Above and main picture: Students on a Rutgers trip to Israel financed by the Maccabee Task Force pose against the background of sunrise over Masada (Courtesy)
Above and main picture: Students on a Rutgers trip to Israel financed by the Maccabee Task Force pose against the background of sunrise over Masada (Courtesy)
InterviewAnatomy of a multi-million dollar bid to relegitimize Israel

How Sheldon Adelson just might be turning the tide against BDS on US campuses

David Brog, head of the Maccabee Task Force, says a savvy action plan, lots of money and a focus on empowering (almost) all pro-Israel students are gradually ‘taking back the quad’

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

In the academic year that just ended, Sheldon Adelson’s Maccabee Task Force, set up to battle anti-Israel activism on US campuses, focused on 40 of what it assessed were the schools most hostile to Israel and most intimidating to pro-Israel students. At 15 of these campuses, it had been anticipated that student governments would seek to pass BDS resolutions — resolutions demanding that their schools divest from Israel.

According to David Brog, who runs the Maccabee Task Force, however, several of the expected resolutions were withdrawn. Of the 10 that were submitted, only three were passed. And of the three campuses where the anti-Israel resolutions were successful, two of them had not had student leaders participate in the Maccabee Task Force’s bus trips to Israel — a central component of its pro-Israel action plan.

The way Brog sees it, those statistics show a battle far from over. “While we had a great year, it was not a perfect year,” he wrote in a recent email summing up the year. “While we won far more battles than we lost, BDS still passed on three of our campuses.”

But they also show a battle now being effectively waged. When he and his colleagues asked their pro-Israel student partners on some of these campuses why BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) resolutions were being withdrawn, Brog told The Times of Israel in an interview, the best guess was that the Israel-delegitimizers “saw that we were better organized this year, more influential this year, and they weren’t going to win.”

Brog visited Israel late last month to attend a conference organized by the Ministry of Strategic Affairs that focused on tackling BDS and other Israel-delegitimization movements. He was an appropriate attendee. While Israel appears to be flailing in its anti-BDS efforts — the Foreign Ministry has been sidelined, and the Ministry of Strategic Affairs can’t give its money away — the Maccabee Task Force, funded by Adelson to the tune of tens of millions of dollars — would appear to be doing rather well in its mission.

David Brog (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
David Brog (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Brog, the former director of the pro-Israel Christian group Christians United for Israel (and incidentally a cousin of former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak), took over as executive director of the Maccabee Task Force three years ago, since which time it has annually increased the number of campuses where it is active — from 6 to 20 to 40. In the 2017-18 academic year, its activities included bringing 746 mainly non-Jewish student leaders from 34 of these most-hostile campuses on trips to Israel.

Haim Saban (right) and Sheldon Adelson in a TV interview from Las Vegas, June 6, 2015 (Channel 2 screenshot)

The campus effort was initiated in a flood of publicity as a venture jointly led by casino billionaire Adelson and the Israeli-American Power Rangers media mogul Haim Saban — an alliance of a staunch Republican and a staunch Democrat. Saban quickly pulled out, however — though not, as was claimed at the time, because of disagreements over the Maccabee Task Force, insists Brog. Given Adelson’s extremely hawkish positions (including on the Israeli-Palestinan conflict), and Saban’s rapid departure, the impression created was of a partisan effort in its remaining benefactor’s image.

The project has since kept a relatively low profile — rather belying its Jewish rebel warrior name. Its modus operandi is to partner with existing pro-Israel students and student groups on campus, hear their thinking, work with them on an action plan, give them the funding to implement it, and ensure that the students get the credit for any successes.

Having had a year that, as Brog wrote in his email to activists and supporters, “surpassed our expectations,” however, the Task Force’s director is finally ready to talk about it: In this interview, Brog details the approach that guides the Maccabee Task Force and specifies precisely how it operates — essentially providing the anatomy of Sheldon Adelson’s landmark project to relegitimize Israel on America’s most hostile campuses. He is also now inviting other philanthropists to join Adelson in underwriting the effort.

The Task Force tent is not wide open. While “we really try our best to work with the entire pro-Israel community,” says Brog, “the one group that we don’t fund on campus is J Street U.” Why? Because its positions, he says, “step out” of the “broad consensus” among pro-Israel groups.

Nonetheless, Brog’s approach is confounding expectations of an Adelson-funded initiative: Ron Kampeas of the JTA began a feature on the Task Force last year as follows: “A group of student leaders from a major American university meets in eastern Jerusalem with Palestinian students on the campus of Al-Quds University, named for Jerusalem, the city Palestinians hope will one day be their capital. It’s the kind of encounter that once might have sent Sheldon Adelson and other right-wing pro-Israel givers into a tizzy — except it’s the casino magnate and philanthropist who is funding the meeting.”

