Organizers of a new, multimillion-dollar initiative to fight anti-Israel campaigns are looking at the response to an attempted boycott of last year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) for inspiration.
The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) are launching the initiative, called the Israel Action Network.
When TIFF organizers decided to focus on filmmakers from Tel Aviv, more than 1,000 prominent actors and filmmakers signed a statement saying that the organizers had become part of Israel’s propaganda machine, and they threatened to boycott the event. In response, UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles worked together to come up with a counter-statement supporting the festival. That statement was signed by even more prominent Hollywood figures, including Jerry Seinfeld, Natalie Portman, Sacha Baron Cohen, Lisa Kudrow, Jason Alexander and Lenny Kravitz.
“The partnership started last year around the Toronto International Film Festival,” said Ted Sokolsky, president of the Toronto federation. “We jointly produced an ad saying that we don’t need another blacklist.”
Sokolsky went on to say, “I spoke to Jay [Sanderson, the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles] and said, ‘Here, there are a lot of prominent Hollywood types on the delegitimization protest. Can you reach out to the Hollywood community and find some pro-Israel leadership?’ He reached out to some key leadership in Hollywood. And it was like waking up a sleeping giant. Then we realized we can’t all fight this alone.”
He added that it was “a great lesson, and set a template on how to respond because, clearly, the other side is running a linked campaign with international funding and global strategy but local implementation.”
Howard English, UJA Federation’s vice-president of strategic communications and a member of an advisory committee for the new initiative, told The CJN that one of the most important functions of the network will be the ability to connect communities with each other for support and advice to help them deal with delegitimization.
“The federation is uniquely equipped to deal with that, because it’s based on a donor model… and on community governance,” said English. “To my knowledge, there is no other network that is fulfilling that particular role.”
In Canada, the federations will work closely with the Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy, Canadian Jewish Congress and the Canada-Israel Committee, English said. The work of those national advocacy organizations is “quite complementary to the work being done at the community and federation level,” he added.
JFNA and the rest of the Jewish federation system have agreed to invest $6 million in the new network over the next three years. The federations will work in conjunction with JCPA, an umbrella organization that brings together local Jewish community relations councils across North America.
The network is expected to serve as a rapid-response team charged with countering the growing campaign to isolate Israel as a rogue state akin to apartheid-era South Africa – a campaign that the Israeli government and Jewish groups see as an existential threat to the Jewish state. In fighting back against anti-Israel forces, the network will seek to capitalize on the reach of North America’s 157 federations, 125 local Jewish community relations councils and nearly 400 communities under the federation system.
“There is a very, very high sense of urgency in [fighting] the delegitimizing of the State of Israel,” JFNA president and CEO Jerry Silverman said.
In fact, Silverman added, Israeli leaders identify this as the second most dangerous threat to Israel, after Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Under a plan approved in late September, JCPA’s senior vice-president, Martin Raffel, will oversee the new network, working in concert with the head of JFNA’s Washington office, William Daroff. Over the next several months, Raffel will be putting together his team, including six people in New York, one in Israel and one in Washington.
The network will monitor the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement worldwide and create a strategic plan to counter delegitimization wherever it crops up. It will work with local federations and community relations councils to enlist the help of key leaders at churches, labour unions and cultural institutions to fight anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns.
“If the community in Chattanooga all of a sudden is faced with [a boycott of] Israeli products in the mall, they should be able to call the [Israel] Action Network and have response and implementation within 12 hours, and not spend time thinking about how to do it,” he said. “We should be able to do that in every community.”
The Jewish federations have agreed to give JFNA $1.6 million to fund the project fully in its first year. In the two subsequent years, the federations will split the cost 50-50 with JFNA.
“Israel’s government has been advocating for this, especially over the past six or eight months,” Silverman said. “It has been in dialogue within our federation movement for a while, especially following the Toronto incident and… divestment movements in the Protestant and Presbyterian churches. This idea was born out of the large city executives meeting that said, ‘It is time. And time is running out.’”
Silverman said he expects the Israel Action Network to be fully staffed and up and running by Jan. 1.
“We’re very excited about the establishment of this network,” English said.
With files from Frances Kraft