Strength in Numbersby Alanna Berman April 29, 2011
One year ago this month, the Gaza flotilla raid — a military operation by Israel to keep six Turkish ships from breaking its naval blockade of the Gaza Strip — sparked international outrage against Israel, and a worldwide debate over Israel’s right (or not) to defend itself.
Days later, a group of about 50 concerned San Diegans met at a Carmel Valley home to discuss what could be done to improve Israel’s public image in San Diego. Its image, due to the flotilla incident and anti-Israel activities on local college campuses, was quickly becoming synonymous with oppression, occupation and aggression in some circles.
The San Diego Israel Coalition was born that night, representing the very grassroots, very informal beginning of an organized effort to bring San Diego’s pro-Israel groups together for discussion and planning about how to counteract the situation and peacefully advocate for Israel. The individuals involved shared the belief that they could accomplish more together.
J.J. Surbeck, who founded his group, Training and Education About the Middle East (TEAM) nearly four years ago, was called in that night to give background on the flotilla incident, explain what had happened and give options for how to respond to those who questioned the Israel Defense Force’s actions to defend Israel, which resulted in the deaths of nine activists when they violently resisted detention.
“[Toward the end of the night] someone said there was going to be an anti-Israel rally at the federal building [the next day],” recalls Audrey Jacobs, co-chair of the San Diego Israel Coalition with Michael Lurie. “We stood up and said we would organize a counter rally. We worked through the night, and by 5 p.m. the next day we had 150 people of all ages there to counter [the Anti-Israel speech].”
By the end of the first day, two groups had already brought their respective strengths together to make a difference. Jacobs, Surbeck and pro-Israel activists throughout San Diego were able to call attention to a much larger issue facing San Diegans, as our city had quickly become a hot bed for anti-Israel sentiment and activity.
The pro-Israel rally drew more than just supporters of Israel, though. Local television stations and the San Diego Union-Tribune took note of the large pro-Israel side in contrast to the smaller, seemingly less organized pro-Palestinian turnout. Since then, all facets of the community with some interest in defending Israel against misinformed criticism have been motivated to participate in the movement, putting their individual efforts behind the collective cause.
“Once you have all the key facts, you hear these arguments [from the other side] and are able to stand up for yourself and [Israel],” Surbeck says of the importance of education when it comes to combating the Palestinian message of occupation, imprisonment and brutality.
Today, Surbeck and Jacobs play key roles in de-legitimizing the Palestinian narrative. Representing their respective organizations, both are members of the Jewish Federation of San Diego County’s newly established Israel Advocacy Leadership Forum, a joint venture of the Federation’s Israel and Overseas Center and its Jewish Community Relations Council.
The Israel and Overseas Center, a long-standing office within the Federation, is responsible for teen and Taglit Birthright trips to Israel, other Israel travel and scholarships, San Diego’s sister city Sha’ar HaNegev, and the community shlicha.
The Council, directed by Linda Feldman, began last August, and though Israel advocacy is part of its mission, its scope also reaches to Holocaust remembrance and education, interfaith and intergroup dialogue and keeping Jewish issues on the radar of lawmakers, media and other groups.
The Forum began a few months later, and since then has united representatives from many like-minded local groups with unique skill sets and knowledge bases. Each month, they work to reactively address some issues and proactively strategize advocacy approaches for the future.
Besides TEAM and the San Diego Israel Coalition, other Forum members include the Anti-Defamation League, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Tarbuton, House of Israel in Balboa Park, the Agency for Jewish Education, the Federation’s own Israel and Overseas Center, and Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, to name just a few.
“These organizations do very specific work, but they are each separate,” Feldman says. “They may partner together [for specific] projects, but not on a regular basis, which is what we aim to do at the Forum.”
Adds Jacobs of the work the Forum and its members are doing, “On an ongoing basis, we’re bringing together the entire Jewish community of all ages, from young children to students in high school and college, young adults and older adults of all different levels of observance, uniting for Israel.”
Additionally, the Forum provides its members with a safe space to address often-challenging issues. When any of its member groups experience problems in their sphere of influence, their representatives can bring the issues to people who can offer solutions and ideas, Feldman says. The Federation, in fact, created the Forum late last year to address this growing, increasingly obvious need to address challenges related to Israel advocacy in a more organized environment with like-minded colleagues, she adds.
“Whether it was something happening in Israel, whether it was a speaker we wanted to promote or were concerned about, or whether we needed to support our campuses and provide information,” Feldman says, “there was a need to have a safe place to convene people to really talk about what was on their minds, what they were concerned about and also to begin to really develop a proactive strategy to engage the community about Israel advocacy.”
Though the strategy’s effectiveness is hard to measure quantitatively, merely uniting such a variety of groups for the benefit of more effective and present advocacy has already strengthened their message.
“San Diego may be at the forefront of a completely new model of developing Israel advocacy work on a community-wide basis,” Surbeck says of the positive work already being done in the Forum.
In addition, university student organizations like Hillel and the Jewish Student Union are active in the Forum as well. These groups, who witness anti-Israel bias all too frequently, are on the front lines of the crisis, fighting a daily battle to counteract the messages of apartheid and occupation other students are working so hard to promulgate.
