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A New Path for Israel Advocacy?

May 18, 2011 By:
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Supporters of Israel in Philadelphia's Love Park in January 2009, when the IDF was in Gaza. Photo by Scott Weiner

Responding to criticism that its Israel advocacy efforts have been lackluster in recent years, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia is attempting to launch a robust, ideologically inclusive coalition to help combat attempts to delegitimize the Jewish state.

Federation is planning to add an advocacy position to its Jewish Community Relations Council staff and to fund new programming to achieve these goals.

Proponents of the effort are hoping that the new push can overcome the divisiveness that Israel often engenders in the Jewish community, a divisiveness that recently brought much of the JCRC's pro-Israel work to a virtual halt.

"Federation is not left, it's not right; it's pro-Israel," said Joel Sweet -- a Philadelphia lawyer and one-time kibbutz chicken farmer when he was living in Israel -- who is helping spearhead the new JCRC effort. "We are going to ask people to grow up, and put aside their personal views to find common ground and support Israel."

The local debates about American Jewish engagement and what's best for Israel -- playing out in many venues, from public forums to private synagogue listservs -- are a microcosm of what's happening across the country. Communities are embroiled in controversies over what exactly constitutes pro-Israel advocacy, and which groups and positions belong inside the pro-Israel tent.
Joel Sweet

The debates have intensified in the past several years, especially since the 2008 founding of the lobbying group J Street. Critics contend that the group -- which calls itself "pro-Israel, pro-peace" and supports U.S. pressure on Israel to make concessions -- has undermined support for the Jewish state in the political realm. Supporters say that J Street's efforts are in Israel's best interest, and that the group is giving voice to Jews who previously felt unrepresented.

The issue is compounded by the fact that American Jewry on the whole, and particularly younger Jews, don't identify as strongly with Israel as they once did, are simply uninterested and/or are ill-equipped to counter anti-Israel arguments.

This climate of discord exists at a time when Israel faces an array of political, diplomatic and security challenges -- from the Hamas-Fatah unity pact to Palestinian plans to seek U.N. support for statehood to the Iranian nuclear threat. The challenges are exacerbated by the Jewish state's international isolation amid global efforts to push divestment and boycotts of Israel, as well as an increasingly hostile environment at many of the nation's college campuses.

Examples of some recent controversies abound:

· Rabbi Richard Jacobs, the Reform movement's designated new leader who sits on the rabbinic cabinet of J Street and on the board of the New Israel Fund, is questioned on his pro-Israel credentials, with detractors vilifying him, and defenders supporting him both within and outside the Reform movement.

· The federations in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco each came under fire in the past two years for funding, respectively, a theater group and a film festival containing content critical of Israel.

· Locally, the Philadelphia JCRC's decision in March to host a panel addressing issues facing the Israeli Arab population sparked outrage among a few vocal activists.

Sweet -- who is active in the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, and the New Israel Fund, which is considered by many to be a left-leaning group that supports civic and human rights groups in Israel -- said that local Zionists across the ideological spectrum need to coalesce around a communal effort to counter the Jewish state's detractors.

For its part, Federation has set as a priority finding ways to enhance the connection between local Jews and Israel, through education, programming and advocacy.

Federation CEO Ira M. Schwartz described advocacy and education as "different sides of the same coin," suggesting that without an educated Jewry, there will be no one to work on Israel's behalf.

One of the community's greatest challenges, he said, "is mobilizing our own Jewish community on behalf of Israel."

He said that JCRC effectively advocates for Israel in the non-Jewish community, particularly by bringing Christian clergy and elected officials on missions to the Jewish state. A host of other groups, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the American Jewish Committee and the Zionist Organization of America, also concentrate their advocacy outside the Jewish realm.

Nationally, the Jewish Federations of North America have infused nearly $6 million into the Jewish Council for Public Affairs for a nationwide Israel advocacy campaign aimed at combating divestment efforts and organizing missions to Israel for non-Jews in influential positions.

Some of those dollars came from the local Federation, which hopes to use the program's resources for efforts on college campuses that address delegitimization, said Schwartz.

He also said that helping to bring educational programs to area campuses -- where there are serious efforts to undermine Israel's legitimacy -- might be among the best uses of communal dollars on behalf of Israel.

Josh Belfer, incoming student president of Hillel at the University of Pennsylvania, said that communal support is appreciated.

"It's good to know that there are organizations that are looking to help us when we need them," he said. "Whatever ideas they have, whatever conversations are going on, we are always open to hearing those. We all have similar missions."

According to JCRC's executive director, Adam Kessler, who is currently handling the community relations portfolio himself, the JCRC spent much of 2010 working in conjunction with its Israel advocacy lay committee to forge a consensus approach to Israel advocacy, in part by adopting a series of statements regarding Israel and the Middle East.

Those efforts were marred by political disagreements, according to several sources. In the end, at least in part because of these disputes, sources said, the committee dissolved.

