Micah Lakin Avni is attempting the almost impossible. He is heading up a multi-million dollar organization designed to oversee the strategic defense of Israel against its boycotters and delegitimizers. And he’s doing so in a direct partnership with the Israeli government, while trying to stay out of partisan politics.
Avni, 49, has the same stake that every Israeli has in the success of his venture — formerly called “Kela Shlomo” and now renamed “Concert–Together for Israel.” The way he puts it, if a global consensus ever develops that Israel has no right to exist, the country will indeed cease to exist — and that is the goal of the defamers and the demonizers.
And he has a particular personal stake as the son of Richard Lakin, a former Connecticut school principal, civil rights activist and coexistence campaigner, who immigrated to Israel with his family in 1984 and was murdered by Palestinian terrorists on a bus in Jerusalem’s East Talpiot neighborhood, aged 75, four years ago.
A lawyer and a former venture capitalist who now heads a pioneering private lending firm that makes loans to small and medium-sized Israeli businesses, Avni has become a dedicated anti-terrorism activist since the killing of his father — pressing Facebook to prevent the abuse of its platform for the incitement of terrorism, challenging international hypocrisy and inaction in the face of Palestinian terrorism, and, most significantly, now pouring his considerable energies into “Concert” as its volunteer chairman.
Externally, if countries around the world agreed that we had no right to exist, we would cease to exist. If that concept became so deeply entrenched that all of the major countries around the world said, We have no need for Israel, ultimately it would cease to exist. The same thing would happen if our citizenry were to reach that conclusion. Those are the two threats
If the notion of raising lots of money from philanthropists to lead a strategic, concerted fight against the Israel-bashers might sound straightforward, it is anything but, as Avni readily acknowledges. Concerned Israelis and their supporters have for years been asking why the ostensibly super-smart Start-Up Nation, which can pioneer computer surgery and extract drinking water from hot air, has proved abidingly incapable of marginalizing the anti-Israel propaganda and activism that afflicts university campuses, prompts artistic boycotts, targets Israel’s economy and trade, and influences all manner of far-left and far-right political hierarchies worldwide.
The fact is that the challenge is immense, the problem deeply rooted: “Anti-Zionism is today’s anti-Semitism,” as Joan Ryan MP, the [non-Jewish] head of UK Labour Friends of Israel, put it simply and starkly in an interview on these pages last month. And the best brains have failed to beat that hatred since, well, forever.
Part of the difficulty in meeting the challenge more effectively is that there are innumerable pro-Israel organizations already waging the battle, some at cross-purposes with each other, others highly politicized, most convinced that they have the solution or part of it, all seeking funding, largely uncoordinated.
Avni and Concert seek to be different by setting up as a “public benefit company,” an NGO, working, uniquely, with the Israeli government. The aim is, first, to build a strategic picture of who the demonizers are, what they’re doing right, and how best to counter them. And then, second, to help organize, direct and fund the counter-strategy. But this unique model presents what would appear to be that near-insurmountable obstacle: Acting in partnership with the Israeli government, any Israeli government, seems certain to politicize and thus immensely complicate the whole endeavor.
All Israeli governments are, by definition, opposed by many, and the current coalition is routinely controversial, including when it comes to its efforts at pro-Israel propaganda. In an article almost six months ago, I wrote that the government and especially the Ministry of Strategic Affairs — which has been allocated tens of millions of dollars to oversee Israel’s official propaganda efforts (bizarrely, rather than the Foreign Ministry) — often acts secretively, inexpertly and counter-productively. Potentially falling foul of the US Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), the ministry has also found itself literally unable to give its money away to many pro-Israel organizations.
I also highlighted that several of the covert Israeli private intelligence companies whose alleged illegal practices have been making disturbing headlines in recent months and years were trying to get their hands on some of that government money, and that while ministry officials said they’d been rebuffed, there is evidence that these firms have been engaged in various undercover activities against Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) leaders and activists.
Since that article appeared, the booking website Airbnb has announced the delisting of home rentals at settlements in the West Bank — a move celebrated in BDS circles last week as a “highlight” of the movement’s “extraordinary strides” in 2018, and regarded by Avni as anti-Israel, anti-Semitic, damaging, dangerous and illegitimate.
Other BDS-celebrated “highlights” for the year include the withdrawal of singer Lana Del Ray from an Israeli music festival, Argentina’s cancellation of an exhibition soccer match in Jerusalem, support for BDS from the Canadian Federation of Students, and backing from US Congress members Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar.
Also since that article was published, the government has managed to score spectacular own-goals by detaining at Ben-Gurion Airport, first, the American Jewish journalist and occupation critic Peter Beinart, who was visiting for his niece’s bat mitzvah, and then a former student BDS activist, Lara Alqasem, who had been awarded a place on a Hebrew University master’s program to study the Holocaust, and who was only allowed in, courtesy of the High Court, after 15 days in an airport detention center.