Northeastern University’s Israel trip (Courtesy: Maccabee Task Force)

Two of the “wow” revelations in this interview, however, are less about the work of the Task Force than the context in which it operates. Neither would be news to experts in the field, but both are worth highlighting.

The first is that for all the hue and cry about anti-Israel activism on campus, the most potent Israel-demonizing efforts are centered on just some 40-60 of the thousands of campuses in the United States and Canada.

And the second is that, when it comes to demonizing Israel on campus, there is no comparable effort focused on any other country. No remotely comparable effort. There’s intensive, relentless bashing of Israel… and of no other nation on earth. Not Syria, where President Bashar Assad has massacred hundreds of thousands of his own people. Not North Korea, which runs re-education and concentration camps. Not Venezuela, Cambodia or Afghanistan, which head the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index. Not China or Russia, singled out in the latest US State Department report on human rights practices. Not Yemen, Turkey or Saudi Arabia, prominently criticized in Amnesty International’s latest human rights audit. Just Israel. Israel. And Israel.

A South Korean protester walks by a portrait of the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, demanding the liberation of North Korean concentration camps and the indictment of Kim in the International Criminal Court, in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2009. A key U.N. committee had expressed “very serious concern” that month at widespread reports of torture and other grave human rights violations in North Korea. The letters read ” Guiltiness!”. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

Says Brog: “I bet you could find maybe that a campus somewhere held a demonstration for Tibet… And maybe, God willing, there was somebody doing something against the genocide in Darfur. That might exist. What I am not aware of is any systematic effort to do it nationally. I am also not aware of any effort to take it one step further and say, ‘Because of this we should be boycotting and divesting from the government that enabled it.’ It might happen in one-offs. I don’t know… And that points to the hypocrisy at the heart of the (anti-Israel) effort.”

The Times of Israel: What’s the thinking behind the Maccebee Task Force? Give me the big picture.

David Brog: Basically the Adelsons recognized this challenge we’re facing on college campuses and they wanted to devote resources to helping students fight back. They chose the name Maccabee Task Force with that image in mind.

Sheldon Adelson listens as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks during a Republican Jewish Coalition event, March 29, 2014, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Mr. Adelson, growing up, experienced anti-Semitism. He and other Jews were physically attacked on the streets where he grew up in Boston because they were Jewish. Something upset him in a deep way: the idea that Jews are still being bullied in America. So he wanted to enable Jewish students to better fight back.

That was our mission, but it wasn’t easy to figure out how we do that.

So how are you doing that?

The first thing I did when I got this job was to call everyone in this space and say where are the needs? What’s working, what’s not, where can these wonderful resources best contribute to an improvement of our situation. Many people said to me, There are already too many resources here. There are already too many groups, trying to send too much money, to too few students on the college campuses. So, if you want to help, go away.

Some of that came from an honest assessment. Maybe some of it came from a sense that we were potential competitors. It wasn’t easy to identify what would work well.

We started off investing in some groups that were already in this space, trying to identify a core competence for each group and supporting them to do more of it.

After about half a year, we weren’t pleased with the return on our investment. So we tried something else. We went directly to six California campuses with some very serious BDS efforts. We said, Let’s cut out the middleman. Let’s sit with the stakeholders on each of these campuses — the pro-Israel students on campus, and the professionals who are dedicated to that campus, not to some larger organization. A Hillel director, an Israel fellow, a Chabad rabbi — let’s get them in the room and let’s just ask them: Are there initiatives you’d like to undertake to support Israel, to combat the delegitimization of Israel, that you’re not able to take for lack of funds. And maybe the answer will be no, in which case, you know, we’ll have to move on to another effort. But the answer in each case was a resounding yes. They all had lots of interesting ideas that they wanted to implement, but they lacked the funds.

Many people said to me, There are already too many resources here. There are already too many groups, trying to send too much money, to too few students on the college campuses. So, if you want to help, go away

We also very quickly saw a potential for cross-pollination. The excellent idea we heard on Campus A, they never heard of or thought of on Campus B down the street. So we ended up taking the best ideas from all six campuses, cross-pollinating them, and coming up with an action plan for each campus — of items and initiatives that students wanted to undertake and that we would fund.

It became clear to us that some of the advice that I’d originally got, the discouraging advice, came from the fact that many outside groups approached the campuses and tried to tell them what to do. Something we did right was to come with some humility and say, It’s been decades since I’ve been on campus. I’ve never been on this campus. You know your campus best. What would you like to do? That unleashed a real interest in working with us and some very good ideas.

