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Can we also be called a “think tank?”

The Think Tank and the Conflict

Haaretz gives us Reut Institute’s take on the international campaign of delegitimization of Israel that we have been covering on Jewlicious for years. Reut, a think tank, considers this a strategic threat to Israel.

Reut says the campaign is the work of a worldwide network of private individuals and organizations. They have no hierarchy or overall commander, but work together based on a joint ideology – portraying Israel as a pariah state and denying its right to exist.

Um, yeah. Good morning!

Reut lists the network’s major hubs – London, Brussels, Madrid, Toronto, San Francisco and the University of California, Berkeley. The network’s activists – “delegitimizers” the report dubs them – are relatively marginal: young people, anarchists, migrants and radical political activists. Although they are not many, they raise their profile using public campaigns and media coverage, the report says.

The “delegitimizers” cooperate with organizations engaging in legitimate criticism of Israel’s policy in the territories such as Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, blurring the line between legitimate censure and delegitimization. They also promote pro-Palestinian activities in Europe as “trendy,” the report says.

What is Really Going on and Who is Leading it?

Reut Institute is obviously late on the uptake, but at least they have figured it out, unlike most of Israel’s leadership. Unfortunately, they misunderstand both the nature of the threat and its source.

First of all, they misunderstand the nature of the opponents. While it’s true that they have individuals acting without an apparent central hub, most of the organizing is done by a small number of people and they are almost always affiliated with Palestinian or Muslim groups, often non-profit, that exist in their respective markets. We’ve seen this in Toronto, where Jewlicious was able to show a number of things (there are a number of posts on our site that will provide this information – look up search terms like “Toronto” and “York University”):

* An organization or members of an organization called Palestine House were in some way related to the disruptions against the Toronto Film Festival.
* According to the National Post in Canada, Palestine House also became involved with Palestinian claims over the Dead Sea Scrolls in Toronto only 4 days after the PA wrote a letter to the Canadian government and the museum hosting the scrolls.
* Organizers of the film festival protest in Toronto, like Naomi Klein, had only months earlier visited the West Bank as honored guests of the Palestinians.
* There was behind the scenes involvement of a Palestinian law student who had previously served as an adviser to the PLO, mother organization of the PA.
* That same former adviser to the PLO had organized a one-state-solution conference at a Toronto university just weeks earlier.
* Among the speakers at that conference was an Israeli Arab who studies at Tel Aviv University and is a leader of the “boycott and divestment” movement. He subsequently went on a multi-city tour of North America to promote the divestment and boycott movement. Wherever he appeared, local university groups promoted the event.
* One of the key movers behind the protests in Toronto, John Greyson, was a board member of the Toronto Palestine Film Festival, which is also affiliated with Toronto pro-Palestinian groups.
* On various campuses across North America, the Apartheid Week and related campaigns are usually organized by the campus’s Muslim Student Union, as we saw at UC Irvine in previous years and in the disruption to the Michael Oren talk.
* When it’s not the Muslim Students Union, it’s some sort of Palestinian group (Peace in Palestine; Peace and Justice in Palestine; Students for Peace and Justice in Palestine, etc.) that takes the lead.
* Often, there is a direct connection between the student government on campus and the pro-Palestinian or MSU groups. It is not unusual to see activists run for student leadership roles, as we’ve seen at York University in Toronto and Concordia in Quebec.
* When they acquire those powers, it is typical to see them lead anti-Israel campus activities. It helps them in the elections that they are often affiliated with Left-wing groups on campus.
* There appear to be funds for many of these groups’ activities, such as a recent North American tour by Norman Finkelstein, promoted by Muslim, pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel groups.

Along with plenty of financing to bring out speakers, organize activities, events and travel, the the level of sophistication of some of these attacks indicates that fairly knowledgeable sources are providing assistance.

There are two possibilities. One is that the Palestinian Authority is behind this and the other is some Arab government with connections to MSU organizations on campuses is driving this. It could also be that both are happening. Money appears to be coming from somewhere and I don’t believe the Muslim community in North America is established enough at this point to be driving these programs – they will be in a few years, however, thanks to the groundwork that is being laid and has been laid over the past couple of decades.

We have seen substantial infusions of Saudi money to various top-quality universities in the past couple of decades, so it’s not unreasonable to assume that part of their budget includes sponsorship of Muslim campus groups. With respect to disruptive events like the Toronto Film Festival protests or the anti-two-state-solution conference, it is very reasonable to assume the PA was indirectly or directly involved (as I mentioned above, Naomi Klein visited the West Bank months before the film festival protest of which she was one of the leaders and the anti-two-state-solution conference was led by a former adviser to the PLO).