Amid the furor surrounding such cases, the Shin Bet internal security agency has now pledged that its agents will no longer ask would-be entrants about their political views, as Beinart said he was.
The shortsighted implementation of unnecessary legislation aimed at confronting Israel’s demonizers has been criticized by Isaac Herzog, the current head of the Jewish Agency, and by his predecessor, Natan Sharansky. In a public interview a few weeks ago, Sharansky — who knows a thing or two about anti-Zionism, anti-Semitism, and how to stand up to them — told me that he wished the government, before juddering myopically into action, would at least consult with the people who were battling for Israel’s reputation in the Diaspora, notably on college campuses. For pro-Israel activists overseas, headlines about journalists and students getting detained at the airport, and, for that matter, about the passage of a nation-state law that doesn’t explicitly guarantee the equality of all Israeli citizens, constitute the very opposite of assistance to the cause ostensibly being served.
Yet Avni, who initiated this interview precisely because of the piece I had written, and who takes pains at the very start of our conversation to stress that he has taken on board the imperative to fight the dirty war with the cleanest of hands, is adamant that the only effective way to operate is in partnership with the Israeli government — whichever Israeli government — and that he can at the same time keep Concert out of partisan politics.
“You can’t talk about Israel’s image, or combating the delegitimization of Israel, without the government actually having some kind of involvement in that,” he argues, because otherwise “everything would be left completely to everybody’s interpretation.
“As you warned in your article, there are lots of challenges working with the government — and every day I learn about new ones,” he laughs. But “to my mind you can’t address this in a major way without them having a seat at the table.”
He elaborates: “If you have an organization whose mission is to protect the state and to build up the state’s image, and it’s not working in full cooperation with the state, then it can’t really be doing its job. And if you don’t want to be cooperative with the state because you don’t like the government, well, I feel like that’s something you need to deal with within yourself, because we’re a democratic state. We have a government. Once it was a different government. Maybe two weeks from now it will be another government. That’s what we have, what we have to live with… That’s the playing field.”
Avni wrote a blog post recently announcing the establishment of Concert. In our interview, he wanted to elaborate on its structure and goals.
Focused and earnest, Avni arrives with what might sound like a prepared statement, so organized is he in setting out what he wants to convey, except that he has nothing written down. Top of his unwritten list is to clarify exactly what Concert is and isn’t, or more particularly what it will do and what it won’t. The minute a new initiative takes shape in this emotive field, a narrative begins to form around it, pulled this way and that by Israel’s detractors and supporters (and it’s not always clear which are which). Since Avni and his efforts have already attracted informed and less-informed comment, he wants to give his own account.
Concert, the how and why
With a mission to “combat delegitimization of Israel and help strengthen Israel’s image in the world,” Avni begins, Concert is managed “by a board of directors of which I am the chairman, and has shareholders like any public benefit company.” Its CEO is Ayelet Shiloh Tamir, the former CEO of Masa (Israel experience programs). “And there is a steering committee where the government” — which is committed to provide matching funds of up to NIS 120 million ($32 million) to the project, with the possibility of more if needed — “has representation and oversight on budget, so they know what’s going on and where things are going.”
Countering delegitimization is a long-term project, he says, and Concert is in it for the long haul, following a multi-year work plan. “Working to strengthen Israel’s image is not a problem that started yesterday, and it’s not a problem that we’re going to fix tomorrow morning.”
And that scale of challenge, again, underlines what he sees as the imperative for government involvement: “When we look on the donor end, it’s a worldwide problem, right? It’s not a challenge just for American Jews or European Jews or South African Jews or just for Israel. It’s something that we need to work together on. It’s not an issue of left-wing or right-wing or centrist. It’s an issue of Israel’s existence. The way we look at it, anybody who believes that Israel should continue to exist and has a legitimate right to exist as a Jewish state has a seat around this table.”
Avni says that he himself doesn’t have a “a clear political view” and that he is determined to ensure Concert has “no political bent” and stays nonpartisan. That’s relevant, too, when it comes to taking money from donors.
“There are a couple of people out there who would be happy to fund an entire project like this with endless amounts of money, but it would give it a flavor – political, this way or that way,” he says. So “although it would be great to have those people involved, we’re trying to build up a table of participants who give you the balance — balance geographically, balance politically.”
Concert has raised an initial NIS 10 million, which it brought in before the government came on board a little under a year ago, but it is not splashing money about (as the Ministry of Strategic Affairs has apparently been doing or trying to do). “You first need to build the plan, and then build a coalition of people and organizations,” Avni says.
Avni got involved in what has become “Concert” after his father was murdered — when the organization was in the planning stages, long before the government came in.
