In the eyes of many, Israel advocacy has never been more important than it is today.
The photo projected on the screen was stark: The face of a Palestinian boy, right in the cross hairs of a rifle pointed by an Israeli Defense Forces soldier.
The audience at the University of Pennsylvania’s Hillel building was quickly told by the speaker that the soldier did not pull the trigger. The image illustrated the kind of life-and-death decisions that IDF members serving in the West Bank face every day, several sources who were present said they were told.
The March 28 presentation at Steinhardt Hall was made by Oded Na’aman, a member of Breaking the Silence, a group of IDF veterans who are critical of Israeli control of the West Bank and, according to its website, seeks to stir “public debate about the price paid for a reality in which young soldiers face a civilian population on a daily basis.”
Prior to the lecture, which was sponsored by J Street’s student chapter at Penn, a sharp debate took place among members of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia’s board as well as by the Penn Hillel board about whether to allow the event to proceed.
In a recent Jewish Press column, former Greater Philadelphia Hillel board member Lori Lowenthal Marcus wrote that Hillel had been “hoodwinked” into “allowing a political opportunist to add to the festering cesspool of anti-Israel invective in the very building created as a safe haven for Jews.”
But in the end, the program wasn’t that controversial, said people from across the political spectrum who attended. (The event was closed to the media.)
Still, the fact that a group that pushed for war crimes charges against Israel following Operation Cast Lead — the 2008-09 incursion into Gaza — was given a platform by Hillel rankled some board members. It even prompted a statement of explanation from Hillel.
Three years after Hillel of Greater Philadelphia adopted specific guidelines to determine which Israel-related speakers were appropriate for the group’s imprimatur, making such determinations can still prove to be an inexact, difficult and sometimes agonizing undertaking.
The recent Hillel flap came as the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia is trying to adopt its own guidelines for co-sponsoring and funding communal programs. Those guidelines, which have not yet been approved, have been recommended by Federation’s new Israel Advocacy Committee, whose members are hoping to create a robust regional advocacy and educational initiative.
Arlene Fickler, a veteran Jewish communal leader tasked with chairing Federation’s committee, said she’s hopeful that “people with diverse perspectives will bring the broadest level of conversation to the community. Our objective is to encourage Israel engagement by the broader Jewish community.”
In the eyes of many, Israel advocacy has never been more important than it is today. The Jewish state faces a potentially existential threat from Iran, guards against increasingly volatile neighbors and confronts ongoing terror threats from Hamas and Hezbollah. The country also contends with international efforts to isolate and delegitimize its existence through boycotts and other means.
At the same time, repeated studies show that today’s Jewish youth feel less attached to Israel than their parents or grandparents — and, by extension, less likely to engage in Israel advocacy.
Jewish organizations like Federation and Hillel feel compelled — and often face pressure from donors — to use their resources to actively address this situation.
John Cohn, a physician who serves on Hillel’s board as well as the Federation’s committee, said, “There aren’t that many of us. We need to try and get together and get along. The number of people who want to destroy us is greater than the number of people who are on our side.”
Burt Siegel, a former director of the Jewish Community Relations Council who now also sits on Federation’s advocacy committee, said consensus on Israel has been nearly impossible to reach for the last few decades and that has sometimes paralyzed communal decision-making. He is hopeful, but not necessarily optimistic, that this latest effort can spur more nuanced and civil dialogue.
“You are not allowed to write people out of this Jewish community,” said Siegel. “I will be happy to talk to you about Israel as long as you believe there should be a Jewish state of Israel.”
In recent years, preoccupation with the question of who is accepted into the tent and who isn’t — perhaps best encapsulated by the rocky reception of the left-leaning group, J Street — has complicated advocacy efforts, especially when it comes to public forums.
“We are really having a conversation that we have had many times before,” said Ann Lebowitz, a former Hillel of Greater Philadelphia president and current board member, who has long argued that students and community members can benefit from being exposed to multiple points of view, with certain limitations. “Is reasoned civil discourse a bad thing? For me, the obvious answer is ‘no.’ ”
When it comes to Israel advocacy, there is a definite sense of “the-more-things-change, the-more-they-stay-the-same.” Breaking the Silence, for instance, appeared at Penn five years ago, spurring a similar debate.