What this means is that the delegitimization campaign against Israel is almost certainly being run by the the PA and one or more Arab governments.

However, the support is often indirect, or provided in a hands-off fashion which also permits for denial of any connection and the perceived sense that these are grass-roots activists. That does not change the fact that this is part of the war against Israel (put “endgame” into our search to read more about the PA’s war against Israel) and as Reut notes, a strategic threat to Israel.

The Wrong Solutions

With this in mind, Reut’s prescribed solution seems right, but it is in fact the wrong approach to fighting and solving this problem.

“The Foreign Ministry is built for the challenges of the ’60s, not the 2000s,” the report says. “There are no budgets, not enough diplomats and no appropriate diplomatic doctrine.”

Reut recommends setting up a counter-network, in which Israel’s embassies in centers of delegitimization activity would serve as “front positions.”

The report says the intelligence service should monitor the organizations’ activities and study their methods. The cabinet should also confront groups trying to delegitimize Israel but embrace those engaged in legitimate criticism.

That is the wrong approach, at least in North America. In Europe, the problem is so deep that rising up from the grass roots is going to be extremely challenging and any fighting needs to be on a governmental informational level. However, in North America any Israeli governmental activity should involve nothing more than monitoring and maybe every one in a while sending an informative helping hand to real grass roots activists.

Israel’s solution needs to be no less sophisticated than that of the Palestinians, and giving diplomats and the Foreign Ministry authority to handle this is NOT the way to go, because it will become – as everything in Israel always does – part of some public debate, and then even those of us who are really grass roots will be attacked for being part of Israeli propaganda. In addition, it is also very likely that the Foreign Ministry won’t know how to handle these sorts of situations. Israelis can be ham-handed when it comes to defending their positions, as we well know – the debacle with the Turkish ambassador to Israel, conducted by one of Israel’s most experienced diplomats, proved that conclusively.

A different possibility lies with organizations such as Stand with Us and CAMERA, both of which do excellent work and which already advocate for Israel. They represent one model of counter-activism against those who attack Israel. The problem these groups face is that they are large and have also taken a ham-handed approach to defending Israel. There is little in the way of nuance in their approach. For example, if a newspaper publishes an attack on Israel or even a mildly unfair article, these groups will send out an email blast to their members and the newspaper editor is then bombarded with dozens or hundreds of emails that sound very much like each other. On CAMERA’s site, virtually every major publication in the US comes under attack at one point or another.

The editors’ responses are not hard to imagine: they assume their critics are organized and therefore not as authentic as the lone voice or small group that created the protest or wrote the op-ed in the first place. The underdog gets sympathy while the well-organized complaints are deemed to be the bullies.

These groups can be effective in providing a knowledge base to activists and to spreading information to a broad range of people. It is hard for them to lead a grass-roots movement, however, because they have grown beyond that.

The Right Solution

What, then, is the solution? The solution is not complicated but will require some effort to implement. It is to answer grass roots with grass roots.

Fighting back effectively is often a function of knowledge combined with activism conducted by a small group of dedicated individuals. The knowledge part is critical because this conflict is extremely complex with endless data points, a confusing history and ongoing events that continue to shift the lay of the land. Acquiring knowledge isn’t enough. One has to predict how the other side will respond and then how the other side will response to our response to theirs. It is chess, in a way.

How do we get there? Every city and every campus with a Jewish population of any size can do this. It is a function of finding a person or two who are heavily invested in defending Israel and motivated by a desire to see justice done in relation to Israel and who can lead others.

That local Jewish community needs to set aside some funds to cover that individual’s time – not much money, but enough to make a part-time effort make sense – as s/he begins to find opportunities to meet people who care about Israel, to provide classes about the Arab-Israeli conflict and to identify both the types of people who can offer support and those who can lead. The goal of such an organization would be to grow, but not too large, to monitor local anti-Israel activism and combat it in creative, grass-roots ways.

You will notice that the Israeli government plays no role in any of this scenario.

That’s because the way to fight small groups of activists who appear to be independent is to fight with small groups of activists who are independent. The foreign ministry can assist by having some sort of expertise office where the group leaders can call to get information about historical and political matters that are hard to research or whose nuances can be confusing. They can offer help by ensuring the local groups know what the PA is up to or what the latest activities or disputes are about. However, they have to remain a passive resource and nothing more.

One way to ensure this is to create a closed website that would serve as a a knowledge repository for any activist who wants to participate. Such a resource would only be open to the local leaders and would provide answers to pertinent questions and issues along with links and resources and a knowledge base of the other side’s debating points and responses.