In the wake of the murder, “I started doing a lot of public speaking and writing on issues of incitement in social media, support of terror and whatnot,” he says. “I worked together with a lot of different pro-Israel organizations on different projects, and so I got a bit of a picture of that world. I come from a business background and I never had any kind of public involvement before that. I had no idea how these organizations work and what they do.”
What he saw “was a bunch of silos — lots of different organizations, some doing great stuff, some doing less effective stuff — but hardly working together, hardly communicating. And a government doing its stuff each time, changing with different governments and different ministers.”
So he conceived the vision of coordinating the effort, and focusing it strategically. “Not people sitting around the table, agreeing on a unified strategy, and then combing organizations and doing everything together,” he stresses. Rather, being the facilitator, so that “when different organizations can collaborate on certain projects, and their skill sets can help strengthen one another, we can help pull that together.”
His business career was his model, he explains. “I built up a lending business in Israel. We basically established an entire industry over the past 15 years — built up all the standards, put regulation in place, got people to work together, changed laws. In a big long-term project, you can set standards on how to work. I have lots of competitors today in my business base, who do their own independent thing, but we’re able to collaborate in terms of pushing through legislation and [other shared goals]. As you learn, you become kind of an expert and people follow you…
“So I have this vision in combating delegitimization of Israel. At first there was no formal organization. It was just people talking. We set up an NGO called Kela Shlomo (Solomon’s Sling). We’ve changed the name to Concert–Together for Israel, which more accurately represents the way we look at this — it’s a positive thing, people working together.
“We went through a lot of different cycles of thinking about how to approach the whole thing, and we identified a couple of areas where we saw there was a lot that could be done.”
A multi-year plan
The first of those, says Avni, is in gathering basic information — “about what’s going on in the delegitimization world, what strategies are being used against Israel, who the players are, where different events are happening.”
Gathering publicly available information, he stresses. “It became very clear to us over time that we need to distance ourselves as much as possible from any kind of concept of intelligence gathering or stuff like that. We’re working completely and entirely with public information.”
Where does that line get drawn? “If a person puts up a post, a public post on Facebook, and says I’m a big supporter of this or that anti-Israel organization, not only that but I’m organizing a demonstration on my campus tomorrow — if they put that public post out for the whole world to know, that’s public information, so there’s nothing wrong with being aware of that post and making sure that the Jewish students on their campus are aware of it,” he says. “Which would be very different from breaking into somebody’s email and seeing what’s going on there or following them on the street.
“Our line is very clear: only completely public information in terms of what we’re gathering, following every law in every state in terms of databases, in terms of privacy. We’ve got the best legal advice. We did a big block of work in terms of building up ethical standards.”
Avni is adamant that Concert will have “nothing to do with Black Cube or psyop (psychological operations) types. I’m sure that military intelligence and Mossad do all sorts of things protecting our country and protecting Israel. If anything like that needs to be done, that’s the place for it to be done.”
It took “a lot of hard work and money” to set up the infrastructure to collect publicly available information about what’s going on in the delegitimization world, analyze it, and find ways of passing it along to players in the pro-Israel community who could use it to their benefit, Avni says. But it is “core to what we’re doing, because without information it’s very difficult to build an effective strategy on the other fronts.”
After the government got involved, this information work was spun out into a subsidiary that was set up at the beginning of 2018. Headed by Yossi Kuperwasser — a former head of research in the IDF Military Intelligence division and an ex-director general of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs — it is called Keshet David (literally, David’s Rainbow), although its formal English name is Innovative Collaboration Strategies. (The name Israel Cyber Shield, mentioned in my article and others, was one of the names rejected in favor of Keshet David, Avni says.)
“Concert funds Keshet David and we get all the information. That’s one leg of what we’re doing.”
Next, he says, “we’re building a program for bringing opinion leaders worldwide, mostly non-Jewish, to Israel.” Many organizations have had great success in bringing Jews on “Israel experience” trips, he says, and this is a logical next step. “It’s not that we’ll be setting up programs, but that we’ll be funding and helping existing organizations that want to do this,” he notes.
After that on the Concert agenda, he says, comes “empowering the pro-Israel community. It’s basically setting up roundtables and bringing people together, organizations, so that they can work more effectively, benefit from information, benefit from matching funding. We have a pool of money where we can match funding on activities which are meeting our goals.” Again, he notes, this will take time to organize. “You don’t just call up 20 organizations and say, Hey, let’s all start talking.”
At a later stage, he plans to have Concert help with public pro-Israel campaigns, “through existing organizations — marketing and public relations, getting messaging across.” There are people whose minds are made up about Israel, “this way or that,” he says. And “with those who are attacking us, we need to understand what they’re doing, and understand what’s working and what’s not, and think of ways that we as a pro-Israel community can tone down what’s actually damaging us out there. But most of the Western world is in the middle,” he argues, “doesn’t know where we are, doesn’t care where we are, has no opinion. There’s places there where we really need to be influencing.”
