Last June, an eight-person delegation of local Jewish leaders met with a group of Presbyterian leaders from throughout the region to voice concerns about the national church’s position on Israel.
The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church would be meeting the following month, and voting on whether to divest from Israel and equate Israeli policy with apartheid.
“The proposals [before the General Assembly] were incredibly one-sided,” said David Ainsman, chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council, and an IAN board member. “They were authored by a small group of people with an agenda, and the agenda was to promote the interests of a certain segment of the Palestinian community that was very anti-Israel.”
Ainsman and his delegation met with leaders of the Presbyterian Church in western Pennsylvania, and began a discussion that turned into a “study session.”
“What we found was they did not have much of an understanding of the history,” he said. “But they were eager to learn.”
The anti-Israel proposals were ultimately defeated at the General Assembly, said Ainsman, because the Pittsburgh meeting that introduced the Israeli narrative to Presbyterian leaders “was repeated throughout the country.”
Such grassroots efforts — having Jewish community leaders meeting with leaders from other segments of the community — will be one of the ways the newly formed national Israel Action Network (IAN) will work to help combat the ongoing campaign to delegitimize the State of Israel.
The IAN is an initiative of the Jewish Federations of North America, and is aimed at catalyzing the Jewish community response to efforts at de-legitimizing, boycotting, sanctioning and divesting from Israel. The IAN will support the efforts of local federations and Jewish Council for Public Affairs agencies.
The three-year, $5.5 million dollar initiative intends to provide resources to help local leaders throughout North America both react to threats against Israel’s legitimacy and take proactive measures to prevent such threats, according to Martin Raffel, IAN project director.
“We will be going into communities to work with the Federations and the local JCRCs,” Raffel said. “We will be providing education and mobilizing the community to work at countering the delegitimization effort.”
Noting that the delegitimization effort can rear its head in many different arenas, including churches, college campuses and among “cultural elites,” Raffel said the IAN would be “reaching out to increase the understanding of the leaders in civil society. We will have our leaders interact with their leaders, and enhance their understanding. There will be a lot of one-on-one.”
After obtaining authorization last fall from the JFNA to establish the IAN, and securing funding commitments from the local Federations, the IAN has now hired its first managing director, Geri Palast, and is beginning to hire additional staff, as well as schedule programs around the country.
“We want to develop strategies to counter assaults against Israel where this type of activity arises most, like in labor unions, artistic communities and college campuses,” Palast said. “There have been efforts to counter these assaults on college campuses, but we want to reach out to a broader community in a voice that speaks for a democratic Jewish state, and a two-state solution.”
“We want to build a positive coalition on the ground,” she added. “It’s a unique opportunity we have here, to mobilize our grassroots, community by community.”
While the IAN intends to combat the de-legitimization effort, it does not intend to dissuade people from criticism of Israeli policies, Raffel said.
“We have to help people understand the distinction between de-legitimization and criticism,” he said. “We’re not trying to prevent criticism of Israeli policy, but to help people understand what we’re up against in the de-legitimization movement, where people are trying to separate Israel from the family of nations, and project Israel as a pariah.
“We want people to understand that we want a peace process that could yield a two-state vision, and that all of the things in the de-legitimization effort are setting back the day when that vision can be
realized. We should be working toward peace. That is our big message. Invest in peace, don’t divest.”
The IAN will be holding its first “consultation” on June 1, at Rutgers University, for leaders from the 12 New Jersey Federations, and plans to be “replicating that kind of gathering across the country,” Raffel said.
The IAN also plans to take select leaders from various communities to Israel, and to use “the new media and social platforms to disseminate our messages more broadly,” Raffel said.
Those heading the de-legitimization effort are relatively few, he said, but their ability to spread their message is where the danger lies.
“It’s a small group of the malevolent leading around the uninformed or the naïve,” he said. “Our main job is to reduce the number of people who fall into the category of naïve or uninformed.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)