How does all of this get started? Simple. If you’re somebody who thinks you can lead a group like this and you care enough about it that you would be willing to face this sort of challenge for the next couple of years…then just get started.

What do you need?

* You need to find some local like-minded people. Ask your local rabbis – most will know members in their congregation who care deeply about these issues.
* You need to find a place where you can offer classes.
* You need to acquire as much knowledge as you can about the conflict.
* As you get going, you will need to find some benefactor in your town who can provide some financial assistance.
* Pay yourself a little, but use most of the money to offer classes.
* Hook up with local Hillels or universities that have professors who deal with these issues and who appear to be friendly to Israel. Get them to offer a class here or there.
* Attend every pro-Palestinian event in your area and observe. What are they saying, what are their claims, how do they go about promoting themselves.
* Sit with some of the smarter members of your group and figure out how to compete with these events and presentations.
* Learn to respond and beat them at their own propaganda.
* Expect that most of the time these days, you will be playing defense, but,
* After you become more confident, start thinking about how to play offense: how can Israel’s need and desire for peace be presented to the public; Are there speakers you can bring to your town; Can you get them publicity in your local papers?

Grass roots against grass roots. That’s the only way to fight back.

12 Comments

  1. Michael

    2/15/2010 at 4:09 am

    Yes you are right. Where have successive Israeli govs been for successive decades
    I have been in this game since the mid 1970s. What happened last week is a big difference. The hecklng like against Oron or Ayalon is not new. The major change was the concertedand repeated attacks on senior Israeli officials. That together with the ironic timing of he release of the Reut report could start to make a difference.
    Grass roots? Yes.
    But your argument has an inherent flaw. You note that there is some form of overall directin from the Palestinian side. That is needed from our side.
    Compared to the beginning of the Intifada, Israel’s hasbara has improved significantly, army and MFA. BUT, not enough.
    I deal with these organisations from time to time. They have some excellent people in the right depts, frequently answering to those up above. These are often old school and who do not understand and who offer poor resources. When that top rung moves on, your greass roots will receive their direction.

    • themiddle

      2/15/2010 at 5:47 am

      Michael, thank you for your comments. Permit me to respond.

      I believe the “directing” I’m pointing to by the PA or Saudi Arabia or Muslim organizations, is hands-off. They put money in, they provide ideas, they may even provide somebody who can give initial guidance or information on some level. However, that’s all they give. At that point, the guidance and actual activism is local and often run by people who can’t be connected back to the PA. It is not an accident that very often the key activists are people who are not Muslim and don’t have Muslim names. They are independent outsiders. The money, guidance and ideas may have originated elsewhere, but the actual decisions and actions appear to be led by local activists.

      My point is that Israel’s official involvement shouldn’t be any deeper than theirs. The typical Israeli will have no clue what will work in Boston or Calgary. He’s not from there, he’s not connected to there, his upbringing is different and his idea of Israel and how it’s perceived is not going to be the same as the average person in Calgary. He’s certainly not going to know how best to seek to influence the average listener. That’s the first problem.

      The second problem is that I don’t believe that you are right that the excellent people in the right departments will actually get promoted to lead those departments. I believe that political appointees, ex-military men and others who are well connected will get those jobs instead. Israel has not proven itself to be a meritocracy when it comes to government. As a consequence, despite having some truly brilliant minds in the Foreign Ministry, you don’t see that ministry have anywhere near the positive impact it could. I believe any project along the lines of Reut’s suggestion will end up being a department run by some friend of the minister who runs that department who will have no expertise or sensitivity to this issue and whose underlings, even those who are very capable, will find themselves just trying to keep their jobs instead of excelling or winning at their jobs. Bureaucrats won’t win the day, passion will. I realize this is a very cynical view of Israel’s government, but that doesn’t make it wrong.

      The Israelis should put aside some money, link together some experts who can provide data and information that can be gathered in one place, appoint a couple of young intelligence people to monitor what’s going on around the world and in cases where a group doesn’t rise up on its own, find somebody in affected localities who can get the ball rolling on a grass roots movement in that area. Then the Israelis should back off, other than being a resource if that group needs some information. That’s it.

      A person who grew up in Calgary, who lives in Calgary, who can energize some people to get together and fight back against those who attack Israel and who is independent of any politics or financing games or some bureaucratic supervisor in Israel will have far better results than anything Israel can provide. In fact, if that’s not how things are run, you can rest assured that Israel will lose more and more of these fights. What happened in Toronto with the film festival ended up as a wash for the pro-Palestinians, and not a victory, because people who were not connected to Israel got together to fight back.