Finally, Avni wants Concert to serve as what he calls a “pro-Israel accelerator — for different startups, for people who have great ideas and initial concepts that they want to test out to either combat BDS or build up the country’s image.”
Creative ideas, he says, “don’t happen because you hire somebody and say, Why don’t you sit at a desk in a corner and think of a new idea. They happen because people will come to us with ideas as we become a hub, and we’ll say, Hey let’s put you in touch with these three organizations who are doing similar things and see if they think that’s a good idea. And, You want a little money to try a project?”
Avni has gotten to the bottom of that unwritten agenda: “That’s kind of the overall plan right now,” he says. “With time, when you put something like this together, things change a little bit, you learn, you re-focus. We’re not afraid of doing any of that.”
Defining the narrative
But there’s one more thing he says he wants to clarify — and that’s his role, and its volunteer nature: “I do this on a completely volunteer basis,” he says. (As does Kuperwasser.) Castigating a report that intimated he profits from the initiative, he specifies: “Even if I go to speak with a donor abroad, I pay for my own plane ticket, my own hotel. Nothing. I don’t get a penny. This is completely volunteer.”
There are people in every direction who want to attack this project, and that’s fair. That’s part of it. We live in an open and free democracy. The only way for us to succeed in this is to be completely open and transparent about everything we’re doing. But personally — if we weren’t being attacked — I would have waited to talk about this publicly
“There are people in every direction who want to attack this project, and that’s fair. That’s part of it,” he allows. “We live in an open and free democracy. The only way for us to succeed in this is to be completely open and transparent about everything we’re doing. But personally — if we weren’t being attacked — I would have waited to talk about this publicly, because I feel like, you do things first and then you talk about them, and strategically we don’t need to be talking.” The trouble is, he says, “if you sit quietly, the narrative gets defined by somebody else… I’ve reached the conclusion that we do have to have some kind of a public narrative about what we’re doing, because there’s too much criticism and we can’t just sit quietly.”
Avni won’t name the Concert staff, or say how many there are, or even specify the address of its offices in Tel Aviv, and explains why not: “To the government, it’s full transparency; to the donors, it’s full transparency. But we live within a challenge. There are a lot of people out there who don’t want Israel to succeed. They want the country destroyed. They don’t want Concert to succeed. And so they are attacking us from every angle.”
If Concert were to publish its employees’ names, he says, “all those people would be getting harassed by BDSers.” Similarly, if it named its donors, “their businesses would be harassed by BDSers. So there are some things that we prefer to keep confidential, and we’re not under a legal obligation to put them out there in the public domain. The people at the ministry know who they are. Our major donors know who the other donors are, and know who the employees are.”
He does name Concert’s board members — “myself, Yossi Kuperwasser, Sagy Balsha and Sam Solomon.” With more to follow. Those four are also shareholders, and other shareholders include Amos Yadlin (INSS think tank head and ex-head of IDF Military Intelligence), Dore Gold (JCPA think tank head and former Foreign Ministry director-general) and Yaakov Amidror (former national security adviser).
Miri Eisin, a former IDF intelligence officer and prime ministerial spokesman, is no longer part of the project. “She was involved at the beginning, before we entered into the agreement with the government, and she told me from day one that she was opposed to partnership with the government,” says Avni. “She’s got a personal belief that you just can’t work with the government. It doesn’t work. And I respect that.”
What do the “shareholders” do? It’s a “public benefit company” and their job, he says, is “to represent the public interest. They appoint the board members. The government has a veto on any additional shareholders and board members that we add.”
What else does government oversight involve? “The government gets a copy of every invoice for everything that their matching funds have been used for,” Avni specifies. “They have complete transparency into the books. They get monthly reporting. That is all viewed by the comptroller of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs and the legal adviser of the ministry. It doesn’t mean that they have decision-making power on every invoice or expense, but they’ll know exactly where the money is going, so presumably if somebody would ever be doing something not kosher, it would be seen and be very clear.”
And should the Ministry of Strategic Affairs ever cease to exist (certainly a possibility)? “It would become a project directly under the Prime Minister’s Office and then they would have that oversight.”
Working with government; staying out of politics
For all the sophistication and meticulousness Avni wants to bring to the project, however, he’s locked Concert into a partnership with a government under whose bull-in-a-china-shop aegis Beinart was detained at the airport. He’s working with a government under whose authority Alqasem was initially barred. It’s a fair bet that Concert research on how to counter BDS and bolster Israel’s image and reputation would not recommend such tactics.