And the formation of Federation’s new committee last year came on the heels of the collapse of its Israel Advocacy Coalition. That effort had an auspicious launch in 2011, including a video address from Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren. But by 2012, it had fallen victim to inertia, personnel changes — and, to a lesser extent, ideological fractiousness, say several individuals who were involved in the effort.
Old left-right disputes surfaced during a recent debate over whether Federation should co-sponsor an April 23 address, backed by Aish Philadelphia, with Frank Gaffney and Daniel Pipes, two thinkers on the right of the political spectrum.
Ultimately, Federation decided not to sponsor the event because it wasn’t balanced, according to several sources. But the organization is supporting a corresponding teen workshop earlier in the day in which college students will address high school students about the Israel debate on campus.
Lee Bender, an Israel advocacy committee member who is co-president of the Greater Philadelphia District of the Zionist Organization of America, was among those who argued that Federation should have sponsored the Gaffney-Pipes event.
“Not every program has to be balanced in and of itself,” Bender said, arguing that such balance could come over the course of, say, a year. “Too pro-Israel? What is wrong with this? Are we supposed to get someone who is against U.S. security?”
Of course, not every Israel-related program is controversial. Federation’s annual Israel Independence Day celebration, for instance — taking place this year on May 19 — is a large-scale event with widespread participation and little hand-wringing. And just this week, Federation and Penn each hosted Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident and now Jewish Agency for Israel chairman who is seen as one of Israel’s most effective ambassadors in the wider world.
Hillel of Greater Philadelphia established its own guidelines three years ago, following controversy over several speakers in Hillel venues at Temple University and Penn, most prominently an event at Steinhardt Hall featuring Jeremy Ben-Ami, the founder of J Street.
The guidelines state that “Hillel is inclined not to support individuals or organizations with consistent, demonstrated patterns of incivility. Hillel also is inclined not to support individuals or organizations whose purpose is to advocate actions (such as boycotts, divestment, sanctions and judicial actions) intended to harm Israel” or Jewish institutions.
In the three years since, the Breaking the Silence presentation was the first to require a Hillel board vote. While the sponsoring organization, J Street, is largely considered inside the tent of both Hillel and Federation, there were questions about Breaking the Silence, which reportedly receives some of its funding from backers of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, known as BDS. Ultimately, an agreement was reached in which the speaker pledged to refrain from incendiary language concerning Israel. The event drew some 55 students.
Rabbi Howard Alpert, who directs Hillel of Greater Philadelphia and sits on Federation’s Israel committee, said that “just as there are many different ways to express oneself as a Jew, there are also different ways to express oneself as a lover of Israel. We need to allow for a diversity of pro-Israel expression and encourage Jews and others to find their voice within that spectrum.”
It is rarely the large-scale events that make the biggest impact on a student’s thinking, said Alpert. This past summer, Hillel staff helped draft a plan for how to respond on campus in the event of a military conflict involving Israel and Iran.
In November, when Israel responded to rocket fire from Gaza with Operation Pillar of Defense, Hillel put that plan into place on a small scale. It entailed nightly updates on the situation presented by Navi Dromi, the Jewish Agency’s emissary on campus. And it also involved organizing informal student discussions, similar to the ones that took place a year ago in response to the first national BDS conference at Penn.
“We are focusing not on defending Israel, but on being proactive,” said Dromi, who spearheaded Sharansky’s visit to Penn on Tuesday, when he met with Jewish students and campus leaders.
Speaking to Federation donors earlier in the day, Sharansky called U.S. college campuses the most important “battlefield” in the fight for Israel’s image. Touting the Jewish Agency fellow program that sends emissaries like Dromi to educate Jews about Israel, he said: “We are trying to create an atmosphere where Jews” will see “Israel as a source of pride, not shame.”
Dromi said that Sharansky’s visit can give “students the motivation to continue to work around Israel. I hope he will give them the feeling that they are part of something big.”