Getting Political: The Third Israeli-American Council Conference
By George E. Johnson
Reporting from last year’s Israeli-American Council conference, I noted that the Israeli-American Council defied the conventional wisdom that young Jewish adults are not joining Jewish organizations. The more than 1,000 Israeli-Americans at last year’s conference suggested that the in-your face, raw, brash energy of Israelis was being brought into the American Jewish organizational mainstream for the first time. With a mission of better integrating the now more than 500,000 Israeli-Americans into the American Jewish community, the IAC presented itself as a kind of communal “self-help” organization. It focused, for example, on how to keep the children of Israeli-Americans—many of whom are secular—Jewish. With the power and wealth of billionaire Las Vegas mogul Sheldon Adelson solidly behind it, it became clear that the IAC was also trying to act as a human bridge between Israel and American Jews—a kind of “reverse Birthright” mission—strengthening the state of Israel in the process.
But something new was on display this year: the rapidly maturing face of a new grassroots, AIPAC-like, Israeli-American Coalition for Action, an activist IAC political arm that parlays Israeli technological and political savvy into support of pro-Israel politics at the state and local levels. While still addressing the integration of Israeli-Americans into American Jewish life and deepening American Jews’ connection with Israel, this year’s conference, held in Washington, DC on September 24-26, and attended by over 2,000, gave center stage to the Coalition for Action’s step-by-step construction of alliances with local political and religious groups and use of social media to build support for pro-Israel actions—with a particular focus on opposing the growing boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.
During the past year, there have been numerous reports that Adelson was assembling a task force to mobilize against the BDS movement. The fruits of that mobilization were clearly on display last week. At the opening of the conference, it was announced that California governor Jerry Brown had just signed AB-2844 into law, prohibiting the state of California from doing business with agencies or businesses that participate in BDS activities.
However, the backstory of how the IAC was able to make this happen was told not in the plenary, but in two revealing panel discussions on coalition building and innovative use of social media. In one session, attended by the author of the California bill, Santa Monica Assemblyman Richard Bloom, as well as Adelson himself, panelists, including two city mayors, explained how meeting with strategically important legislators, planning Israel trips that highlight the multicultural aspects of Israeli life, supporting the interests of politically important groups, and building “common ground” with, for example, the LGBT community in West Hollywood, could pay off in political allies and support for anti-BDS initiatives.
The second panel focused on methods and messages for countering BDS activism on college campuses, as well as in government and local communities. Here the focus was on the power of social media. One panelist showed an animation showing members of Students for Justice for Palestine disrupting a lecture at the University of Minnesota by pulling the microphone cord. Another, the founder of the startup Phone2Action, showed members of the audience how to text their home state legislators in real time to support anti-BDS legislation just by texting “Israel” and a number on their iPhones.
A separate session, which I did not attend, focused on coalition building with other ethnic groups. Rabbi Marc Schneier, head of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, discussed the release of an open letter, signed by 10 prominent American Muslim political and religious leaders, including the two Muslim members of Congress, which calls on Hamas to release the remains of two Israeli soldiers killed in 2014 in Gaza.
The IAC is still a start-up, opening chapters around the country, with a base one-tenth of AIPAC, and this was only its third national conference. But it has money, a strategy and strong leadership that are helping it to punch far beyond its weight. One has the feeling that the Jewish world has yet to digest the potential impact on American Jewish life and American politics of this young and largely unstudied group.