Seeking To Defuse Liberal Critique of Israel

Israel Action Network Seeks To Put Concerns in Broad Context

Soft Touch: Geri Palast, the head of the Israel Action Network, says a nuanced approach is needed to counter liberal criticism of the Jewish State.
courtesy of ian
Soft Touch: Geri Palast, the head of the Israel Action Network, says a nuanced approach is needed to counter liberal criticism of the Jewish State.

By Nathan Guttman

Published December 02, 2012, issue of December 07, 2012.
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But engaging with groups on the ground instead of fighting them, cannot be the sum total of the Jewish community’s struggle on college campuses, activist Ken Marcus told the Forward.

Marcus is president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, a more aggressive program that seeks to apply Title VI of the Civil Rights Act to cases in which Jewish students believe that anti-Israel events on campus cross over into anti-Semitism. Marcus’s group seeks to get the U.S. Education Department to investigate the events in question and, where necessary, to sanction the schools at which they occur. “When there is anti-Semitism on campus, you need to address it in a different way,” he said.

Despite taking a more moderate approach, IAN has worked in tandem with a wide array of Jewish organizations, from J Street on the left to the Zionist Organization of America on the right. Palast described a “big tent” approach that, she said, welcomed any group so long as it supported a sovereign Jewish state and a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In fact, IAN’s tent may stretch a little farther right than that: The ZOA, which has worked with IAN on several campaigns, does not support a two-state solution.

As an example of the big tent approach, Palast pointed to the New York Jewish community’s fight last March against a campaign to get a popular food co-op in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood to boycott Israeli products.

The anti-boycott effort brought together Orthodox rabbis, Jewish organizations and liberal Jewish activists to defeat the measure. IAN provided advice and material support to the local groups in their fight. “We want local groups to take the lead,” Palast said. “Our role is supportive.”

While demonstrating success in getting Jewish groups with sharp political differences to work together, IAN’s bigger challenge is to engage groups outside the community. Many of these, like the Seattle LGBT commission trend to the liberal side and are more open to a pro-Palestinian approach based on human rights arguments.

Carstensen, in his summary of the Seattle affair, argued that pro-Israel advocates can counter this approach by using its existing ties with such groups, such as those already in place in the Seattle case through widespread Jewish cooperation with LGBT community on gay rights issues.

IAN believes that sustained work over many years, done by IAN, the Jewish Council on Public Affairs and Jewish federations, to engage with activists within the Presbyterian Church (USA) was also key to gaining just enough votes in that body to defeat a divestment resolution last year. Instead, the Presbyterians adopted a call for investing in peaceful initiatives in the region.

Advocates of an Israel boycott argue that the tactics offered by IAN do little to change the situation on the ground. Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, a pro-BDS organization, pointed to the divestment resolution passed in November by the legislative arm of UC Irvine’s student government as proof that the BDS campaign is far from over. If anything, she said, IAN’s willingness to engage with communal organizations and discuss their support for BDS, shows that “they are ceding a certain territory.”

Students for Justice in Palestine, the group behind much of the anti-Israel activity on university campuses, also maintained that a softer approach to pro-Israel advocacy will not win over students. “These types of tactics are effective for those that have already made up their mind on what they believe and do not wish to become educated by facts,” Shifa Alkhatib, the group’s spokeswoman, wrote in an email.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com


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