“There is a nebula of pro-Palestinian organizations — Students for Justice in Palestine, the Right of Return Movement and the Muslim Student Association, among others, that are more anti-Israel than they are pro-Palestinian,” Surbeck says. “These organizations use the same template on each college campus and are united on tactics, message and goals; so [to properly counter their message] we need to work together.”
In fact, “Palestinian Awareness Week” is not a new phenomenon at UCSD, which last year was host to the now infamous “Israel Apartheid Wall.” The wall has traveled to campuses nationwide to support claims that the security fence separating part of the Gaza Strip from Israel is equivalent to modern-day apartheid.
Daniel Friedman, a junior at UCSD, president of the Union of Jewish Students and vice president of the student group Tritons for Israel, says that in the past students have responded to the Palestinian message by countering it with facts about Israel’s positive achievements and drawing attention to injustices by Hamas and other terrorist groups.
This year, however, Forum members have given their expertise, time and resources to students who have been planning for the Apartheid Wall’s return to UCSD the week of May 9.
“Last year, we had four or five spots on library walk for tabling, and this year, we’ve reserved half of the space for tall, free-standing structures that talk about the issues and the side of Israel we don’t hear [to counter the other half of the student walkway reserved for the Apartheid Wall and pro-Palestinian groups],” Friedman says.
Large display cases, usually reserved for advertising, will feature pro-Israel messages, and classroom space will be inundated with literature about Israel’s right to defend itself. Tritons for Israel has also scheduled several speakers to provide an alternate narrative during the evenings. According to Friedman, Hillel at SDSU (which for the first time last year was visited by the Apartheid Wall) has lent its support, as have TEAM and the San Diego Israel Coalition, in providing the information and handouts for the week’s events.
“It’s really a fight on very different fronts,” Friedman says, “although I think we have a lot of the different arenas covered.”
Other Forum members have made strides in Israel Advocacy at UCSD as well. Last month, the local chapter of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East took out a one-page ad in UCSD’s student-run newspaper, The Guardian, after editors refused to run an editorial calling for an end to Palestinian propaganda on campus once and for all. Written by Professor David Feifel of the university’s Department of Psychology, the editorial was endorsed and signed by 27 faculty members before the San Diego Israel Coalition helped them purchase the advertisement.
“The rhetoric and the level of propaganda on our campuses is mind-boggling,” Jacobs says of the reason her group’s decided to back Scholars for Peace in the Middle East’s efforts and Tritons for Israel’s reaction to Palestinian Awareness Week at UCSD.
But it’s not just larger campuses that are faced with anti-Israel sentiment. Cal State San Marcos is the latest San Diego university to enlist the help of Forum members in its effort to advocate for Israel.
Following a campus lecture where audience members publicly criticized Israel and called for a Right of Return event to be sponsored on campus, Maya Lifton, a senior at CSUSM, filled out the paperwork to make Cougars for Israel an official student group.
With only two months since Cougars for Israel’s inception, Lifton has invited Surbeck to speak about the history of Israel to students at Hillel this semester, and next semester he will return to speak to a larger group on campus.
And while Lifton is exceptional in her conviction and support of Israel, there is always power in numbers. Community-wide cooperation through the Forum is vital to the success of Israel advocacy and has already been put to good use by connecting organization representatives with other groups who could benefit from the collaboration.
“We are joined together as a community to rally for Israel, to support everyone’s efforts and to collaborate where we can,” Jacobs says.
Giving the community a way to come together about Israel advocacy, Feldman adds, is the main goal of the Israel Advocacy Leadership Forum, which is already off to a solid start.
For more information on the Israel Advocacy Leadership Forum, visit www.jewishinsandiego.org.
To be added to the TEAM email list, go to www.sandiegoteam.org
For additional information on upcoming Pro-Israel events, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Latest Battle: BDS
The broader call for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel-made goods and those companies that do business with Israel has returned to UCSD. Last year, students there prevented a proposal for it from taking effect. The movement has spread to colleges nationwide as of late. Here’s what you need to know:
The global movement for a campaign of Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it “complies with international law and Palestinian rights” was initiated by Palestinian civil society in 2005.
Boycotts target products and companies (Israeli and international) that profit from business with Israel. Campaigners and groups call on consumers not to buy Israeli goods and on businesses not to buy or sell them.
Divestment targets corporations that do business with Israel or Israeli companies and discourages investment in or financing of these companies.
Sanctions against Israel call for campaigners to spread their beliefs about Israel’s relationship with Palestinians in an effort to end complicity of other nations who currently cooperate with Israel in various forums.
What has been done: At the start of the year, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs unanimously passed a resolution denouncing boycott, divestment and sanctions activities — reflecting a rare consensus among mainstream Jewish organizations.
What you can do: Buy Israeli goods and support Israeli companies. The more you do, the less the BDS movement has a chance of succeeding. In response to the boycotts, many organizations have initiated “buy-cotts,” calling for their members to come out in force to buy Israeli goods.
For more: Stand With Us has opened a new Web site, www.standwithus.com/divestment. The site offers support and information on how you can help combat the BDS movement.