  2. froylein

    2/15/2010 at 5:28 am

    We can only be called a “think tank” if we charge ridiculous amounts of money for each and any of our ideas. Thinking about it, we just need to re-brand ourselves.

    • themiddle

      2/15/2010 at 5:51 am

      We can only be called a “think tank” if we charge ridiculous amounts of money for each and any of our ideas.

      Froylein, who the hell is going to pay for my advice?

  3. Michael

    2/15/2010 at 5:58 am

    Dear Middle

    We basically agree, although from my continuing experience with Israeli officaldom your analysis their is incorrect.

    Bottom line: Get MFA etc to kick start, and encourage locals to take up the cause. Yes, fine:

    Unfortunately: Not enough in charge realise that (see what I wrote before) and less know how to go about it. That is what is sad and hurts

  4. froylein

    2/15/2010 at 10:39 am

    Froylein, who the hell is going to pay for my advice?

    Anyone who wants a better think tank than the one they previously used. We look better and are less socially awkward.

  5. DrMike

    2/15/2010 at 4:03 pm

    We’ve been operating in the San Francisco Bay Area pretty much according to that model, though we have not been doing any type of classes– speakers are usually brought in by other groups (ADL, JCRC, etc.). We have been focusing on street actions and also on publicizing what the other side is doing– and exposing their underlying ideology as not being “anti-occupation” but clearly and completely anti-Israel. Much of this is the subject of posts at http://www.bluetruth.net.

    Also recommended reading along the same lines: the grassroots Israel advocacy handbook at http://www.zionism-israel.com/Israel_advocacy.pdf.

  6. themiddle

    2/15/2010 at 5:27 pm

    Good stuff, DrMike. Thanks for the information.

  7. Calev Ben Dor

    2/17/2010 at 7:50 am

    Dear Jewlicious

    I am a member of the Reut team who wrote the report.

    The full report should be translated in the next few days (currently the executive summary can be found here http://reut-institute.org/en/Publication.aspx?PublicationId=3769. A presentation on the findings given at the Herzliya Conference can be found here http://reut-institute.org/en/Publication.aspx?PublicationId=3771)

    We haven’t studied the delegitimacy dynamic in Toronto, so can’t comment on how it works there. Within the hub we focused on, London, the main engine of delegitimacy we identified was a coalition of far left (reds) and Islamists (green) with a smattering of anti or post-Zionist Jews.

    We also write that each hub requires its own tailor made approach…what will work in Toronto is not the same as what will work in London – it is by no means one size fits all.

    Regarding the response – among other things, we actually talk about Israel cultivating its own network in order to fight against the network of the other side. In this context, there is no question that grass roots activism is essential (as you mentioned), as is the harnessing of an Informal Ambassadors Network which would primarily comprise business people, academics, Israelis abroad and artists, etc.

    Calev

    • themiddle

      2/17/2010 at 5:08 pm

      Calev, thank you for your response and you have my apologies for not having published it earlier today – I didn’t visit the administrative section of the site and didn’t know your comment was held up by our spam filter.

      Please read our post from earlier today to see why it’s a terrible idea to leave this in the hands of Israelis. Leave it out of the hands of any professionals who work for the government. Otherwise, Israel is going to lose this mini-war. The Israeli dream that if somebody would just wake up then Israeli “hasbara” would win the day is nothing more than fantasy.

      I will look at your links.

  8. Tom Morrissey

    2/18/2010 at 10:51 am

    A broad-based campaign to improve Israel’s image across the board is essential. Surely it’s important to counter misrepresentations, etc., from the other side. But the danger is that Israel is reduced to being defined by the conflict– the country becomes the conflict, in foreign eyes. It’s almost as if no one read or thought about Britain except in terms of the No. Irish troubles.

    As a news-avid kid, I remember the papers covering Mexico only when the PRI stole an election. And these days, sub-Saharan Africa gets reduced to famines and the riot in Conakry or Mugabe’s latest outrage. Sadly, Israel finds itself in a like position in foreign coverage. It will take a major rethink of the country’s relations with the outside world to change this.

  9. themiddle

    2/18/2010 at 12:03 pm

    Well, that is precisely what these groups like the ones we’ve seen in Toronto and at UCI are doing. They are forcing the debate on everybody by making any cultural or academic event into part of the conflict.

    I think the solution is to turn the tables on them. There’s enough brutality and absence of democracy in the Arab and Muslim countries that I think regular demonstrations against their repression might be necessary. I bet the MSU at UCI would cut down on their anti-Israel activities if they were busy explaining why chopping off the hands of people in Saudi Arabia is legitimate behavior.

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