. It will consider targeting high school students as well as post-college young adults, with an emphasis on social media. “We plan to invest in better short videos and articles that will arm our pro-Israel students,” Brog said. He added that there may be support for trips to Israel for small groups of non-Jewish young leaders. The task force, which now has a staff of five, will also consider launching new advocacy groups if it determines the current ones are deficient in certain areas. But the emphasis for now is on collaboration, working together with those already in the field and strengthening their efforts.
“It’s hard to say where we’ll be a year from now,” Brog said, “but we’ll focus on truths about Israel that will move students. We hope to have a holistic strategy that will resonate with undecided students and appeal to their heads and their hearts.”