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While American Jewish organizations fiddle

Fundraising dinners for the affluent, over-fifty set won’t meet the desperate need for Israel advocacy

In late 2004, as I was nearing the end of my tenure as President of the World Affairs Council of Boston, a foreign policy forum, we invited Nabil Fahmi, the then-Ambassador of Egypt to the United States, to speak to a group of Boston’s civic leaders about the Mideast. Fahmi delivered the predictable fare, blaming Israel not only for the Arab-Israeli conflict but for the region’s problems more generally. Straying somewhat from my proper role as host, I questioned him directly, and sharply, about his version of events, and insisted that he address the recently-released United Nations Arab Human Development Report written by Arab social scientists that placed blame for the Arab countries’ woes on the Arabs.

When it was time for him to leave, Fahmi made a special point of coming to see me to say goodbye, and asked me to come see him the next time I was in Washington, D.C. This was a gracious act on his part, particularly given my critical questioning of him in a public setting, and I did go see him at the fortress-like building that is Egypt’s Embassy to the United States. The meeting took place on November 22, 2004 in Ambassador Fahmi’s office, with only the two of us and his note-taker present. For an hour, Fahmi leaned back in his chair and explained to me that “the plan” as far as the Arabs were concerned was to “peel” American Jews away from the major American Jewish organizations, and in that way dilute American support for Israel.

I was struck by this in large part because, to put matters mildly, I had given him little reason up in Boston to regard me as sympathetic to Arab claims about the conflict, let alone to treat me as a confidant. Indeed, I have never understood why Fahmi wanted to meet with the likes of me to outline the Arabs’ strategy for driving a wedge between Israel and the United States.

I have thought about Fahmi’s “plan” often while following J Street, founded in 2008 as a challenge to the Jewish organizations that he was talking about. It is difficult not to regard J Street’s branding itself as “the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans” as brilliant gimmickry of the first order, casting those who are unable to accept its particular analysis of the conflict as “anti-peace” while J Street alone favors it. This bit of marketing razzmatazz might be eye-rolling had it not proved so successful.

J Street has dined out on the amusing conceit, which it has promoted with some skill, that it requires “courage” to criticize Israel when, quite to the contrary, criticizing Israel is the most comfortable fashion of them all, on campuses, on op-ed pages and, for that matter, in synagogues. And it has deftly portrayed itself as the victim of incivility even as it levels caustic attacks on Jewish organizations and leaders who happen to simply disagree with it.

Still, the Jewish organizations that J Street sustains itself by treating as bogeymen have in some ways done their best to undermine their own appeal. They have sometimes made themselves easy targets for the impatience, or downright exasperation, of American Jews waiting for them to show signs of life in the face of the challenges before us.

These organizations — ones with which I have been, and remain, very proud to be associated – too often present as tired, wedded to the same-old same-old, and as determined to remain as uninspiring to young people and to people without large bank accounts as possible. Their raison d’etre sometimes appears to be soliciting funds rather than providing energized leadership. Instead of organizing responses to the attacks on Israel in America’s public square – attacks that are taking a very serious toll – they devote themselves to planning the formulaic, all-too-familiar fundraising dinners, centered on honorees whose principal accomplishments have been accumulating vendors who can be counted upon to purchase tables and ads in a tribute book. The dinners are attended by almost no one under the age of 35, and those few young people who do attend can be observed mentally calculating how long it will be before they ever attend another one.

The organizations’ use of social media is woeful, and the positive consequences were it otherwise are incalculable. Organizations like the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, AIPAC and the Jewish federations have thousands of supporters who would like to help make Israel’s case, if they were only enlisted to do so – on social media, in the mainstream media, or in the general community at large. The organizations do not merely fail to harness this desire; they pour cold water on it, confining themselves, as in days of old, to asking these individuals to write them a check.

The big Jewish organizations have too long and too often seemed to be invitation-only affairs, with invitations limited to the wealthy, generally meaning those over 50. Their penchant for being of the altacockers, for the altacockers and by the altacockers has not only been off-putting for young people. It has also contributed to their own heartbreaking slowness in comprehending that Israel’s adversaries are waging an assault on American support for Israel, and that effectively confronting this assault demands political skill and genuine energy, not the traditional donor-centricism of the past.

