At Whippany summit, enlisting a ‘corps’ of advocates for Israel
At the summit are, from left, David Michaels, B’nai B’rith; Lauren Appelbaum, The Israel Project; David Dranikoff, Greater MetroWest CRC, Israel & World Affairs; Elliot Mathias, Hasbara Fellowships; Noam Marans, American Jewish Committee; Melanie Roth Gorelick, Greater MetroWest CRC; Ferne Hassan, NJ Region AJC.
Photos by Robert Wiener
February 6, 2013
Seeking new ways to defend Israel against its detractors, some 220 people came together Sunday at the Aidekman campus in Whippany.
For four hours, speakers diagnosed attacks on Israel’s legitimacy and prescribed remedies for countering negative media coverage and hostile criticism.
As he welcomed the audience, Gordon Haas, chair of the Community Relations Committee of Greater MetroWest, said demonization of Israel “takes place in schools, college campuses, the media, the United Nations, the international arena, and in progressive groups and churches.”
Keynote speaker Itamar Marcus, founder and director of Palestinian Media Watch, said close scrutiny of the Palestinian Authority’s hostile pronouncements in Arabic — not its conciliatory English-language rhetoric — showed the West Bank government’s real attitudes toward Israel.
Using an elaborate PowerPoint presentation featuring translations of Palestinian media, song lyrics, maps, and textbook contents, Marcus said that “the worst terrorists who have killed the largest numbers of Israelis have been made heroes for Palestinians…. This is one of the great impediments to peace.
“The next generation of Palestinians has been brought up to think they have a religious obligation to liberate what Islam calls ‘our land,’” he said.
Marcus concluded by quoting an essay written by a 14-year-old Palestinian student and published in a PA-funded magazine for children. In it, she describes a dream in which she had a conversation with Adolf Hitler, who tells her he murdered Jews “because they are a nation that sows destruction all over the world.”
The second annual Step Up For Israel Advocacy Summit was sponsored by the CRC and New Jersey American Jewish Committee in partnership with area synagogues and organizations.
Sarit Catz, the CRC’s Israel advocacy chair, exhorted the audience to form “an advocacy corps, like a Marine Corps or a Peace Corps, that takes action when needed.” She urged attendees to “respond to the media when a story is biased” and to “act on it” when they receive a CRC action alert.
David Dabscheck, deputy managing director of the Israel Action Network, praised the CRC and its coalition-building with other organizations, many neither Jewish nor explicitly pro-Israel, around issues like human trafficking.
The IAN was created by the Jewish Federations of North America in 2010 to counter what it and other organizations describe as assaults on Israel’s legitimacy.
“Advocacy entails us to go outside to the communities that don’t necessarily agree with us and speak in messages that resonate with them,” Dabscheck said.
Also stressing the theme of coalition-building was Rabbi Noam Marans, AJC’s national director of interreligious and intergroup relations.
In a panel discussion, he spoke of advocacy efforts among Christian groups. “There are weaknesses in the evangelical Christian community” over support of Israel and in the liberal Protestant community, which “still have a great influence on the elites in America,” he said.
Several of the latter, he said, are responsible for church debates over resolutions highly critical of Israel and sometimes calling for boycotts and other punitive measures. To help defeat them, he said, “we need to take advantage of the unprecedented positive relationship Jews have with their Christian neighbors in a way that has never happened in the history of the Jewish people…. We need to communicate something that the leadership in their churches is not telling them…, the centrality of Israel to the Jewish experience in America.”
Michael Curtis, a professor emeritus of political science at Rutgers University and author of a recent book defending Israel against attacks in the international community, described legitimate and illegitimate criticism of Israel. There can be “legitimate differences of opinion about the nature and liability of Israeli settlements or the role of the haredim, or the position of women,” he said, using the Hebrew term for the fervently Orthodox. “But it is quite different when the criticism is relentless and ongoing and nonstop and deals with fundamental aspects of Israel’s behavior in a way that is not true of any other country.”
The UN came under criticism during a panel discussion featuring David Michaels, director of UN and intercommunal affairs at B’nai B’rith International. “Not only does the UN insist on considering Israeli settlements the greatest obstacle to peace, it is sometimes complicit in anti-Israel incitement, with deadly results for Israelis and Palestinians alike,” he said.
Lauren Appelbaum, press secretary of the Israel Project, spoke about her organization’s work in promoting a positive image of Israel in the media. “It is important to make sure that journalists are educated about issues so that the materials they write,” are accurate, she said. She suggested audience members follow developments on the project website (theisraelproject.org) “to help combat assaults on Israel’s legitimacy.”
Rabbi Elliott Mathias, who, as executive director of Hasbara Fellowships, trains college students as Israel advocates, said he was especially troubled by coalitions that pro-Palestinian campus groups have been forming with “cultural and political groups that have nothing to do with Israel,” such as black, Asian, gay, and Hispanic organizations.
Mathias also warned of anti-Israel activists who are elected to student governments, “where they have influence on budget and PR and make divestment statements.”
For summit attendee Paul Tractenberg of West Orange, a professor at Rutgers School of Law in Newark, “there were some useful and interesting presentations.” In terms of his own involvement with the issue, he said he is “mindful of things that can be done without a heavy hand to let people who are not familiar with Israel know what the reality of day-to-day life is there.”
But, he added, “it was a little disconcerting that a huge amount of the crowd was over 65 or 70.”
After the summit, Merle Kalishman of Livingston, a former CRC chair, told NJJN she thinks it is important to carry a pro-Israel message to local civic groups where Jews mix with non-Jews. And, she said, Catz’s call to action “was so on-target. She blew me away.”
Targeting those who ‘don’t care’
Speakers and organizers at the second annual Step Up For Israel Advocacy Summit agreed that assaults on Israel’s legitimacy are widespread. But how have these negative images shaped perceptions of Israel?
During a panel discussion, former advertising executive Fern Oppenheim presented the results of market research conducted in 2010 suggesting older Americans, Republicans, Jews, and men have more positive attitudes toward Israel than college students, Democrats, women, and minorities.
“The demographic bloc at risk represents the future of this country,” she said. “In less than 10 years minorities will be a majority in this country, and we are losing that whole bloc.”
Oppenheim is cofounder of the Brand Israel Group, an organization established in 2005 and backed by the Israeli government with the intention of improving the country’s image among both Jews and non-Jews.
Oppenheim said that when most Americans consider Israel, “they see ultra-religious and they see conflict, which makes it hard for Israel to stand out from the rest of the Middle East…. They see Israel as more religious than Iran.
“If Israel were a person walking down the street it would be a woman in a burka, a hasid, someone you walk right past because you felt nothing in common with them.”
She said those most concerned about Israel, for and against, form only a minority compared to a larger middle that takes little or no interest in the conflict — some 26 percent of the 3,000 people surveyed. They consisted of 1,200 in the general population and 1,800 others — non-Orthodox Jews, college students, and racial minorities.
She said 26 percent of those surveyed are “soft supporters of Israel. They have very little interest in the conflict, and another 34 percent are “dead center and have no interest in the conflict….
“The people we need to be reaching are people who do not care,” she said.
To combat such apathy, Oppenheim suggested media campaigns offering positive aspects of Israel as “organic ways for people to see the humanity on the face of Israeli society and let them discover it for themselves.” — ROBERT WIENER