Effective advocacy for Israel involves many things, among them: a smart plan, the willingness to execute the plan, and networking.
That last element is perhaps an overlooked-but-critical aspect of supporting Israel, and the Jewish community worldwide, now buffeted by rising anti-Semitism.
Often, advocacy groups of any type utilize a “shotgun” approach to reaching out. A purchased email list (not always a bad thing!) will often be mentioned in an effort to cast a wide net and garner more support for one’s cause.
However, by maintaining focus and really getting to know one’s target group (or, “tribe,” as labeled by today’s social media experts), a much more effective campaign can be realized, with rich, long-term results.
Such is the style of the America-Israel Friendship League (www.aifl.org), a New York-based group that exists to build lasting friendships for Israel. That the AIFL has been building such relationships for more than four decades is an indication that the group knows what it’s doing. Executive Director Daniella Rilov is one who understands the importance of knowing the audience, and nourishing the strongest friendships.
Evangelical Christians are near the top of the list. With a sustained effort from advocates of the Palestinian Narrative, for the first time, pro Israel forces are concerned about an erosion of support from American churches. In the past five years, Palestinian advocates like Sami Awad and Todd Deatherage have helped facilitate church seminars by speakers who lay most of the blame for failures in the peace process at Israel’s feet. It has become necessary to counter such views, which rely more on “story” and emotional appeals than facts. The AIFL is poised to provide a much-needed balance for American church audiences.
“We realize how much we need to reach evangelical audiences,” says Rilov. “We are planning a program to work with pastors, to bring informative seminars to church settings, focusing on 2015. The seminars have the purpose of bringing a dialogue about Israel. Since the AIFL is a non-partisan organization, we have a huge advantage there.”
Indeed they do; with the diverse Christian population in the U.S., a flexible approach is a huge advantage. With denominations ranging from Pentecostals to mainline churches and Catholic groups, the AIFL is poised to deepen its roots among pro Israel Christians.
“It’s a wonderful community that needs to be nourished,” says Rilov. “We cannot afford to take our foot off the gas…we have to sustain it, to feed it information. Bill Harter has been instrumental in our guidance.”
“Bill” is the Rev. William Harter, a retired Presbyterian pastor from Pennsylvania, whose lifelong love affair with Israel and the Jewish people transcends politics, religious disputes, and time. The affable Harter is also a friend to Israel where the infamous “BDS” (Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions) program rages. Proponents of BDS seek to marginalize Israel economically.
Harter is also the best kind of friend to Israel. He is also a key member of the National Christian Leadership Conference for Israel (www.nclci.org), the premier organization for pro Israel Christians from mainline traditions. In fact, the AIFL and NCLCI sort of grew up together. During NCLCI’s early years, the AIFL provided the group office space in New York. Today, Harter is close to the AIFL leadership, including Chairman Kenneth Bialkin, who is enthusiastic about networking with Christians.
The burgeoning friendship was one more important one in the story of Bill Harter and his advocacy for Israel.
“As a young kid growing up in western New York, about 20 miles east of Buffalo, my community had exactly one Jewish family,” Harter remembers. “They were the Sterns, (both MDs) who had managed to escape Germany in 1938. And they had a daughter my age and a son my younger sister’s age. We grew up together from first grade on. The Sterns were the doctors who went to rural areas that didn’t have a full-time doctor; he became the classic small town doctor. Greatly beloved in the community! She was one of my mother’s best friends.”
From those beginnings, Harter moved into an educational career that emphasized Jewish studies. It would take him on a lifetime of learning, so that today, he works closely with the AIFL, especially study groups that fall in love with the Holy Land.
Karen Wolcott is another Christian who has come to understand the unique story of Israel. An ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, Wolcott participated in one of the early “YASE” (Youth Ambassador Student Exchange) programs that has become a famous part of what the AIFL does: students from the U.S. are given an opportunity to visit Israel, and vice versa. The trips are a boon to the two nations’ long-standing bond. Wolcott remembers her trip fondly:
“The trip helped me look at my calling to ministry in a real way. The trip in 1978 to the Holy Land really helped me to look at my call. My comfort with various faith traditions…I just think the program itself is vital and because I am a person of faith, so Israel would be the perfect place to visit, of anywhere.”
In keeping with the AIFL’s deluxe handling of various faith traditions, in nurturing friendships for Israel, the YASE program has also reached deep into the American heartland, to connect with evangelicals, who identify strongly with the Bible. In the past few years, a pipeline of trips has developed with Bethany High School, in Oklahoma City. From there, groups of students and administrators have embarked on life-altering trips to Israel, to soak in the culture, history, and to interact with their counterparts in Israeli schools.
Jackson Sharp, who’s been to Europe 11 times, found the Israel experience wholly different.
“We found out about the trip a few months before we went,” he remembers. “At first, I thought it might be like a war zone, but it wasn’t at all. Going over and seeing it—it’s totally different.”
Michelle Ayers, who grew up in northern California but has now taught English for 19 years in Oklahoma, also appreciated the opportunity to see Israel in living color.
“We all cried when we had to come back!” she says. Ayers has been involved with the trip planning for some time, and sees great value in what the AIFL is doing.
“My initial contact with the AIFL was a God thing,” she recalls, “and I’d do anything I could to help with another sponsorship.” Ayers was moved by the all-encompassing itinerary, which included Israeli schools, restaurants, and religious sites.
“We even got to go into Orthodox neighborhoods, and see the Dead Sea, Masada…Jerusalem. Being able to hold hands with my kids in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and pray; it was wonderful.”
This kind of experience, one person and group at a time, is yielding powerful results for Israel. Few are unaware that the Jewish state faces unique challenges at this point in history, and the steady, innovative work of the AIFL and its friends will surely leave a lasting legacy.
By combining robust topics (Holocaust, culture, current events, biblical history, etc.) with a stellar lineup of speakers (including Ambassador Uri Bar-Ner; acclaimed scholar, Dr. Alex Grobman, William Behrer and others), the AIFL’s church seminar program will offer perhaps the broadest perspective on Israel and her role in the world, of any group around.
The seminars can be tailored to any church setting, and denominational needs. For more information, contact Bill Behrer at 212-213-8630 (ext. 230) or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.