We came up with these action plans. We funded them, the students implemented them. We also said at the outset, we’re not asking you to put a logo on anything, and we want you to take full credit for the work you’re doing. It spoke to another mistake being made in the community: Not only would outside groups dictate what students would have to do, but then they’d be very quick to claim the credit for what the students did, and it was very discouraging to students. So we had a very good semester on the six campuses.

How long ago was this?

This was the Spring of 2016. I’ll give you a sense of the ideas that were brought to us. None of them were ours. All local ideas.

Some were small items, like doing a Shabbat dinner with the African-American students on campus and paying for that dinner. Some were more ambitious, like taking a busload of students on that campus to Israel — where you’d combine maybe 3-5 pro-Israel students with 15-20 non-Jewish campus leaders and campus influencers, the people who really shape the political debate on campus. Getting them on a bus together to Israel.

Above and main picture: Students on a Rutgers trip to Israel financed by the Maccabee Task Force pose against the background of sunrise over Masada (Courtesy)

The next year, the 2016-2017 academic year, last year, we expanded the program to 20 campuses. We were still learning, still testing, still improving, but we saw that the model was working. We got excellent ideas from the campuses. We were able to take the best of them national. We were able to fund the students and then to step back and let them take credit for their work.

This year we expanded it to 40 campuses. What’s become clear to us now is that by bringing to each of our partner campuses an extensive strategy — 20 plus items on each action plan, some of them very expensive, like the trip to Israel — and bringing them the resources to pay for this, we’ve been able to do what other organizations haven’t been able to do, often for the lack of resources.

One-off events — bringing a speaker to campus, showing a film on campus — can’t really penetrate and change the campus as a whole. You might educate some pro-Israel students. You might educate the odd non-affiliated student. It’s not transformative.

But this comprehensive plan really can and does transform the campus climate when it comes to Israel. The core of it is the trip, but the trip in isolation wouldn’t work.

GMU — George Mason University students in Israel on a Maccabee Task Force-funded trip. (Courtesy)

What we’re investing in is efforts to enable our partners on campus to really map their campuses well — which groups and individuals control the political debate on campus. Build relationships with those groups, recruit them for a bus to Israel, and then follow up with them upon their return. And hopefully, in the ideal situation, use each of these trip participants as an entrée into the various organizations and constituencies that have been identified as an important point of entry on campus.

We are also trying to grow the pro-Israel base on campus — to get more pro-Israel activists and to better train them, What we learned early on was that even though there are good opportunities to do that — on trips to Israel, in conferences — a lot of the students don’t have the time or a high enough interest level to take advantage of them. So we bring local training, pro-Israel advocacy and training, to the campus. And in many cases we even pay a small stipend to students who attend. We’ve found it to be a very effective way to grow the base.

Each of these items we started small and tested. Only if it worked did we grow it. So we did this training on two of our first six campuses. When we showed up in the fall to those same campuses, to do our action plan meeting and come up with the agenda for the following year, I went around the room and asked each student why they were there. And we saw a large number of them saying, I attended the training last semester and that’s what got me interested. We saw it was having an impact. It was bringing more pro-Israel activists into the pro-Israel base.

Most of our students don’t want to engage in a confrontational anti- or counter- demonstration. But they can have a space — they usually call it a peace tent — publicly, where they can say that ‘what those people are telling you isn’t true’

We also believe in doing public pro-Israel events, especially on those campuses that have public anti-Israel events. (Previously) we’ve really allowed Israel’s opponents to dominate the quad. (Now), where they have a public Israel apartheid week or other anti-Israel week, we believe very strongly in doing a public pro-Israel week — an Israel Fest, an Israel Independence celebration. We believe in doing it, and doing it publicly, in the quad.

We also try to encourage our partners to do some public counter-demonstration when the anti-Israel guys are engaging in their hate weeks. It doesn’t have to be confrontational. Most of our students don’t want to engage in a confrontational anti- or counter- demonstration. But they can have a space — they usually call it a peace tent — publicly, where they can say that ‘what those people are telling you isn’t true’, and ‘how sad that those people aren’t interested in a dialogue and the conversations that could eventually have brought some kind of peace and understanding’.

It’s taking back the quad. It’s really ending this idea that the anti-Israel students dominate, and that pro-Israel students somehow have to be afraid or embarrassed. It creates an enormous psychological effect.

The last thing that we did was coalition building in general. Even if it’s not through the Israel trip, it’s critical that we do a better job of reaching out to important campus communities and constituencies, and building relationships with them. The anti-Israel students have been doing a much better job of this for a much longer time, but it’s possible to catch up and catch up pretty quickly when we give it some time and give it some thought.

As for the trip itself, it does two important things. Obviously, number one: the delta — between the Israel that students hear about on campus, and the reality of Israel — is big enough that bringing students to Israel works its inevitable magic, They see Israel very differently when they come. But I’d say that’s the second most important thing the trip accomplishes.