Avni seems to both concede the point and to argue that it is not relevant: “I don’t get to decide that. I don’t get to have a say in that. The government, whatever ministries, have to make their decisions about all those things and we have to live with that. I don’t feel that it’s our role to express an opinion on any government tactics or strategies, or specific decisions. It’s actually core to succeeding in this, that we stay out of it… We also need to stay out of the political dialogue, because the moment we get involved in political dialogue it will destroy our organization and its ability to succeed.”
But a key question, I persist, is whether it is going to undermine you in an ongoing and serious way to be partnered with a government, and specifically a ministry, that does things that are very controversial in this sphere.
“Look,” he acknowledges, “it certainly is a challenge to work with the government. (But) I look at us as partnered with the state. The government is the legitimate representative of the state. So if you want to work with the state, you have to work with the government.”
Is Concert going to have some avenue for weighing in on government policies that affect the strategic effort? Avni is circumspect: “First, we’re building a new organization… I wouldn’t be so bold as to say I know what the right answers are for all sorts of different things, and I wouldn’t want to give the government, any government, public or private advice right now.”
And second, “there are always going to be government decisions that people are critical of. There are going to be lots of decisions like that, and there are going to be lots of people who are unhappy… I really think the right approach is to disconnect from that. It’s to say, There’s a dialogue about your support of the government or government policy, and there’s a [separate] dialogue about we want to do to protect Israel’s image. We want to deal with those who are trying to destroy us — destroy us ideologically, destroy us through delegitimization. We want to find a common denominator dealing with that.”
The bottom line, he insists, is that people who care about Israel have to get past their issues with this government, that minister, or this policy, and work to address the strategic threat of delegitimization.
Is he really saying that he’s not been frustrated when, say, Beinart gets stopped at the airport, or Culture Minister Miri Regev tries to get a law passed to condition government funding for the arts on “loyalty,” or Benjamin Netanyahu cancels a deal with the UN to resolve the crisis over illegal migrants, or the cabinet cancels the “Western Wall compromise deal,” or the government passes the nation-state law and presents Israel’s detractors with ammunition to argue that Israel is not truly committed to full equality for its citizens?
“As citizens in a democracy, with multiple political parties and so many confusing issues,” Avni replies, “every day all of us wake up and read something in the paper and say, I would have done that differently…”
Well, of course, but we’re talking about the specific field of BDS, the field in which he is partnering with the government. Avni is resolute: “You’re not going to drag me into criticizing anything the ministry does. And if we sit here in two years and there’s a different minister, you’re still not going to be able to get me to criticize what they’re doing.”
I try another tack. How, I ask him, is Concert differentiating in terms of Jewish or pro-Israel groups that it will work with? How about Canary Mission, for example, which apparently produces lists that the Strategic Affairs Ministry or maybe the Shin Bet or maybe both utilize in seeing who should be allowed into Israel? Does he know about that organization? Are there organizations like that that he’ll work with, or won’t work with?
You’re not going to drag me into criticizing anything the ministry does. And if we sit here in two years and there’s a different minister, you’re still not going to be able to get me to criticize what they’re doing
“In terms of working with organizations, what they’re doing has to meet our goals,” he replies. When it comes to funding an organization” — which Concert isn’t doing yet, because it hasn’t completed that “whole process of mapping” — the organization will have to be “entirely aligned with something that we think is going to further the cause, in our big picture of strategy.” When it comes to providing information, that will be made available to any pro-Israel organization that is interested in it.
Indeed, he says, “we’re probably just going to start to make that information generally public — even though at some level that might not be the most effective way, because you may not want your enemies knowing everything you understand about them, but ultimately it will further the goals.”
As for Canary Mission? “I’m not familiar with the internal workings of what goes on in Canary Mission,” he says.
I throw out another name: Act.il. Avni enthuses: “We are considering working together with Act.il in terms of help getting information and making it publicly available. They’ve built up a wonderful system of getting pro-Israel activists around the world together to work online influencing things. We’re looking at that, and perhaps we’ll be helping that expand into other areas of the world.”
How does Concert distinguish between organizations it will work with, and those it considers beyond the pale? “We’ve got people involved who have a deep expertise in those kind of things,” he says, and it does screening “to make sure we’re working with organizations that are only playing by the book. If you’re funding something, you can dig in deeper, because that gives you rights to see what’s going on inside. We want nothing to do with an organization that is doing something illegal.”
Complying with FARA
What about the organizations that the government funds, or tries to? As noted in my June article, numerous pro-Israel nonprofit organizations have refused to accept funding from the government and the Ministry of Strategic Affairs in recent years. In part, this was because of concerns regarding FARA. In part, it was because of efforts by the government to heavy-handedly oversee their work. Some organizations were also dismayed by the ministry’s talk of running an information-gathering arm, which created the impression that the ministry does stuff under the table.
