As the managing director of the Israel Action Network (IAN), I am resolving to become an even stronger advocate for both Israel and peace and reconciliation in the Middle East this year. We have learned a lot about how to do this. For starters, instead of focusing on what we believe those concerned with these issues need to hear, we must resolve to reflect on how to better address their concerns. In other words, to effectively respond to assaults on Israel’s legitimacy, we must become better listeners — thoughtful and strategic.
These are the resolutions we are now asking Israel advocates to make, based on findings in the Israel Action Network’s newest publication, “IAN FACTs 2: Best Practices for Countering the Assault on Israel’s Legitimacy,” (FACTs). This compilation of 14 case studies highlights key lessons and best practices culled from the past year that showcase how to effectively counter assaults on Israel’s legitimacy. Too often, our communities are surprised and ill-prepared when these issues arise. FACTs seeks to reverse this trend by compiling the behind-the-scenes work of community professionals and experts who shaped and executed successful strategies.
Contributors tackled diverse challenges to Israel’s legitimacy in 2012 from a variety of perspectives. FACTs includes case studies affecting local communities, churches, campuses, social media, culture and arts, LGBT concerns, education, global issues and more.
We can learn a lot from these compelling stories.
In his FACTs entry, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs’ (JCPA) vice president and general counsel Ethan Felson detailed how anti-Israel activists pulled out all the stops to pass resolutions in the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assemblies. They called for divestment from companies doing business with Israel claiming the companies were harming Palestinians and resisting church corporate engagement. Instead of engaging in an adversarial debate, the JCPA, together with IAN, convened a group of rabbis with extensive experience in interfaith relations to pen a response letter. It was signed by more than 1,500 rabbis from all 50 states representing the full spectrum of American Jewry — an unprecedented development. The letter highlighted the importance of relationships and partnership on issues of common concern and sensitively explained how a one-sided approach such as divestment runs counter to actualizing peace. This nuanced approach was essential to the ultimate defeat of the resolutions.
The IAN also partnered with the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York (JCRC-NY) to defeat an effort by members of the Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn to join the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) and boycott Israeli goods. Thanks in part to the JCRC’s efforts, the proposal was rejected by a vote of 1005-653, following a multi-faceted campaign that partnered with a broad range of politicians and Jewish organizations. This included those critical of Israeli policies regarding the peace process, yet supportive of the message: “Say Yes to a Jewish State. Yes to a Palestinian State. NO TO BDS.” This gave a voice to the legitimate concerns of both Israelis and Palestinians and correctly positioned the BDS movement as opposing a two-state solution. The right message coupled with the right messengers made a crucial difference.
These best practices apply in responding to specific assaults on Israel’s legitimacy, as well as in building longer-term strategies for enhancing understanding of the complexity of the issues in play. This was demonstrated especially well in the case of the Learning Exchange (LE), a project linked with the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston. LE brings together cohorts of social change leaders from Boston and Haifa to increase mutual learning and relationship building.
Before taking part in LE, Amy Howland, a high-school history teacher, struggled to fully understand the Arab-Israeli conflict and sought to reduce unintentional bias in her teaching of it. Through her participation, Amy was able to develop a relationship with Israel, and balance her understanding of the Jewish State, to deliver a more nuanced lesson to her students, colleagues and other members of her community.
But what are the key findings from this collective experience? First, advocacy must be nuanced and move beyond point-counterpoint issues and address the human concerns of Israel and her neighbors. Second, we need to provide both the right message and the right messengers who will speak authentically to the audiences in question. Third, we need to broaden the “mainstream” to counter the “extreme” creating a broad network for action. Finally, we must plan and act strategically.
Whether dealing with LGBT issues, anti-Israel activity on campus or in the community, in unions or on social media, FACTs authors repeatedly found demonstrable evidence of the success of their strategies. And they are not anomalies. They have proven effective time and time again and should serve as our benchmarks for the future.
Moving forward, FACTs calls on communities to establish strategic outreach plans for building relationships and understanding so that they will have the tools necessary to counter acts of delegitimization as they arise, and creating a wide and deep network for constructive action.
So let’s make 2013 the year we formulate realistic, actionable and effective resolutions that will help change the conversation about Israel and build a broad consensus for peace, reconciliation and the two-state solution. I know I am. Join me.
Geri Palast is the managing director of the Israel Action Network, a strategic initiative of The Jewish Federations of North America, in partnership with the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, to counter the assault on Israel’s legitimacy.