The most important thing the trip accomplishes is getting our pro-Israel students together on a bus for a week in Israel with representatives of these other communities, where we have time and resources devoted to building relationships. It takes our coalition building efforts on campus to a much higher level very quickly. We make up for years of neglect.

So that, in a nutshell, is what we do. We did it this year on 40 campuses. But because we don’t send out a press release after each event or after each trip, our efforts are often unknown. I’ve had many people sending me an article about an event that we suggested and funded, asking, why aren’t you doing this? That’s a sign that we’re doing something right. But we’re at a point now where we want to talk in the macro a little more about what we’re doing because we think we’ve seized on a formula that’s successful, that’s having a great impact. And we’d like to continue to grow it and bring some more partners into our work.

So this academic year that just ended, you’ve been active on 40 campuses all over the States: Just the US? Canada as well?

Just the US. We think next year we’ll expand to Canada.

The plan next year would be how many campuses altogether?

We haven’t finalized yet but we’ll be going to more campuses next year. Our first criteria in choosing campuses was to go only to the bad ones — only to the ones facing serious BDS or serious delegitimization efforts. You could argue about which is the priority that makes the most sense, but this was the priority that resonated with our donors.

And how many bad campuses are there?

Depending on your definition, there are between 40 and 60.

Out of how many?

There are probably 4,000 campuses in America.

There are 40 to 60 where, if you want to be remotely supportive of Israel, your life will be miserable?

I’d say, where pro-Israel students are feeling intimidated…

That’s quite good news, on the relative scale of things – 40 to 60 out of thousands?

That’s right.

There is a sense that it’s much more pervasive than that?

No, no, no, it is focused on those 40 to 60.

So you think the really awful stuff is quantifiable…

Well, there are two levels of awful.

On almost every campus you’re likely to have anti-Israel academics, and you’re likely to have students reading anti-Israel media

The level of awful we’re talking about here is where you have local anti-Israel entities like SJP (Students for Justice in Palestine) or JVP (Jewish Voice for Peace) bringing an angrier and ugly anti-Israel environment to campus. And it’s at that level where it’s fair to number them 40 to 60.

The second, more abstract level of the challenge is just the fact that on almost every campus you’re likely to have anti-Israel academics, and you’re likely to have students reading anti-Israel media. Whatever it might be and whatever your definition is. They’re likely getting their information from sources that in my mind are overly critical of Israel and too quick to blame Israel. So during their four years on campus, this combination likely makes them leave campus less supportive of Israel than when they enter.

And you’re saying that’s on most campuses?

That is probably a far more widespread problem.

You think most?

I would say most.

Okay. So, I was a little optimistic there for a second. You’ve quashed that for me.

Sorry about that. It was a nice moment.

As we grow next year, our growth will enable us to be on every campus we’re aware of in America facing a serious BDS challenge, and we’ll focus on new criteria for our growth beyond that. That’s what will bring us to Canada, where we’re going to go to the worst campuses, and also enable us to go to some American campuses that don’t necessarily have BDS efforts, but are prestigious campuses, producing a large percentage of tomorrow’s leaders and influencers, that have the second level of anti-Israel environment — from the professors and just the generally progressive media and culture environment that might exist on campus.

And I only single out progressive because unfortunately we’re losing progressives in America to Israel. We shouldn’t be. A powerful progressive case for Israel can be made, in progressive language, to progressives, but we as a community have not done a very good job of that.

The budget? It’s all Sheldon Adelson’s money so far?

Right now it is mostly Sheldon Adelson’s money. He’s been an incredibly generous supporter of this effort. We’ve partnered with others in some communities — local entities or donors who have wanted to maybe match us 50-50 on a campus. Next year we’re looking to bring on a couple more partners and I hope to see it grow. Because ultimately this is an effort that can bring an important value to our community. We are affirming support for Israel among our young people and helping to make sure that a rising generation of young leaders is not turned forever against Israel.

Do you give out the figure of how much you’re spending?

We don’t but I can say that on most of our campuses it’s north of six figures. Ball park.

So, tens of millions, I suppose… Millions to tens of millions.

Yeah. And one final thought I wanted to add. When this effort was launched, I don’t know if you’ve followed any of the news coverage, there was a big conference in Las Vegas and people were throwing around figures…

Was it called something different then?

At the time they called it the Campus Maccabees. At the time there was a lot of discussion about a large amount of money being brought into this effort and some people were throwing around the number 50 million. But it struck me as perhaps the wrong way to do it, to take a big sum of money and try to throw it around to various groups at the get-go. When I was brought on board I was relieved to hear that the approach of our actual donors was not to take a big sum and throw it around, but to do what I thought made the most sense, which was to start small, test everything, and only once you’ve identified strategies that have an impact and make a difference, to grow them.