During this summer’s war with Hamas, for instance, both Gallup and CNN released polls showing that by very substantial margins, Americans under the age of 30 blamed Israel for the conflict. These potentially lethal findings, widely reported in the American media, appeared to barely penetrate the consciousness of the major organizations, whose efforts on Israel’s behalf during the summer appeared confined to issuing pronouncements to which no one paid attention, and arranging conference calls for large contributors. This was donor-maintenance, intended to offer to big givers the impression of actual activity. But without vigorous, creative, street-smart advocacy aimed at young people – Jews and non-Jews alike – it called Nero to mind, playing his lyre while Rome burned.

The truth is that Israel’s supporters in the United States are being outhustled by its adversaries, and have been for some time. The organizations’ lack of urgency is matched by their lack of organizing and political skills necessary to effectively take Israel’s case to Americans under the age of 40. Precious little attention is paid to outreach to young people, let alone people of color, who are among the dominant constituencies in the Democratic Party and en route in short order to becoming the American majority.

The fresh energy of Obama volunteers dropped into seemingly inhospitable caucus states in 2007 and 2008 ought to be the model for the kinds of efforts mounted by the pro-Israel community to meet the challenges it faces. Instead, the organizations are slow, encumbered by bureaucrats and ennui, and frequently hapless. They are often staffed by decent and well-meaning people who lack the organizing skills demanded as a matter of course in political campaigns, who work under leadership oblivious to the urgent need to bring such skills on board and rapidly deploy them.

The challenge is not merely overcoming the torpor of the organizations, but increasing the knowledge and self-confidence on matters related to Israel of American Jews – a community so self-confident when it comes to almost everything else. It does not help in explaining the wars of self-defense against Hamas rockets that Israel has been obliged to fight three times since 2008, for example, that many Americans do not know the difference between the Gaza Strip and the Louisiana Purchase. But this lack of knowledge, and engagement in a just cause, is a failure of American Jewish leaders, national and local. It is one to be remedied — and fast — not merely bemoaned.

The good news is that there are plenty of American supporters of Israel who are hungry for leadership that enlists them in making the case for Israel based on its progressive values – values that are shared with the vast majority of Americans – and in doing so with energy. The question is: will American Jewish leaders provide that leadership at this critical historic moment, or will they revert to dysfunction and tired mediocrity?

Better news still is the evidence that when Israel’s supporters are actually robust in making her case, their arguments resonate. During this summer’s conflict in Gaza, Jewish organizations in Massachusetts, did, after some stumbling, ultimately mount a vigorous campaign to explain the facts, utilizing social and traditional media, op-eds, rallies, email lists and young people to articulate Israel’s predicament and its fundamental need to defend itself. Despite an impassioned, fairly strident effort by Israel’s detractors, the data showed that Israel came out decisively on top.

A poll taken by veteran Democratic pollster John Martilla showed that, in dramatic contrast with national polls, Massachusetts residents under the age of 30 supported Israel’s actions in Gaza by a margin of approximately 3 to 1, even in the bluest of Blue States. Even more promising, Martilla’s polling revealed that young people in Massachusetts believed by margins of 5 or 6 to 1 that Israel represented young Americans’ values on the issues most important to them: women’s rights, LGBT rights and individual freedom.

The lesson for the American Jewish organizations ought to be that tired strategies aimed at the rich and the over-50 crowd, in the face of the threats faced by Jews everywhere, are not merely outdated. They are disastrous. On the other hand, vigor, concentration on young Americans and people of color, and a laser-like focus on educating people who know little about Israel can make a difference to both Jews and non-Jews alike.

The progressive case for Israel, one grounded in liberal values, is a flawed one. It is also an extremely strong one, and neither listlessness nor a predilection for hand-wringing and chin-stroking should be permitted to get in the way of making it.

About the Author
Jeff Robbins, a former United States Delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Commission in the Clinton Administration, is an attorney in Boston, Massachusetts