From the war in Iraq to the battle against Israel boycotters

One group is taking an approach used by US special forces and applying it in its struggle against the BDS movement in America

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Illustrative photo of signs calling for the boycott of Israel at an anti-Israel protest in San Francisco, April 2011. (CC BY-dignidadrebelde, Flickr)
Illustrative photo of signs calling for the boycott of Israel at an anti-Israel protest in San Francisco, April 2011. (CC BY-dignidadrebelde, Flickr)

Can an idea honed on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan prove effective in defending against assaults on Israel’s legitimacy in North America? David Dabscheck, deputy managing director of the Israel Action Network, thinks so.

The idea, in the words of General Stanley McChrystal — commander of the US Joint Special Operations Command — that “it takes a network to defeat a network” played a central role in his concept for fighting insurgents in the Middle East .

It was late 2003, and al-Qaeda in Iraq was running an extremely effective campaign against American troops and their allies. McChrystal met with his team in a small base near Baghdad, determined to understand the enemy. He quickly realized they were battling an adversary that did not adhere to the traditional military structure, but formed a decentralized network, made up of nimble, independent nodes.

“It became clear to me and to many others that, to defeat a networked enemy, we had to become a network ourselves,” McChrystal recalled in Foreign Policy. “We had to figure out a way to retain our… levels of knowledge, speed, precision, and unity of effort that only a network could provide.”

IAN came to the same conclusion.

“We realized we were facing a different type of challenge,” reflected  Dabscheck. “We faced a decentralized challenge originating from different groups.”

“If this is a network challenge,” he said, echoing McChrystal, “it takes a network to defeat.”

Anti-Israel activists in the United States create local, autonomous groups that communicate and cooperate with a variety of likeminded organizations. But the Jewish community has a network no less impressive. The Jewish Federations of North America consists of 157 local federations, and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs boasts 125 local community relations councils. Add to those figure campus Hillels and the religious organizations from the four major streams of Judaism, and the potential of that network starts to become clear.

But who would harness the potential synergy of the Jewish communities across the country?

IAN, a two-year-old strategic initiative of the Jewish umbrella organizations, seeks to leverage that network of semi-autonomous alliances at the local level to craft appropriate responses to anti-Israel initiatives, and to share lessons across the country.

“Every community faces unique issues,” said Dabscheck, “and the message has to be tailored accordingly.”

IAN staffers travel to Jewish communities around the country, offering training on strategic planning, messaging, and advocacy. They have provided guidance to over 50 communities on how to effectively respond to boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaigns, editorials, billboards, and conferences.

The message is adapted to each community’s specific challenges and demographics in a number of ways, Dabscheck explained. “We ask, ‘What’s the message?’ America is broadly pro-Israel, but there are certain constituencies that are susceptible to anti-Israel messages — college campuses, mainline Protestant churches, labor unions, minority groups, the LGBTQ community. Communities need to tailor their messages to each one.”

They also put emphasis on who delivers the message. “We look for people with credibility within that community — for example, labor leaders speaking to labor leaders.”

IAN urges local groups to invest in relationships with other constituencies. By so doing, they try to build a firewall against anti-Israel campaigns, broadening the local mainstream pro-Israel consensus, and marginalizing the hostile extreme that they say tries to co-opt well-intentioned people.

David Dabscheck, deputy managing director of the Israel Action Network, in Jerusalem this week (photo credit: Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)
David Dabscheck, deputy managing director of the Israel Action Network, in Jerusalem this week (photo credit: Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

The strategy of building relationships proactively proved timely for the Jewish community in Portland, Oregon. They are one of four pilot communities for the “Community Impact Partnership” program, in which the IAN initiates a series of visits to the community to train advocates in building partnerships with key local constituencies. “We trained people to visit mainline Protestant churches and give the mainstream Jewish view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” explained Bob Horenstein, the Portland Federation’s Community Relations and Allocations Director.

In April, the local BDS chapter published a letter charging that the Federation’s “Food for Thought” program, which raised money for local food banks during Israel Independence Day celebrations, was inappropriate given Israel’s alleged responsibility for food shortages in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The letter was fairly standard, but what concerned Horenstein were the signatures of several local mainline Protestant clergymen on the letter. The IAN-trained community members are now reaching out to their contacts within those churches to explain why they see the BDS movement as harmful to the vision of a peaceful solution to the conflict.