And so we faced some stories, six months in, about what happened to the Maccabee Task Force, what happened to the massive investments that people had discussed? And I almost welcomed those stories because I wanted the glare of media attention to go away. I wanted to be able in quiet to take our time and figure out which strategies really were worthy of the investment, and then to grow those worthy strategies. That’s the approach we’ve taken. We started off very small and we built very gradually, and now, only now, are we getting to the point where, I guess, when you add up the investment, it comes to a fairly significant investment. We took our time getting here and we did so on purpose.

Tell me a little bit about ideology, because I remember, at the beginning, it was an Adelson/Saban thing.


And then it wasn’t anymore.


So what happened with that? I mean it’s very hard to find a definition of what’s anti-Israel and what’s pro-Israel; these are complicated waters. And your main sponsor has very particular policies on Israel, some of which are not consensual among American Jews or among Israelis.

When we started out, people were worried. Are we gonna bring some sort of political agenda to campuses that ultimately would prevent us from speaking to a lot of the Jewish students, let alone alot of the non-Jews?

Mr. Adelson does two different types of investing. Some of his non-profit investing is very much pursuing his political agenda, which is very partisan. He is a strong and unabashed Republican. He was a big donor to the Trump campaign. A big donor to the Republican Jewish Coalition.

But he also does investing that is purely focused on the future of the Jewish people that comes without a political agenda, Birthright being the prime example. And I think no one would accuse him of trying to bring a political agenda to Birthright. He saw on Birthright a program that was doing important work connecting Jews to their identity and to their heritage and to Israel. He saw it was working and he’s funding what worked.

Miriam and Sheldon Adelson at the Birthright Israel gala event in Jerusalem, June 27, 2018. (Courtesy Birthright Israel/Oren Ben Hakun)

When we started out, people were worried. Are we gonna bring some sort of political agenda to campuses that ultimately would prevent us from speaking to a lot of the Jewish students, let alone a lot of the non-Jews? But from day one our mission was much more focused on, How do you combat delegitimization on campus and how do you proactively promote Israel on campus. And we were free to pursue what was most effective in that regard.

And Mr. Adelson was very clear about the mission and very quick to understand that that mission meant identifying those issues that united the large mainstream of the pro-Israel community on campus and focusing on those issues without a political agenda.

What divides pro-Israel students on campus is a debate about one state or two states. What divides pro-Israel students on campus is the debate about whether you should grow settlements or end settlements. We avoid those issues. We don’t take positions on those issues.

What we do is support what unites the broad mainstream of pro-Israel students on campus, which is fighting delegitimization, no matter what your position is on one state, two states. Most pro-Israel students oppose the delegitimization of Israel. They oppose boycotting Israel. They oppose divesting from Israel. So we unite around opposing BDS and delegitimization, and we unite around proactively promoting Israel for the impressive, moral, dynamic country it is. And that unites the vast mixture.

When we first approached campuses, we were worried too: Can you cobble together this broad coalition or are the differences too many and overwhelming? But on campus, Israel’s opponents are not focusing on the internal political debate in Israel. They are focusing on broadly delegitimizing the state, broadly boycotting the state. And (pro-Israel) students don’t want to get into the politics. They want to broadly talk about the Israel they love and why they love it. We found that there really was potential for broad unity.

We really try our best to work with the entire pro-Israel community. Usually there’s a big pro-Israel group on campus, “Blanks for Israel” — whatever the local mascot is: Bears for Israel, Terrapins for Israel. We work with the “Blanks for Israel.” We work with the local Hillel director, the local Israel Fellow, the Chabad — we bring in the Chabad rabbi — and any other smaller pro-Israel groups that might exist on campus. Even Tamid, which is organized around investing in Israel.

The one group that we don’t fund on campus is J Street U. And we have reasons why we won’t fund J Street U to do projects. But any student who participates in J Street U is still welcome to come and participate in and support our action plan.

Students pose with signs at J Street U’s West Coast workshop, a gathering of top West Coast leaders for training and strategy meetings on UCLA’s campus. (Courtesy)

No to J Street U. Why?

They step out of that broad consensus. J Street does take specific positions on these issues that divide the pro-Israel community and they do it often, especially at the national level. They do it in a way that reinforces the most damaging BDS narrative: The most damaging BDS narrative out there of them all is that Israel could have peace, could have had peace, and could have peace tomorrow, if only they wanted it, if only they agreed to compromise. And if you embrace that incredibly simplistic and naive view of the situation, then it leads many students to feel okay, then the answer is, then what will bring peace is to scapegoat Israel, to boycott Israel, to force…

That’s a J Street thing, you would say?

