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IAN has adopted a broad definition of de-legitimization, one that encompasses everything from heckling the Israeli ambassador during a university speech to boycott and divestment motions in church-governing bodies and anti-Israel resolutions at the United Nations. Still, the group is counseling a practical, pro-engagement strategy for countering those actions it perceives as delegitimizing.
“Our first point is that you need a nuanced approach. The reflexive reaction that everything [attacking Israel] needs to be boycotted is not always appropriate,” said Geri Palast, IAN’s managing director. “What we are counseling our communities is that you have to match your strategy and your tools to what the real threat is.”
The focus on engagement and on reaching out to liberal and left-wing groups fits well with Palast’s background. Palast came to the project not from the world of pro-Israel advocacy, but from liberal and labor circles. She was the top political director for the Service Employees International Union and later served as assistant secretary of labor in the Clinton administration. IAN defines its purpose as seeking to defuse situations rather than to increase tensions.
A Boycott Divestment and Sanctions conference, which took place last February at the University of Pennsylvania, demonstrated this approach. In that case, rather than confronting, protesting or seeking to shut down the conference, pro-Israel advocates put on a program of their own, promoting non-BDS approaches for resolving the conflict between the two sides.
“The community promoted a counter-message that educated a much broader audience about Israel,” IAN’s booklet recounted.
Palast takes a similar low-key approach toward Israeli Apartheid Week, the annual program of events that anti-occupation activists hold on campuses across the country. The events have “fizzled out,” she told the Forward, and therefore the Jewish community should not “waste time on them.”
The ongoing battle at the University of California, Irvine, which in November attempted to pass a resolution divesting from Israel, demonstrated the difficulty in dealing with anti-Israel actions even when the Jewish community does attempt to engage, as advised by IAN. “It’s about building the relationships in advance,” said Palast, who noted that the resolution caught supporters of Israel by surprise. “It shows that work on the campus level needs to be redoubled.”