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Six Things South Africans Learned at AIPAC

Lessons Learned: South Africa?s small Jewish community is trying to figure out how to lobby for better ties with Israel. A delegation got an eyeful at AIPAC. Image by getty images

Being an effective pro-Israel activist in South Africa is no easy feat. We do not yet have a strong American-style “lobbying culture,” which is partially because our democracy is only 18 years old. The historic relationship that existed during the apartheid years between the white minority regime and the Israeli government, and between the Palestine Liberation Organization and the then-banned (and now ruling) African National Congress, makes many South African leaders view Israel negatively by guilt of previous association.

Cape Town’s 16,000-strong Jewish community made the decision to send our first (albeit small) delegation to this year’s Policy Conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which took place in Washington in early March. While we cannot replicate AIPAC in South Africa because of our vastly different political systems, I left the conference having identified elements from the AIPAC model that I could take back home. Most important, the conference opened my eyes to the possibility of growing a pro-Israel lobby in South Africa.

In no particular order, then, here are the six most important lessons I learned from the AIPAC Policy Conference:

  1. The pro-Israel lobby must be streamlined. AIPAC is known among American policymakers as the pro-Israel voice, which is its strength. When too many organizations are doing the same pro-Israel lobbying work, it dilutes this voice. Policymakers must know exactly whom to approach when talking about Israel. Canada recently merged the Canadian Jewish Congress and the Canada-Israel Committee to make the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. In South Africa, we have a political body that lobbies the government on issues important to Jews, but it is an entity separate from the South African Zionist Federation. It’s hard to imagine today, but there may come a point when we as a community come to the conclusion that there is a direct correlation between one’s ability to express one’s Zionism in South Africa and one’s ability to be comfortable as a Jew in this country. It would then make sense to have one united lobbying organization that speaks on behalf of both the Jewish community and pro-Israel South Africans.

  2. People are influenced not only by numbers, but also by effort. Jews in the United States constitute only 2.1% of the population, and 15% of American Jews live in only 30 congressional districts. Nevertheless, the pro-Israel lobby in the United States is stronger than ever. This is because of AIPAC’s philosophy that every American Jew and his or her allies can personally lobby local representatives. Direct and indirect lobbying can take many forms, such as building a personal relationship with a policymaker, fundraising for a pro-Israel candidate or canvassing on behalf of that candidate during an election campaign. Not only is our Jewish population of 70,000 much smaller than that of the United States, but we are essentially concentrated in only Johannesburg and Cape Town. It is thus essential that we build relationships and work with Members of Parliament from provinces that have few or no Jews.

  3. Individual relationships matter. There is no such thing as lobbying the “evangelical,” “African-American” or “gay” communities. Just as the Jewish community is not monolithic, neither are other groups. Pro-Israel activists must engage individuals from various communities who can potentially influence a large following of people. It would be worthwhile for us to do a comprehensive audit of all Members of Parliament to see with whom we have a relationship, either directly or through a key contact. We also must empower members of our community to build such relationships with members of government in order to broaden our network.

  4. Trips to Israel and follow-up are the best return on investment. AIPAC smartly organizes trips for rising leaders and policymakers, and this facilitates building a broad coalition of non-Jewish support for Israel. Nothing is more powerful than being able to talk about Israel in the first person, but this happens only if members of your constituency follow up with you after the trip and encourage you to speak publicly about your experience. Without follow-up, a visit to Israel is a one-off trip with little return on investment.

  5. Support young and rising future decision makers. Policymakers are often swamped with requests from various interest groups. The key is to form relationships with and engage young rising stars who will one day become policymakers. These people are often self-selecting and are easy to identify. For example, form a relationship with a university student body president or with a young person who has volunteered on his or her local congressman’s political campaign. Chances are that this person will one day be sitting in higher office, and he or she will thank you for the investment you made many years ago.

  6. Pro-Israel voices come in many colors and speak different languages. I had the pleasure of attending several coalition-building sessions at the conference, including “Growing Alliance: Israel and the Latino Community” and “Diversity in Israel: Israel, Gay Rights and the Middle East.” It was fascinating to hear African-American, Christian, Latino and gay and lesbian leaders talk about how they advocate for Israel in their community’s language, literally and figuratively. As only 8% of South Africans speak English as a first language, we must build relationships with pro-Israel activists who can speak to their communities in one of the country’s other 10 official languages. This principle is also true of political parties thought of as “hostile” or “anti-Israel.” There are always individuals within the party who are the exception. Find these people, even if few in number, and support them as they talk about Israel with other members of their political party. These people know best how to speak to their colleagues in the party’s language.

A country like South Africa, which is struggling to create jobs and attract foreign investment, stands only to benefit from a strong relationship with Israel, which in 2010 became the 33rd member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. At the same time, South Africa’s liberal constitution and expertise in conflict resolution could be of great assistance to Israel, which now and then needs to balance its security needs with maintaining a pluralistic democracy. AIPAC has been incredibly successful in building an effective lobby. Both South Africa and Israel have much to gain if we can apply its lessons here.

Dan Brotman is the media and diplomatic liaison at the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, in Cape Town. Follow him on Twitter at @DGBrotman.

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