“The ministry funds all sorts of projects directly, which I’m not involved in,” Avni says briskly, but he has plenty to say about FARA, “which I think I’ve become one of the world experts in, over the past year.”
The Foreign Agents Registration Act, he says, “is a real challenge, not just for what we’re doing but for other pro-Israel organizations.” Offering a brief history, he notes that FARA was legislated before World War I, to deal with Germans infiltrating the United States. For a long time, “it was relatively dormant. Very few cases; very few people even know what it was.”
But over the past couple of years, “much of it around the Trump administration, it’s sort of been re-gentrified, and people in the Justice Department in the States have gotten very excited about it and got more people working on it. Russia, Canada, China, Israel: It’s all the same; if you’re not an American organization, then you’re a foreign principal.”
And if you’re a foreign principal — a foreign government, a foreign company, or a foreign NGO with or without government involvement — and you want to be active in the United States within the political sphere (which covers everything that is not purely scientific, religious, or educational) — then you need to register with the Department of Justice as a foreign agent, and make ongoing, publicly available reporting to the DoJ.
“The real problem when we get down to it is the name ‘foreign agent,'” says Avni. It would not be an issue “to register as a guy who does good stuff, and also reports who he meets with, and where he spends his money… But that title ‘foreign agent,’ obviously, people in the United States are very sensitive about.”
We want nothing to do with generating fake news, or fake personalities, or influencing people in a way where you’re manipulating their thought
Many US organizations — in the pro-Israel sphere, as in any other sphere — therefore, “will not want to receive any money directly from an Israeli NGO whether they have government involvement or do not have government involvement,” notes Avni. “Same goes for a Canadian NGO or a Chinese NGO. The Justice Department is sending out letters to organizations — pro-Israel organizations receive them; pro-Canadian, pro-Chinese, it doesn’t matter what — saying, Can you please come and explain to us why you think you should or shouldn’t be registered here.”
Concert plans to handle these concerns by setting up a US subsidiary that it will register as a foreign agent, and it will report “every penny we spend and everybody we meet with.” (Eventually, Avni envisages Concert having “a presence” in Europe and South America too, “but that’s not going to happen in the next year or two,” he says.)
Organizations that are not comfortable registering themselves as a foreign agent will not be funded directly by Concert. “What we will be doing is funding projects directly.”
So, for example, “a travel agent who needs to buy tickets to bring people to Israel will have no problem receiving that money.” Rather than giving the money to the US organization organizing the trips so that it can buy the tickets, “we can just pay for them directly, and we report that we bought, you know, a hundred tickets from El Al. And that will be publicly available.” Few other countries have laws like FARA, but “those that do, we’ll abide by them too.”
No dark arts
Plainly, working scrupulously within the law is essential for a determinedly aboveboard initiative such as this, but I ask Avni whether, at any point, consideration had been given to a less morally scrupulous approach to countering the defamers — to the use, that is, of the kinds of fakery, misinformation and other dark tactics allegedly employed by some states and some private firms.
He acknowledges that “probably in the early days, some people may have been thinking about more aggressive types of campaigns — influence campaigns and whatnot, which could probably be effective.” But, he swiftly continues, “it’s very clear from the environment today in the United States and around the world that we want nothing to do with generating fake news, or fake personalities, or influencing people in a way where you’re manipulating their thought. Some of that manipulation may be legal; some of it may not be; we want nothing to do with that.
The core to delegitimization is not external, it’s internal. It’s getting the country to be partisan, and getting people to argue about things, and getting people to disagree. And then creating chaos. And then stepping in and taking over
“If you’d asked me three years ago,” he continues candidly, “I would have said that there’s some area there, where we could be working for Israel’s benefit, but it’s clear to me now that that area is so questionable in terms of the ethics of it. And so we don’t want anything to do with it.”
His point is that three years ago, the field “was still developing, and it wasn’t really clear what was going on. And you want to be looking at the most advanced things, and thinking about what can work to help us out and help combat our enemies. Because at the end of the day we’re facing an enemy here,” he stresses. “We’re facing people whose goal is to destroy the State of Israel. But that’s completely outside the project.”
Now that he’s talked through his battle plan, I ask Avni exactly what he sees Israel as being up against? How does he define the delegitimization threat, and its most potent dangers?
An internal threat
His answer may not be exactly what you would expect: “I read a lot of stuff about how the KGB went around changing thinking around Europe, and taking over Eastern European countries,” he starts. “They have really deep, thought-out, long-term processes…” His point being? “The core to delegitimization is not external, it’s internal. It’s getting the country to be partisan, and getting people to argue about things, and getting people to disagree. And then creating chaos. And then stepping in and taking over. To my mind, as a citizen, we’re falling prey to that here in Israel and I don’t want to be any part of that.”
