Last week I was honored to receive the Leon and Sylvia Sorkin Jewish Communal Professional Achievement Award at the Minneapolis Jewish Federation’s Annual Meeting. The award was given in recognition for my work in Israel advocacy.
I took the opportunity to implore each person in the audience to see him or herself as a defender of Israel, now more than ever. Now I am going to implore each of you!
If you think that you need to have a platform like that of a major journalist or media personality in order to shape thinking on Israel, you are wrong. If millions of people take it upon themselves to share a positive message on Israel within their own circle, the results will matter a great deal.
Keynote speaker at the event, Rabbi David Wolpe, expressed it perfectly. Sharing positive messages about Israel is our obligation, the tax we pay for not living there.
Below are excerpts from my remarks:
In 2002, after a Palestinian terrorist carried out a suicide bombing at a Passover seder, Steve Lear decided it was time to speak up. With his characteristic combination of passion and innovation, he crafted a power point presentation explaining the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and began doing presentations anywhere and everywhere.
Knowing that his good idea needed an institutional home, he brought it to the JCRC, where then-director Steve Silberfarb took it on, and hired whip-smart Holly Brod Farber to launch and run a volunteer speakers bureau. In 2003, Steve Lear and Holly asked me to join their group of volunteers, a dynamic force that coalesced around one central principle — that those of us who love and care about Israel are not helpless, even 7000 miles away. We can ask for invitations to tell our story, put a human face on a conflict that is never far from the headlines, and bit by bit, build relationships between our community and the larger community.
Now, some dozen years later, we have told our story hundreds and hundreds of times. And, most gratifying, our community now has fifteen freshly minted advocates for Israel, teens who have completed the pilot year of the Israel Leadership Fellows Program. This wonderful collaboration of JCRC, Talmud Torah, NCJW, and the Israel Center is helping our teens gain the knowledge, skills, and confidence that will enable them to engage in conversations about Israel that make a positive difference.
Why does Steve Hunegs, Executive Director of JCRC support our work so totally? Just take a look at what happened in the Tesco supermarket in Birmingham, England last week. Anti-Israel demonstrators there attacked police and threw food products on the floor while calling on a local supermarket to stop selling Israeli food products.
Sainsbury Supermarket in central London, pre-emptively removed all the kosher food from store shelves, out of fear that anti-Israel protestors outside might ransack the store. They removed not just products made in Israel but all the kosher food, because for many in the anti-Israel mob, there is no difference.
But know this — by the time they are pulling kosher food from grocery store shelves it’s rather late to look for friends. This understanding is what keeps us focused and energized in our work.
Those of us who care about Israel will face many challenges in the months to come.
American support for Israel is critical and all of us are in the position to help. Here’s how:
Research has shown that people are most likely to have a fair view on Israel if they know someone for whom Israel matters, and if they have had conversations with that person about Israel.
That is good news because it means that all of us can be highly influential within our own sphere.
Whether you are in the Speakers Bureau or simply chatting with the person who cuts your hair — speak up!
Hamas, along with its ideological fellow travelers, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, is part of a monstrous theocratic movement that rejects the foundational beliefs of the West — freedom, human rights, social justice, tolerance of differences.
Therefore, Israel’s war with Hamas is not a left wing or right wing issue, it is not even an exclusively Jewish issue. It is an American issue, a human issue, and should matter to everyone who cares about where this world is headed.
This is what we must help people to understand.
Perhaps the tide of public opinion is beginning to turn. Just last weekend a group of 200 Hollywood elites, including Sylvester Stallone, Sarah Silverman, and Seth Rogan signed a letter bashing Hamas and defending Israel. The letter was published in Billboard, Variety, Hollywood Reporter and major US newspapers.
If hearts and minds in Hollywood are starting to get it, I’m taking that as a very good sign. And these days, I will take good news wherever I can find it.