The J Street narrative is very often that narrative. Not the boycott part, but that Israel could have peace if they only wanted it more. And the money is fungible, so if we fund J Street U we free up resources for that national J Street message. So for both of those reasons, we welcome the individuals, we don’t fund the entity, and that hasn’t been an issue for us…

By the way. I have never been comfortable as a diaspora Jew with diaspora Jews trying to dictate to Israel what they should do when it comes to vital issues of life and death. Israel is a vibrant, impressive democracy, not a banana republic. And while I think diaspora Jews can support Israel from afar and love Israel from afar, I’ve never been comfortable with the heavy-handed effort to dictate to Israel what to do or to try to pressure our government to dictate to Israel what to do, both from the right and the left.

All of this fits very well into a worldview where we don’t take positions on the divisive issues that only Israelis ultimately have the right to decide. But we do unite pro-Israel students in efforts that they’re passionate about, that they care about, and that they very much have a right to speak out about.

You were active on 40 campuses. Does that mean you had 40 buses in Israel this past year?

We ultimately only did 34 buses — there were six of our campuses that for whatever reason were unable to implement a bus this year. When we expand next year, that number will increase. I don’t know many groups that are taking this level of buses, this level of students, to Israel.

Most of this bus is not Jewish, and most of this bus is not sympathetic to Israel

Apart from Birthright.

Right. We’ve very quietly become a significant player in this space. You know, the player you’ve never heard of.

This trip is for about a week, right? How does it differ from Birthright? Because most of the students are not Jewish?

Most of this bus is not Jewish, and most of this bus is not sympathetic to Israel. They might not necessarily be anti-Israel, let’s say some of them are apathetic. But some of them are: Some of them have supported BDS in the past or some of them have voiced sympathy for BDS in the past. That’s a different trip from Birthright.

UCLA students hold an Israel 70th Independence Day celebration on campus (Courtesy)

Among the things we have to do is we have to take them to the Palestinian Authority. And they have to meet with Palestinians. Otherwise, two things would happen. One, a lot of these leaders would never agree to come in the first place. They need to see there’s some balance on the trip. And two, even if they did come, when they came back, they would not be helpful supporters because they would be accused of having been brainwashed, and they would look back and say, Oh, I guess…

We have to take them to the Palestinian Authority. And they have to meet with Palestinians

Who do you meet on the Palestinian side? A Sheldon Adelson-funded busload of people come from America and what, Saeb Erekat clears his schedule and meets with them?

Not Saeb Erekat…

Saeb Erekat, speaks at the Haaretz and New Israel Fund conference at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York on December 13, 2015. (Amir Levy/Flash90)

So, who do you meet with? Who do the groups meet with in the West Bank? They go into the West Bank or do the Palestinians come in?

They go in.

They go to Ramallah?

Yes, they do. Various groups do various things. Some meet with students. They met with students at Al Quds University. Some meet with Palestinian officials although I guess students don’t rank Saeb Erekat. They get someone else in the Palestinian Authority hierarchy. Rawabi is often a popular stop. Visits to Bethlehem are often a popular stop.

We have yet to have someone come back from one of our trips still supporting BDS, which is a great win

When they go into the Palestinian Authority, they get a Palestinian guide and they’re hearing from the other side. But we are confident: Anyone who is exposed to the reality here will come back and, at a minimum, understand that this is complex, that we ought not to be scapegoating one side, which is exactly what BDS does. We have yet to have someone come back from one of our trips still supporting BDS, which is a great win. But many come back with much more. They come back even with a sympathy for Israel, a real understanding of Israel’s challenges.

The mark of success will be what? When one of those 40-60 campuses is no longer considered one of those 40-60 campuses?

On our 40 campuses this past year, they were expecting BDS resolutions at something in the neighborhood of 15. They ultimately only had it on 10. And when we asked our partners, why was the BDS resolution not offered, they very often told us, Well, our best guess is they saw that we were better organized this year, more influential this year, and they weren’t going to win.

It was only offered on 10, and it lost on seven of those 10. So on 40 of the worst campuses, BDS actually passed on only three. Two of them had yet to do our trip — they were doing it this summer, and BDS passed in the spring. And at the one that had done our trip where BDS still passed, a very hostile student government was elected last spring and we almost knew going in there was very little we could do to influence this very hostile student government that was determined to support BDS from the get-go.