Taking advantage of the Jewish community network, when they see what works in one community, IAN is able to share those lessons with their counterparts across the country, who then craft it for their specific challenges.

“IAN played the unique role of being able to reflect the national and international landscape of the delegitimization movement,” said Hindy Poupko, Director of Israel and International Affairs at the Jewish Community Relations Council in New York, who has worked with IAN to fight a number of BDS initiatives. “They are also able to alert us to things not yet on our radar.”

The initiative has managed to bring together organizations from both the political right and the left. While the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) met in Pittsburgh to discuss a boycott proposal, JStreet’s Jeremy Ben-Ami wrote in the Huffington Post that “the one-sided, extreme rhetoric that accompanies the Global BDS Movement makes a mutually agreeable solution more difficult to achieve, not less.” Individuals involved with AIPAC and Hasbara Fellowships sit on the same local committees to fight BDS. “We are not debating Israeli government policy here,” Dabscheck said.

The network has achieved some signal successes in its short existence.

In 2009, BDS activists began a campaign to get the Park Slope Food Co-op in Brooklyn to stop buying Israeli goods. They tried to position themselves as anti-occupation, instead of anti-Israel, in an attempt to win over well-meaning members who were not deeply invested in the issue.

In 2012, IAN partnered with the JCRC-NY to enlist local clergy, create an ad campaign positioning the anti-BDS side as the supporters of a two-state solution, and assemble a panel discussion of progressive organizations opposed to BDS. It resulted in a resounding win, with 60 percent voting the BDS measure down.

“They were helpful in sharing appropriate and effective messaging that had worked in the past, and we were able to tailor their tested messaging to our local context,” recalled Poupko.

IAN has also managed to mobilize partner organizations to help defeat divestment resolutions in the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA). In their 2012 conferences, small dedicated groups of activists pushed resolutions calling divestment from corporations operating in Israel, including Motorola, Caterpillar, and Hewlett-Packard.

Thirteen-hundred rabbis from across the religious spectrum signed a statement opposing BDS, called “Letter in Hope,” that was sent to conference delegates. The idea, said Dabscheck, was to show that the Jewish community across the country — including the local leaders that the Christian delegates engage with regularly — opposes BDS efforts and sees it as an impediment to interfaith cooperation.

Though the effort paid off in 2012, he expects a renewed BDS push in the 2014 church conventions, especially in Canada.

The LGBTQ community has been a lead target for efforts that seek to paint Israel as using its gay rights record to hide its human rights abuses, known as “pinkwashing.” IAN has worked extensively with A Wider Bridge, an organization dedicated to connecting the Israeli and American LGBTQ communities.

General Stanley McChrystal (photo credit: US Army)
General Stanley McChrystal (photo credit: US Army)

A Wider Bridge tried bringing Israeli LGBTQ leaders to Seattle to meet with the local gay community, but BDS activists convinced groups not to sit with the Israelis. IAN worked with the Seattle Jewish Federation to reach out to those groups and secure their agreement to sit with the Israeli delegation.

Still, not every effort is an outright success. In April, the University of California Berkeley student senate voted 11-9 to pass a divestment bill. “Whenever BDS ends up in the newspaper, it’s not a win for us,” Poupko pointed out.

Facing an adversary whose tactics and targets are always changing, Dabscheck tries to anticipate the next battleground. He foresees a rash of resolutions being brought before student governments, especially in the U-Cal system. BDS proponents will also shift the scope of their campaigns. “From broad approaches like a general boycott,” said Dabscheck, “they have been trying to narrow their focus on specific companies.”

He expects anti-Israel activists to co-opt the language of socially responsible investment aimed at corporations. They will challenge companies on their alleged connection to IDF actions, asking them to  look at other factors beyond profit.

“This is a new type of advocacy,” Dabscheck emphasized. “Real advocacy is not us speaking to ourselves. It is going outside ourselves, and sensitizing ourselves to what is effective.”

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