There are things that hardly change from GA to GA - the talk of the financial strains, the annual call of the Federations leaders to engage the young people, the speeches of the engaged exemplary youths, some emotional reminders of the projects that need some fundraising, such as the Ethiopian aliya (this year - photo exhibition), many familiar faces - and the inevitable panels about the threats to Israel (the focus might shift from the Arab spring to Iran and vice versa, but the idea is still the same - it's a troubled neighborhood). There is a young - and quite passionate presence of the campus Jewish activists, but the feeling is still much more diversity is needed.
The thing that is particularly refreshing this year is the surge in the online activity of the conference participants. Ahead of the GA, special smart phone application was made - with schedule, directions, updates and other useful information, - and some of the participants produced in several days tens of thousands of tweets and Facebook updates.
One of the leading twitterati of the US Jewish community is William Daroff, the Vice President for Public Policy and Director of the Washington Office of The Jewish Federations of North America. With over 24000 tweets and over 10000 followers, he has some advice for those who still hesitate about the new media.
"I'd say - if you are interested in getting involved with the new media, start today, don't wait for the ideal conditions", he tells "Haaretz" in between the GA panels, without giving up his simultaneous Blackberry updates. "When you see a tidbit that is interesting, when you see a fact that is interesting - and you put it out in the twittersphere - it's a way really to push the pro-Israeli message forward. And if you wait until the perfect moment and syntax - you'll wait forever. You can always apologize for a tweet, you can make a mistake. But it's about a conversation, not only doing sort of news releases, it's about talking with people".
- From what you see, do the Jewish activists from what you see actually engage with those who think differently, or it's mostly virtual mingling with like minds?
"They do. There is engagement and discussion. There is yelling and screaming in social media too, but there are discussions about facts too".
Besides the new media, JFNA's new initiative, "Israel Action network" staff prepared for this year's GA elaborate workbook, aimed to help the Jewish communities to fight deligitimization of Israel more effectively. Several pages of the brochure are dedicated to the tips on various topics - from identifying the target audience to taking an inventory of their assets that might help them. The other pages contain a strategic checklist with actual planning, work progress and analyzing results, with blank space left for various tasks - from identifying the opposition and its strengths and weak spots to clarifying the system of alerts for the activists, messages for non-Jewish press, et cetera.
"The idea behind Israel Action network is that the network of deligitimizers is connected and communicates and they see what works on one campus and move it to another campus", William Daroff says. "And we wanted to connect the communities that are dealing with deligitimization so they talk to each other, so that when there is a film festival boycott because of the Israeli films, they can talk to us and our colleagues in Toronto who might have had this experience, and assess what their options are in moving forward. And the bottom line is pro-Israel national continental figures in New York and Washington won't know what's best for you in Atlanta and Miami, but what we can do, is present you with different options. Sometimes it's better to ignore the deligitimizing activity, sometimes it's to counter-protest, sometimes it's the counter program. it gives people on the ground information and knowledge and option, rather than spending hundred of hours how to get making the decision we can fast-forward it to the point where they make these decisions. Here is what Chicago did or Toronto did, you can check how their reality fit with yours. Say, in our community there might be once a year Israel apartheid week, but other than that no one pays attention to that. So do I want to bring more attention to them by having loud demonstration or should I ignore them? Or maybe every year they are getting bigger and bigger, and if people in my community feel there is no response, so each community is making different decisions, and this document goal is to help the communities to map out ahead of time what their situation on the ground looks like".
- Is there any specific source of this deligitimization you are talking about?
"There is no one specific Dr. Evil sitting behind the controls. What's clear, there is a network. They are in communication with each other, and we are see the same tactics used by one group popping up in another community across the world. There is a red-green alliance between the islamists and the leftists, certainly there is no total agreement among all of them, but there is philosophically an idea that they want slowly but surely waddle away at Israel's position as a sovereign legitimate state. They want people when they think about Israel to think about apartheid. To think about suspension of civil rights. It's baby steps but whether you see Israeli food taken off the shelves at the supermarket or whether it's the Palestinian Authority attempting to take Israel out of the equation of negotiating the final status with Israel".
- Is there something that actually works?
"I think knowledge and information are important. People who are making the decisions on the local level need to be knowledgeable on Israel and what the deligitimizers are looking at in order to map out the path that both we should take and the other side is taking. It's ensuring that timely information is dispersed on the ground - like the video from the flotilla showing the passengers of Mavi Marmara attacking soldiers with metal rods and knives, that was disseminated quickly and helped to combat the narrative that Israeli commandos ambushed peaceful activists. It's really the name of the game in this 24 hours news cycle. We have been in consultation with Israeli officials, but there is no approval process. It's a discussion".
- Who are the people that are supposed to use it?
"It starts with the community leadership, those who are engaged, but it could be the college kid in Hilel or the mom in the PTA - we need to be on the ground, the idea is to empower the pro-Israel activists in each community to combat the assault on Israel's legitimacy. We are doing consultations with Jewish community leaders and activists across America, to talk about the tactics, the strategy - what are these deligitimizers looking for".
Over one third of the topics discussed at the GA this year turned to Israel - and an impressive number of Israeli diplomats came to Denver to discuss these issues.
Ido Aharoni, the Israeli Consul General in New-York, argued that Israel made a mistake defining itself in terms of the conflict for the rest of the world. To support his argument, he presented a new research conducted by "Young & Rubicam" that showed that there is an improvement in Israel's image in the US in several spheres, related to it's scientific research, its diverse culture - and it actually makes Israel more attractive to the people who are quite tired of hearing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"The message is very simple", he told "Haaretz" after his presentation at the GA. "The goal was to explain the Jewish world professionals, how important it is to change the narrative. The current narrative does not serve Israel's interests. It focuses only on Israel's troubles, it barely speaks about its advantages and achievements. We defined ourselves to the world in terms of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict - and shoot ourselves in the leg. This research shows that when you are communicating with the world through your advantages - the world is interested in it. There is a different way for Israel to communicate with the world".
- People will say, how is it possible to ignore the conflict.
"You can't ignore it, it's part of our lives. But the new narrative calls to talk about what we are good at. It's no more an attempt to "sell" Israel from an emotional perspective. It's very practical - we talk culture, we talk science, we talk diversity. We checked what the world is interested in related to Israel and discovered that the conflict is not that interesting for people, except for some small groups".
Aharoni says the research discovered that in the last 3 years there was an improvement in Israel's image in the US in three spheres: 20% improvement in perceiving Israel as a modern, western, progressive country. 16% improvement in seeing Israel as a country that cares about the rest of the world (mainly due to the exposure of its humanitarian assistance to other countries), and 14% improvement in seeing Israel as a country with high performance abilities.
"the Internet changes the narrative. When you have thousands of young people going to Israel and posting hundreds of pictures each at the social media - it brings the real Israel. There are things that help to stress that point, like the "Start-up nation" book".
-The image of Israel in the US is mainly positive anyway. What are the chances this approach might work in other places?"It might encounter more resistance in Europe, but in Asia, for example, this conflict is not something that is of great interest for people. But they are interested in science, in culture. Trying to promote pro-Israeli messages related to the conflict will only create resistance - why do you impose your problems? Come to me with something I am interested in".
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