The common knock against Israeli strategy is that there is no such thing; that Israel and its supporters are strong in crisis, but poor at planning.
But Israel’s campus supporters are proving that notion wrong. Building advocates for Israel on America’s college campuses was the topic of discussion this past week at a meeting of Israel advocacy organizations convened by the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC).
The meeting included Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, The David Project, The Jewish Agency for Israel, Hasbara Fellowships, the American Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE), the Israel Action Network, the ADL and other ICC partner organizations. The organizations had come together with the joint purpose of identifying the best practices for Israel on-campus advocacy by reviewing strategies that have produced the most effective tangible results.
In the ongoing challenge to improve support for Israel on campus, the meeting represents a pivotal step, and the participants will present the collected best practices to the larger Israel advocacy community at a meeting in Jerusalem this June.
The work to engage the campus community regarding Israel has never been more important. If we are effective at reaching the campus community of today, we ensure that the leaders of tomorrow will have the connections and insight to preserve and strengthen bonds that will nurture and sustain strong alliances with Israel well into the future.
This year, the campus pro-Israel community produced a number of notable successes, from the reinstatement of the California State University’s study abroad program to Israel to the “Real Partners. Real Peace.” initiative last fall. The initiative fostered a positive discussion regarding constructive steps forward in Israel’s quest for peace, the rejection of grandstanding and extremism and the rejection of empty gestures such as the Palestinian bid for unilateral statehood at the UN. As a campus Israel network, we are making progress and reaching hundreds of colleges and tens of thousands of students, and helping to build campuses that are more receptive, knowledgeable and supportive of Israel.
The rest of the pro-Israel community can learn from the campus Israel network’s successes. Although the network has its idiosyncrasies, like any other network — particularly those affecting Israel — the levels of cooperation among organizations and initiatives is high, reflecting the mutual understanding regarding a shared mission, a common objective and parallel views as to methods.
The working group that assembled in Washington saw far more commonalities than differences; they were able to share constructively, comment and add to one another’s views and thereby weave together a stronger collective model. When the group explored differences, it did so respectfully. Some abandoned positions in favor of better ones offered by others; still others gained insights that they might not have otherwise considered. By seeking to understand one another, and to be understood, the participants in this strategy session influenced one another and made each other stronger. There may well be an important lesson there for our larger community.
The larger pro-Israel community could also gain something of value by considering the specific strategies that the participants supported, and those they rejected. During sessions in which the group considered many different strategies and elaborated upon them, the participants embraced retail, interpersonal relationship-building and engagement as an effective strategy — and for the most part eschewed large, splashy events.
Overall, the participants saw value in providing direct, firsthand experiences; they placed less value on recycled or second-hand narrative. And while the group saw the importance of strategic communications — a narrow, selected set of messages that emphasize the core of Israel and Israelis — it deemphasized the sometimes-commonplace notions of “naming and shaming” or framing communications in the context of what Israel’s detractors do or say. Those core strategies could find resonance in many settings beyond the ivory towers of academia.
The challenges Israel faces in the near future are daunting; in many ways, they are unprecedented. But the campus Israel network has taken an important step forward toward organizing for the uncertainties in that future. The brilliance of the strategies the working group embraced is that they have great potential to be effective regardless of what may come. We need not operate solely in crisis mode, and with effective strategic planning, we may not even need to do so.