Tucson has been earmarked as one of five U.S. communities facing serious Israel delegitimization challenges. Noam Gilboord, director of community strategy for the Israel Action Network, a project of the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council of Public Affairs, came here from New York last month to lead two days of workshops on countering such challenges.
“We have to reach out to people who are vulnerable to new messages about Israel,” Gilboord told some 20 Jewish community leaders and volunteers at the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona on Oct. 23, the first day of the workshop. “We have to make new human connections, telling people about the Israel we know, a diverse democracy that supports human rights and social justice.”
Attendees discussed core principles of Israel advocacy and community relations tools. Participants received copies of “Israel Action Network. IAN Facts 2: Best Practices for Countering the Assault on Israel’s Legitimacy,” with articles about specific community events, such as “Defeating the Boycott at the Park Slope Food Coop.” On the second day of the workshop, they took part in role-playing and other action-oriented activities.
Working with the national office, the local IAN — a program of the Weintraub Israel Center and the JFSA’s Jewish Community Relations Council — trains individuals to build long-lasting relationships with non-Jewish community members, focusing on outreach to Latino communities, campaign issues and the use of social media.
“We want to establish common ground,” says Michelle Blumenberg, executive director of the University of Arizona Hillel Foundation, who attended the workshop. “We heard through the wisdom of the IAN who it is we’re trying to address. It’s the people who don’t know enough, who may have only heard one side and want to learn more. We want to engage them in honest conversation. It’s not enough to talk about how great Israel is,” she says. “Israel isn’t perfect. No country is.”
It’s also not enough to preach to the choir of pro-Israel people, and there’s no point trying to change the minds of those who are vehemently anti-Israel, notes Blumenberg. “Some people may have heard, for example, that Israel is an apartheid state. Let’s be open to education about what really goes on in Israel,” to help people not succumb to stereotypes, she says.
It’s a different time in history, said Gilboord, who is 28. “The younger generation and college kids [may not know] about 1948, 1967 or 1973. The only Israel I’ve been around is one of power. Perceptions of Israel outside the Jewish community have changed.”
Plus, he said, “the issue in the mainstream Jewish community is not whether to support Israel. The issue is how to support Israel” when opponents in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement present wedge issues that are factually wrong. “Just because Israel faces challenges doesn’t mean it shouldn’t exist. As we Americans criticize America, it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t exist.”