Where Concert is concerned, “for reasons of focus, for reasons of legality, and to remain nonpartisan, we’re committed to not getting involved in the local dialogue about delegitimization. We’re not going to do anything to try to influence thinking inside of Israel.” But, he stresses, “I think that that’s a serious issue, and I think that we’re falling into a real trap of partisanship, which is a longer term danger to the country.”
Can he elaborate? “Our distancing ourself from our Jewishness — and I say this as a secular Jew — is a big piece of that challenge, because the more one steps away from a connection to religion, the harder it is to place oneself on that map,” he says. “You and I grew up in a generation where there was a stronger Jewish education and a home connection, regardless of whether it was Reform, Conservative, Orthodox or whatnot. And today, there are many Jews around the world and Israel who are growing up with no connection, which sets prey to this partisanship.”
And he thinks dark forces outside Israel are carefully and deliberately exacerbating these intra-Israel, intra-Jewish frictions? “Yes, he says.” How so? “Well, if you look at the way the KGB went about it, they just get people arguing. They do all sorts of influence campaigns to get people arguing.” Via social media? “Well, back then, not social media, but just getting ideas across.” And today, in the Israeli context? “I don’t want to go into more… I’m concerned about this issue. I have specific ideas, but it’s an entirely different realm. It’s something that, in Concert, we are not going to touch. Nothing local. Period.”
First it’s a resolution about a product. Then it’s a resolution against having Israelis come and speak. Ultimately it ends up in a resolution about, What do we need them here for?
But if that’s the “longer term danger”…? “The core of the challenge is delegitimization,” Avni repeats. “Delegitimization is a threat externally and internally. Externally, if countries around the world agreed that we had no right to exist, we would cease to exist. If that concept became so deeply entrenched that all of the major countries around the world said, We have no need for Israel, ultimately it would cease to exist. The same thing would happen if our citizenry were to reach that conclusion. Those are the two threats.”
And then came Airbnb
Concert, however, is dealing only with the external threat — battling for Israel’s legitimacy internationally. “Leadership is complicated, and in different countries it works in different ways, but it’s governments, it’s journalists, academicians, it’s people in the arts, it’s people in all different realms, in business. As a consensus changes or ideas change, one can reach the conclusion, as many people around the world have, that they don’t think we’re legitimately here. They don’t want us here. That’s still a vast minority. But there’s a growing trend like that.”
“On the one hand, Israel is getting stronger, but on the other hand, suddenly a labor union is coming out with resolutions against Israel; it’s left academia, it’s moved into labor, it’s moved into municipal governments — people coming in with resolutions against Israel. First it’s a resolution about a product. Then it’s a resolution against having Israelis come and speak. Ultimately it ends up in a resolution about, What do we need them here for?
Where does the Airbnb delisting of rentals at settlement homes fit into this mix? Front and center, he makes clear.
“Airbnb’s decision is political in nature, and came after a long multi-faceted, organized campaign by anti-Israel and pro-BDS organizations. Airbnb’s decision is also clearly anti-Semitic, anti-Israel, discriminatory and not aligned with legitimate business objectives. It is a dangerous precedent in the global technology community and damaging to the State of Israel and the Jewish people.”
He says Concert has made it “a high priority to convince Airbnb to rescind their decision. From our perspective, this is a strategic junction in the expansion of the efforts of our enemies to delegitimize the State of Israel.”
Just days ago, he notes, “the BDS Movement website published a list entitled ’18 Highlights of BDS Impact in 2018′ citing Airbnb’s decision as their greatest achievement. There is no question that the Airbnb decision is an assault in the political warfare being waged by our enemies who aim to destroy Israel.”
From a moral perspective, Avni says he sees “no difference” between Airbnb’s policymakers and Bhaa Alyan, “the terrorist who stabbed my father to death. One used a knife in his attack and caused an immediate and focused result – the death of one Jew. And the other uses poisonous words veiled in ‘corporate policies’ that have a much broader and damaging impact with the ultimate aim of destroying Israel and killing many, many Jews. Unfortunately,” he fumes, “it’s all too easy to hide behind a keyboard in the ivory tower of Silicon Valley and close your eyes to the morality and impact of your decisions. In the long run, Airbnb’s actions are actually more dangerous to Israel, because they have greater influence and a broader impact.”
And what of the Airbnb argument that this is not an anti-Israel action? “Of course, when a business is challenged by the vice president (Mike Pence), governors, legislators, media, the investment community, it goes into public relations crisis management mode and begins to obfuscate its actions and wrap itself in corporate speak,” says Avni. “My favorite explanation provided by Chris Lehane (Airbnb’s Global Head of Policy and Communications) was that Airbnb is not singling out Israel because they also shut down hosts whom they identified as neo-Nazis. So the corporate logic is that Jews who live in Judea are in the same category as Nazis?” (Airbnb had not responded to a request for comment as of this writing.)
