Last November, pro-Palestinian student groups at Princeton University and DePaul University in Chicago called for a boycott of Sabra-brand hummus because the company that manufactures it sends care packages to soldiers in the Israeli army. The boycott was voted down at Princeton but, at DePaul, a Catholic university where the move was not put to a vote, administrators temporarily removed the product from campus dining halls.
Sabra hummus was quickly made available after officials determined that removing it might be in violation of university policy regarding fair business practices, but the damage was already done, according to Martin J. Raffel, senior vice president of the Jewish Council of Public Affairs.
“The attempt to ban hummus from college campuses, as minor as it may appear, is just one example of the latest attempt to ‘delegitimize’ the State of Israel,” said Raffel. He spoke at the Major Gifts Event of the Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks on May 1. About 30 people attended the reception at the Princeton home of federation president Lisa Smukler and her husband, Andy.
In his opening remarks federation campaign vice president and incoming president Mark Merkovitz of West Windsor thanked “the pillars of the campaign” for their ongoing support; donations from major givers are responsible for about 60 percent of the federation’s annual campaign.
Raffel described the movement to delegitimize Israel as “a loosely coordinated effort targeted at civil society arenas to paint Israel as a rogue state,” by making false comparisons likening Israel to “South Africa during the days of apartheid” and urging boycotts, divestments, and sanctions.
These anti-Israel actions, said Raffel, who is director of JCPA’s Task Force on Israel, World Jewry, and International Human Rights, are being promoted “by a small number of malevolent people who are preying on those who are uninformed about the complex issues of the Middle East,” Raffel said. He cited examples of entertainers supporting the BDS movement, like Elvis Costello, who in 2010 canceled two concerts in Israel. Raffel also lauded performers who refuse to cave in to the demands to boycott Israel, like Justin Bieber, who gave a concert there this year. Other efforts against Israel included persuading stevedores in San Francisco to refuse to unload cargo from Israeli ships. Resolutions to punish Israel for its policies are even sent to churches.
‘A complex issue’
Raffel said it is important to note the difference between a “delegitimizer” and a critic. “The ‘delegitimizer’ wants one state, which of course would do away with the Jewish state; the critic disagrees with Israeli policies, but is in favor of two states.”
Raffel said that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu considers this issue a threat second only to Iran’s obtaining nuclear weapons. “Israel needs to protect itself from rockets and missiles fired from Gaza and from Lebanon. If the world is convinced that Israeli policies are akin to those of South Africa, then their defenses could come into question and might ultimately be declared illegitimate,” said Raffel.
Unlike in Western Europe, where calls for boycotts of Israel are on the rise, the Jewish state still enjoys overwhelming support in the United States and Canada, said Raffel. There is, however, concern that the number of people here who do not support either side in the Arab-Israeli conflict is increasing. The fear is that their disinterest could in effect promote the “delegitimizers’” agenda. As a result of both situations, Israel and the world Jewish community are coming together to coordinate a global response. In North America, said Raffel, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs has teamed up with the Jewish Federations of North America to form the Israel Action Network, of which he is national director and which the PMB federation helps to fund.
“Federation is the perfect platform to launch this initiative,” he said. “There are 157 federations across North America and they have sound infrastructures. Plus they have good relationships with non-Jewish communities.” The plan includes reaching out to synagogues and using social media platforms like Facebook to spread its message.
According to Raffel, college campuses are identified as “ground zero” in the effort. The network is partnering with Hillel to coordinate programs to respond to anti-Israel activists. “Hillel’s participation is particularly gratifying because until now, they have resisted getting into the Israel advocacy business, preferring to concentrate on promoting Jewish life on campus,” he said.
While the structure is in place to send out the network’s message, said Raffel, it is not “one-size-fits-all. What we say to Israel’s core supporters won’t work with those caught in the middle.”
In attempting to “convince the moderates,” Raffel suggested an appropriate message might be, “There are no angels or devils. This is a complex issue and there has been suffering on both sides. But, reconciliation can only take place if the parties try to work through their differences. Taking an immovable stand on one side may even set back the peace process.
“Our goal is to sensitize civil society leaders to the problem,” said Raffel. “If we are successful, we will not just put out the fires but, more importantly, we will prevent them.”