Anti-Israel students at Columbia University erected a mock ‘apartheid wall’ in front of the iconic Low Library steps during Israel Apartheid Week, March 3, 2016. (Uriel Heilman)

So we can look at records like that. We also look at how many Israel Apartheid Weeks are held. We ask our partners, were you expecting Israel Apartheid Week? Yes. Did you ultimately have it? And you see the number of campuses that ultimately had it was much less than what they were expecting. (Where those anti-Israel weeks didn’t go ahead), our partners believe — you never know what was going on in the minds of those who wanted an Israel Apartheid Week — it was because of a feeling that there was a more robust pro-Israel presence. We had taken back the quad, and it was discouraging to those who used to be able to roam the quad like giants in denouncing Israel.

Students at a “Hebrew Liberation Week” event at Columbia University, initiated in 2017 (Maccabee Task Force)

You can never fully quantify these things, but to me victory looks like this: a decreased number of campuses where BDS passes, a decreased number of campuses where anti-Israel forces feel like they have the run of the campus, and the sense that our partners give us that the debate has shifted and that if you want to demonstrate your progressive bona fides on this campus, bashing Israel is no longer a popular way of doing it. That’s been taken out of the equation.

Where are the three campuses where a BDS resolution passed.

G.W. (George Washington University) was the one where it passed where our trip had taken place. And I believe it was the University of Minnesota and the University of Michigan where it passed where our trip had yet to take place.

Can we come back to the departure of Haim Saban? You’d started with people whose personal ideologies were from the two sides of the American political divide.

While Haim Saban was with us, every plan we had I ran by both him and Sheldon Adelson and all plans were approved by both him and Sheldon Adelson. He liked our thinking and our direction. Ultimately there were other disputes between our principals that led to a parting of the ways, but I can assure you it had nothing to do with the direction of the Maccabee Task Force.

What about interaction with the Israeli government? I don’t know if you saw. I wrote a piece about a week ago about the government’s somewhat problematic role…

I saw it. I was at that conference they had this week where it was a topic of conversation.

I worry about some of the ways in which BDS is being fought. We have this secretive government ministry. The work that you do is constructive, as opposed to trying to deter pro-BDS activists?

That’s right. Ultimately, we’re focused on empowering our students to do a better job of positively promoting Israel and fighting the delegitimization of Israel on campus. We haven’t invested in efforts to research who’s funding BDS or to attack entities from BDS.

A poster placed on campuses by the David Horowitz Freedom Center beginning in February 2016 features an image of ’60s-era radical Angela Davis and messages condemning the boycott movement against Israel. (David Horowitz Freedom Center)

Early on, in our experimental phase. before we identified this campus action plan approach, we did give some money to the David Horowitz Center in California. And the David Horowitz Center — not with our funds, but with funds from the center — ended up doing a campaign attacking specific BDS activists on specific campuses. Whatever the merits of that effort, it was not something we ever agreed to or signed off on, and it’s not something that our student partners liked or wanted. And so we told the David Horowitz center that that’s not the kind of thing we wanted, and for other reasons, we have never funded them since. We only fund our students to do what they want to do. They’re the ones who live on these campuses.

Whatever you’re going to be able to accomplish on campus is through their effort and their sweat. Ultimately, you’ve got to empower them to do what they want, and what they want is to go out and make the positive case for Israel, really teach about the reality of Israel, and not attacking these entities.

Do you work with the Israeli government, and do you take any money from the Israeli government?

We don’t take any money from the Israeli government. And I’d say work with the Israeli government is minimal. I came to attend this conference of the Global Coalition for Israel. I can’t think of any other way we work with the Israeli government.

What about is a platform for online activism where we’re trying to crowdsource online activism. So, for example, if there’s an anti-Semitic post on Facebook that we believe should be taken down, they’ve developed a network of people who have this app on their phones and can be notified of the mission, and can email Facebook saying, There’s an anti-Semitic post. Please take it down. That’s one example of the kind of crowdsourcing they do.

And your project helps fund that?

Maccabee Task Force makes a contribution.

Why? Those are posts that would be seen on campus…?

When we started out, one of the areas we thought we needed to invest in was social media. When you look into what influences a student on campus, that Apartheid Wall might influence them, but I’d argue more students walk past it, don’t even notice it. So we needed to plan social media. This was before we really decided that our best effort would be a grassroots effort.

So one of our investments (was We were looking for innovative approaches to social media. They had had a war room at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya during the last Gaza conflict that was very successful in getting out Israel’s side of the story. We met with them and were impressed with them. They had this idea to continue, not because there’s a war — a hot war — but to leverage this effort against the war against Israel on campuses. We ended up investing in this project. It’s one of the rare instances where we’re investing in something outside of our action plans. It’s an independent non-profit. As far as I know, the Israeli government is not involved in that project.

Are there aspects of policy and action coming out of Israel that complicate your work, that have contributed to the crisis that you are trying to address, that have alienated parts of the American political spectrum?