Schwartz then appointed a task force to figure out what role Israel advocacy could and should play, coming up with specific objectives, and the best way to use communal dollars to achieve them.

As part of that new approach, the JCRC is launching the Israel Action Coalition, and is convening an inaugural meeting on June 7.

Anyone who supports "Israel's right to exist in peace and security as the democratic homeland of the Jewish people" is invited to attend the meeting, said Sweet.

To generate interest, more than 800 letters have been mailed to community members, and an email version is circulating throughout the community.

Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the United States, is slated to address the gathering via video conference. (For more information, call 215-832-0659.)

Putting Aside the Passion

It is too soon to know whether the passionate political debates will be put aside in an effort to agree on common goals.

Some of the friction in the past has centered on public programming. Last year, the local appearance of Yossi Alpher, a somewhat left-of-center Israel pundit who once served as a senior official at the Mossad, elicited some complaints from some on the right.

And in March, much louder objections were raised by JCRC's decision to host a program organized by the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues, an umbrella organization with broad support across the American Jewish organizational spectrum.

A representative of the Israeli government, Raslan Abu Rukkun, appeared on the panel, which focused on efforts to create more equality between Arabs and Jews inside Israel. About 65 people attended the program.

Two of the speakers heavily criticized aspects of Israeli policy -- including recent efforts to bolster the Jewish presence in the Galilee, where there is a significant Israeli Arab population; a lack of funding to Israeli Arab municipalities; and other related issues.

But they also publicly rejected the notion that Israel is an apartheid state, which some of Israel's fiercest detractors claim, and voiced support for the government's attempts to rectify the situation, even if they said the results haven't been satisfactory.

Still, the ZOA fired off a letter in protest, and Gary Erlbaum, a longtime Federation lay leader, also called attention to the event. He said that with the world lined up against Israel, it made little sense for Federation to host speakers critical of the Jewish state.

"Wouldn't it be more appropriate to deal with issues that are critical today?" posed Erlbaum, citing as an example, Iran's drive to obtain nuclear weapons. "This was a misappropriation of our organization's time and of our hechsher."

Jessica Balaban, director of the national task force, said that educating American Jews about issues facing Israeli Arabs falls under the rubric of advocacy because it deeply affects Israel's future.

A number of communal activists have pointed to synagogues as a vital resource in marshaling Jewish support for Israel. But many synagogues are having the same sorts of debates, with some avoiding the discussion altogether.

"People are fearful that it's a divider, instead of a uniter," said Rabbi Elliot Strom of Shir Ami Bucks County Jewish Congregation, a Reform synagogue in Newtown. While he said he has not shied away from broaching controversial issues, he knows that "it has become a minefield, and a lot of rabbis are very wary to step onto it."

Some synagogues are focusing on the nonpolitical in order to engage their members. For example, Rabbi Andrea Merow of the Conservative Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park said that there's no longer an assumption that American Jews are well-informed about Israel. That's in part what led to a synagogue-wide year of Shabbat study that has focused on Israeli geography, modern Zionist thinking and the Israeli government.

The seven programs were held throughout the year; on average, about 300 people attended each session, according to Merow. Tots, teenagers and adults were broken up into separate study groups. Merow said that while provocative discussions did take place, they rarely, if ever, grew heated or divisive.

The program concluded on May 6 with a pre-Shabbat Israel fair on the eve of Israel's Independence Day that included biblical foods, camel rides and mock "basic-training" sessions for children pretending to be in the Israeli army.

Merow said that organizers specifically avoided putting the current political situation on the agenda. How can people effectively advocate for Israel if they don't even know the issues, she stressed.

"We wanted to build a community spirit that respects a diverse understanding of Israel," she said.

That's what the JCRC is hoping to accomplish on a larger scale.

While J Street, ZOA and the more centrist AIPAC here have their own constituents, groups like the JCRC face a challenge in trying to be the voice of a divided, apathetic and ill-informed body politic.

Kessler said that events and speakers that appeal to Israel's most ardent supporters don't do much to change the conversation and end up "preaching to the converted."

"With limited resources, we need to speak to audiences who need to hear our message because they don't see the full picture from the media," explained Kessler.

He added that "the best way is presenting Israel as a sophisticated, vibrant democracy."

Some of the ideas the new coalition is considering to accomplish these goals include training students to do pro-Israel work on campus, expanding a campaign to purchase Israeli goods and setting up pro-Israel yard signs across the region.

Though no one knows how many people will show up for the Israel Action Coalition's June 7 event, Rabbi David Straus of Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood, who is president of the JCRC and is working closely with Sweet, said that the hope is to engage as many people as possible in Israel activism.

"There is no question that the issue of civil conversation about Israel is a huge issue. There is much more that unites us than divides us," said Straus.

The hope is to be able to create a forum "in which we can all be passionately supportive of Israel and not delegitimize somebody whose views are different from ours."

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