A standing-room-only audience of about 325 helped inaugurate a community-wide campaign meant to counter efforts to delegitimize Israel.
Sunday’s Advocacy Summit in Whippany featured panels and workshops on media monitoring, political activism, and responding to assaults on Israel’s legitimacy.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) addressed the audience at the Aidekman Jewish Community Campus, recapping his own pro-Israel record and urging attendees to “stand up for Israel” at work, in schools, and on college campuses.
“It is in the national interest and the security interests of the United States to have a strong, unwavering relationship with the State of Israel,” said Menendez.
Menendez earned a standing ovation from a boisterous crowd that seemed hungry for ways to defend Israel.
The nearly seven-hour event served as the public launch of Step Up For Israel, a combined effort of the Community Relations Committee of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ and the Jewish Federation of Central NJ and the NJ region of the American Jewish Committee.
A centerpiece of the campaign is a five-part series of films about Israel being made available to local synagogues and Jewish institutions. Some 30 local synagogues have already offered to host the screenings, said Eliot Mathias, executive director of the Hasbara Fellowships and Step Up For Israel CRC chair.
The effort also includes a website, campaignfortruth.info, featuring background information on Israel and videos.
In the past year, the Jewish Federations of North America and its affiliated federations have agreed to invest millions to counter those who campaign to isolate Israel as a rogue state akin to apartheid-era South Africa, boycott its goods and academic community, and/or single it out for criticism in world forums like the United Nations.
Sarit Catz, the CRC’s Israel Advocacy chair, called the effort an “ongoing battle for the survival of Israel.”
The silent majority
Sunday’s panels and workshops emphasized effective techniques for stating Israel’s case.
“It is important not to be seen as anti-Palestinian; we are pro-Israel,” said Lorna Fitzsimons, CEO of BICOM, the Britain Israel Communications & Research Centre, and a former member of the British Parliament.
Sharon Goldman, Northeast region political director for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, cautioned against aggressively confronting politicians who don’t vote for legislation considered pro-Israel.
She said AIPAC views members of Congress as friends and “potential friends.”
“We do tend to frame things in a positive way,” said Goldman. “If we spend our time saying, ‘This member of Congress is bad,’ we would get nowhere.”
A few audience members lamented the relative lack of young people at the event. One of the few attendees who were college-age or younger was Elizabeth Gooen, 17, a student at Randolph High School.
Gooen, who attended both the Bohrer-Kaufman Hebrew Academy of Morris County and the former Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union, said she advocates for Israel in the halls of her current school “all the time.”
“In school, kids wonder why you care, or if this means I would pick Israel over this country,” said Gooen, who attended AIPAC’s annual policy conference in Washington last May. “Even Jewish kids ask why I care.”
Gooen agreed with a number of panelists who said the target of pro-Israel advocacy should not be the perhaps 25 percent of Americans who consider themselves pro-Israel, or the 10 percent who are strictly pro-Palestinian, but the silent majority that remains undecided or apathetic.
“It’s better to talk to kids who haven’t made up their minds,” she said.