NEW YORK – Listen to David Brog speak and based on his southern twang, you’d think he hails from the depths of the Bible Belt. In fact, he was born and raised in New Jersey. Knowing that the organization he directs, the Maccabees Task Force, is primarily funded by Sheldon Adelson, leads many to believe it will work only with those who share the casino tycoon’s deeply conservative political beliefs.
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But, Brog tells Haaretz, that isn’t right either.
“What we end up doing is going to be different than what some may assume about our funder. Mr. Adelson is the biggest funder to Birthright Israel but has not tried to create a ‘right-wing’ Birthright,” Brog said, referring to the free 10-day Israel trip offered to Jews between the ages of 18 and 26. “He allows it to focus on its mission in the most effective fashion, and we will be free to do the same.”
His organization is named after the Jewish warrior zealots who are celebrated during the Hanukkah holiday for overthrowing the Greco-Syrians ruling Judea in the 2nd century BCE and restoring Jerusalem to Jewish control.
Another goal for the Maccabees is “to go after and delegitimize the delegitimizers,” Brog told Haaretz. Referring to advocates of the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign, he said, “they’ve been given free reign for too long. We want to point out some of their hypocrisy and that their behavior indicates that Arab and Muslim human rights are not the real motivation. They seem to be motivated very often just by a hatred for Israel.”
The Maccabees Task Force, then called The Campus Maccabees, was announced last summer at a Las Vegas gathering to which a hand-picked group of representatives, many from right-wing organizations, was invited. At the June meeting TV personality Rabbi Shmuley Boteach was front-and-center as someone who spoke as a leader of the organization. He is no longer closely involved, said Brog.
When left-leaning Israeli-American billionaire Haim Saban withdrew from the Maccabees in late September, some said it was due to a right-wing tilt to the organization. Brog wouldn’t speak of Saban’s reasons for leaving, but said he had approved all the group’s plans while he was involved.
“We were sorry to see him go. He’s a good man and an important friend of Israel, but we’re going to do what we intended to do from Day One – go out and tell the truth about Israel very aggressively. People might predict something would change or try to read into it, but our plans remain 100 percent the same.” he said.
Soon after the June confab, Brog was hired away from Christians United for Israel, where for a decade he built the organization and worked as its executive director. The Maccabees, with initial reported funding of $20 million, is currently hiring staff, creating a website and will shortly send out checks to its first beneficiaries, he told Haaretz.
Its goal is to enable groups already doing effective anti-BDS work to focus “on what they do best, so they can spend less time fund raising. We’re also going to stress cooperation between the pro-Israel activists,” Brog said.
Today’s Maccabees, unlike their namesakes of old, are doing market research to learn which pro-Israel messaging is most effective with college students. Two weeks ago it ran its first focus groups. A total of seven have been conducted so far, on college campuses in Los Angeles, Austin, Texas and Boston.
No ideological baggage
It will start, at the beginning of 2016, with a focus on two areas: countering BDS through legal work and student-focused campus activism. Beyond saying “it’s the usual suspects,” Brog declined to specify which organizations will get money to advance their work.
“We’re not coming to this with any ideological blinders on, but want to communicate what most resonates. We’re not bringing any suppositions or ideological baggage to the table,” Brog said. “We’re trying to really be a camp for all of those in the mainstream of the pro-Israel community. Right now we don’t intend to take positions that divide the pro-Israel community. We do intend to point out the facts that are relevant. Whether you support or oppose withdrawal from Judea and Samaria today, it’s valuable to mention that Israel withdrew from Gaza,” he said, noting that the result was the terror group Hamas being elected into power.
Asked if, in service of the Maccabees’ professed ecumenicism, a J Street U chapter might receive funding for its work fighting BDS, Brog said no. There are only two groups that the Maccabees won’t work with: Jewish Voice for Peace and J Street U, he said. Anyone else, even if they, unlike Adelson, are ardent proponents of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, “would be fine.”
“I’ve heard from a lot of folks that on certain campuses J Street U has been helpful defeating BDS. But right now it’s not within our plans to work with them, largely because of discomfort with what the parent organization tends to do on a day-to-day basis.” Namely, criticize elected Israeli officials, particularly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is favored by Adelson.
“There are a lot of groups out there criticizing Israel, placing blame on Israel’s shoulders. Another organization doing that is not needed,” Brog said. “It’s a shame. What we need is a pro-Israel organization making the progressive case for Israel to the progressive community in progressive language. I had hopes that they would be that.”
J Street U President Amna Farooqi, who is Muslim, said “while we’re glad to hear that David Brog and the Maccabee Task Force have come around to recognizing the need to reach out to progressive students, we’ll chalk their rejection of J Street U up to further proof that they just don’t get it.”
Working with students like those who affiliate with J Street U “would require them to understand these students’ concerns about the danger Israel and the region face in the absence of a two-state solution. Comments like those of Maccabee mega-funder Sheldon Adelson that Palestinians are a ‘made-up people’ have the opposite effect of pushing progressive students away from identifying as pro-Israel,” she said.
“Unless and until the Maccabees find a way to meaningfully address the root causes of Israel’s increasing international isolation – namely the persistent conflict and the occupation to which it gives rise – all the PR and all the talking points money can buy will prove an ineffective defense against BDS on campus.”
Brog rejected the idea that the Maccabees will only be preaching to those who agree with Adelson’s vision for Israel. “We won’t have any litmus tests when it comes to those issues that divide the mainstream pro-Israel community,” he said.
Those who win support from the Maccabee Task Force will be invited to a meeting in Las Vegas in January, said Brog, who told Haaretz that the meeting of 100 to 120 people will be closed to the media.
He demurred when asked about The Maccabee’s current budget, but said “$20 million is a ballpark ... as we identify opportunities to move the dial, the sky’s the limit as far as how much we can invest in our partners.”