My favorite explanation was that Airbnb is not singling out Israel because they also shut down hosts whom they identified as neo-Nazis. So the corporate logic is that Jews who live in Judea are in the same category as Nazis?
Avni urges that Airbnb’s decision be “challenged on every level – moral, political, legal, corporate, media… The pro-Israel eco-system must demand that this decision be reversed. It is of strategic importance. Over the past two weeks, we have witnessed hosts and users disabling their accounts; press and social media campaigns challenging Airbnb’s motivations and morality; Vice President Pence, governors and legislatures in a number of countries raising questions about the morality and legality of Airbnb’s decision.”
In Israel, he says, “operational decisions are in the works, lawsuits have been filed in the US and Israel, and other similar influence activities are building up into a high pressure system. I anticipate that this momentum will continue. We have yet to hear Airbnb’s board of directors and shareholders react to this issue. I will be very interested to hear their positions.”
What Jews both in Israel and around the world fail to grasp is that when they publicly support boycotts and actions that delegitimize specific government policies, they are strengthening the enemy, whose clear and stated goal is to destroy Israel. They are inadvertently providing a moral foundation for people around the world to accept ideologies that seek to destroy us
Where does Concert draw a line between diplomatic, economic and other pressure specifically focused on settlements, and diplomatic, economic and other pressure exerted against Israel? Avni’s answer, essentially, is that there is no difference:
“When I sit at home in Tel Aviv with lifelong friends over dinner – whether they be friends from the IDF, or the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Camp Ramah in Massachusetts or Solomon Schechter Day School in Connecticut– we often have heated political arguments… Vibrant political discussion and debate in Israel is a critical component of our democracy. However, what Jews both in Israel and around the world fail to grasp is that when they publicly support boycotts and actions that delegitimize specific government policies, they are strengthening the enemy, whose clear and stated goal is to destroy Israel. They are inadvertently providing a moral foundation for people around the world to accept ideologies that seek to destroy us.
“Most people around the world have no opinion about Israel, so when a Jewish rabbi, or professor, or celebrity steps up and says ‘I oppose Israel’s policy on this or that,’ what the listener is actually hearing is a Jew saying ‘I oppose Israel’. This provides a justification for delegitimization, and for anti-Semitism. We must stand united in the face of our enemies. So Concert does not differentiate between diplomatic, economic and other attacks specifically focused on settlements, and diplomatic, economic and other attacks aimed generally at Israel. Both serve the same goal, and we need to stand firm and united against them.”
Overall, he says, “we need to change the trajectory. Changing it means engaging those who have no opinion. And as for those who are trying to influence the ones who have no opinion against us, finding tactics and strategies to stop them.”
There’s not, like, one evil mastermind who’s sitting there, and has a thousand organizations, doing the plans. But there are organizational charts that we’re seeing, and there are flows of money
BDS and boycott efforts are “just one piece of it,” Avni continues. “Campuses is just one piece of it, but we’re seeing it in labor unions, we’re seeing it in municipal governments, we’re seeing it in the UN. You see a growing number of artists having issues. That’s not even necessarily about boycotting. It’s about expressing opinions. You may have somebody in the States putting out a tweet to 50 million people: I don’t like Israel, or, Israel doesn’t need to be here. Even if they’re not canceling a concert, it’s the thinking that way.”
Knowing the enemy
From the research done so far, how is this delegitimization campaign being orchestrated? Coordinated from key specific sources, or less centered? The picture that’s emerged is of “a definite influence of money from foreign governments,” mainly in the Arab world, “and money from [Islamist] terror organizations, who are supporting disparate delegitimization efforts in a semi-coordinated way. There’s not, like, one evil mastermind who’s sitting there, and has a thousand organizations, doing the plans. But there are organizational charts that we’re seeing, and there are flows of money.”
Are some of these Arab governments the same ones that are now warming their ties with Israel? Apparently so: “You might have somebody who’s discussing peace with you, somewhere else inadvertently doing something different,” he says.
Are there particular countries where he sees the threat becoming particularly dangerous, I wonder, mentioning Britain, for example, with its deeply anti-Israel opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn. Avni nods.
“We’re putting a big focus in terms of our understanding and planning now on Western Europe. There are a lot more resources in the US. Things are getting more and more challenging in Europe, and there’s less being done there. So that’s something we’re working on now and studying. Hopefully we’ll be doing a lot of work there. Early days.
“At the very, very core,” he concludes, “we’re up against a threat to the State of Israel, and we’re working to defend the country against that threat.” Not this or that government, but the country as a whole. “A lot of the criticism [of this effort] somehow loses sight of that very basic idea.”