The biggest problem we face on campus is attacks on Israel that are based on lies, based on an anti-Israel narrative that is simply not true. If there were more reality-based attacks, nuanced-based attacks, one could begin to argue that this or that Israeli policy is making things worse.

One thing we always acknowledge is that Israel is not perfect. That Israel makes mistakes like any country. But there’s nothing about Israel’s imperfection that justifies the delegitimization of Israel, and Israel alone, among the countries on earth

The attacks are based on a false narrative, are based on lies. When it comes to the real threats on campus and the real challenges on campus, whatever the policy of the Israeli government, the reality can always disprove the attack.

But Israel is losing support from part of the political spectrum. The Democrats are less consensually and widely supportive than they were just a few years ago. Some of the things that, say, Bernie Sanders has said are just factually wrong, a misrepresentation. But there are critics whose criticism is not based on a misrepresentation, who are troubled that while Israel is not able to fix everything by itself, it could do more to create a better environment.

US Sen. Bernie Sanders responds to a question during a town hall meeting in Jackson, Mississippi, April 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

One thing we always acknowledge is that Israel is not perfect. That Israel makes mistakes like any country. But there’s nothing about Israel’s imperfection that justifies the delegitimization of Israel, and Israel alone, among the countries on earth. And so we typically don’t get there, typically don’t need to get to the issues that divide the pro-Israel community. We’re too busy fighting these false narratives and these lies.

Even if you’re someone who is of the belief that Israel should be doing more to foster an environment for two states, the narrative we face on campus is simply scapegoating Israel, and Israel alone, for the lack of peace. (Whatever your perspective on two states, on this) you can agree: The narrative singling out Israel and blaming Israel alone is dangerous and wrong and we need to correct it. And then these differences of opinion within the pro-Israel community can be engaged and handled within the pro-Israel home.

Is it truly just Israel on campus? Do you understand my question? There is no remotely comparable effort facing any other country on earth on American campuses?

I am unaware of any.

Just Israel. There’s no anti-Assad stuff. This man has killed hundreds of thousands of his own people. There are no ‘Assad has to go’ weeks? There’s nothing like that?

I am not aware of any such effort.

And what’s the second then, David, if Israel is number one? Is there no activism about any political crisis anywhere in the world, or any reprehensible behavior, by remote comparison?

I am certain that you can find that there has been a speaker on campuses to criticize this or that…

The Chinese government…

Right. I bet you could find maybe that a campus somewhere held a demonstration for Tibet. Maybe, god willing, there was somebody doing something against the genocide in Darfur. That might exist. What I am not aware of is any systematic effort to do it nationally. I am also not aware of any effort to take it one step further and say, Because of this we should be boycotting and divesting from the government that enabled it.

There’s an hypocrisy at the heart of the effort to delegitimize Israel. It’s not about true compassion for people. Otherwise there would be other countries way ahead in line

Astounding: There is no other regime or government that has a hundredth or a thousandth of the anti activism that Israel faces on US campuses?

No. No. And that points to the hypocrisy at the heart of the effort to delegitimize Israel. It’s not about true compassion for people. Otherwise there would be other countries way ahead in line. It is about an effort to attack Israel. And that is why we never get to the more nuanced debates about what might be best for Israel’s future. Because what we have is this incredibly aggressive effort to delegitimize Israel’s very existence and single Israel out among the family of nations. And when we’re fighting that, we as a united pro-Israel community can stand together and focus on what we share, focus on teaching about Israel.

Last question. If I’m a pro-Palestinian activist on the campus, but I want to come on your Israel trip, are there any criteria that would bar me?

We see the trip as an opportunity to share the truth about Israel with a constituency that hasn’t heard it. The campus they’re coming from already has an anti-Israel environment. They’ve already heard the anti-Israel narrative. We want them to have an opportunity to see the truth about Israel. The only person we don’t want to bring on the trip is someone who might be a spoiler, someone who might use the opportunity to be on that bus, to take our one chance to show the truth about Israel and turn it into yet another opportunity to spread the anti-Israel narrative.

So we’re careful. We bring people even if they voted for BDS, even if they have big problems with Israel. (But) we want to see they have an open mind and that the truth about Israel will reach them. If their mind is closed, then…

How do you determine that?

We trust our partners (on campus) to interview and to know who it is they are inviting on that bus. We have brought on multiple trips members of the Muslim Student Association. SJP is a very troubling anti-Israel organization. Muslim student associations are often not. And often Muslim students want to learn before they take a position. Very often we’ve been able to tear away Muslim student associations from the activities of an SJP or a JVP. And that’s incredibly important to do.

A ‘Choose Love Week’ event at UCLA — the pro-Israel students’ response to Israel Apartheid Week. (Courtesy Maccabee Task Force)
read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed