Translating U.S. pro-Israel advocacy for Jewish communities abroad—and taking care about context

Yehuda Lancry, a former Israeli ambassador to French, spoke to French journalists in Marseille in June 2011 in a talk organized by the Israel Project.

By Ron Kampeas, JTA

WASHINGTON—It takes more than a translator to translate American-style pro-Israel activism for foreign audiences.

Nearly a decade after an effort by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to replicate its model overseas collapsed in acrimony, a range of Jewish organizations are helping smaller Diaspora Jewish communities enhance their advocacy. They have found receptive audiences.

In recent years, pro-Israel initiatives in a number of countries have taken on a higher profile.

In Canada, much of the Jewish communal advocacy apparatus was consolidated last year into the new Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. In Britain, a commitment to sustain the pro-Israel message across party lines has reinvigorated “Friends of Israel” groups in the three major parties. In France, the Jewish communal umbrella body, the CRIF, has an arm researching legal ways to push back against anti-Israel boycott efforts. In Germany, U.S. groups like the American Jewish Committee and the Israel Project have helped local communities set up information events with Israeli speakers.

In their efforts to assist Jewish communities upgrade their Israel advocacy, U.S. organizations are building on relationships and on infrastructures that have existed for decades; in others they are starting anew.

In either case, pro-Israel activists say, the key lesson they have learned is that the American model cannot be imposed overseas wholesale. They note that the landscape facing pro-Israel activists in the U.S. is quite different from the one confronting Israel’s supporters in many foreign countries.

For starters, the U.S. has an almost uniquely adversarial relationship between the executive and legislative branches, something that makes lobbying legislators an effective means of influencing foreign policy. Many foreign countries have histories of troubled relationships between the Jewish and general populations that still resonate—a contrast to America’s relative philo-Semitism. Finally, the political cultures of some foreign countries do not place the same value on the right to petition government.

Steve Rosen, the former AIPAC foreign policy director who now consults with a number of Jewish communities in Europe, said the structural differences between the U.S. government and other democracies are paramount.

“Most of these countries have parliamentary systems of government, and in parliamentary systems it is rare for the legislature to second-guess the executive,” he said. “The party leader pretty much controls what the lawmakers do, especially on foreign policy.”

That clashes with the classic AIPAC credo outlined by its founder, Si Kenan, which leverages the tensions between the legislative and executive branches. 

Rosen described the strategy by quoting Kenan: “Our job is to get the Senate to tell the president to order the State Department to stop beating up on Israel.”

Rosen was involved in an attempt by AIPAC in the early 2000s to encourage Jewish communities in Europe to organize and lobby on behalf of Israel.

AIPAC was set to unveil the program at its 2004 policy conference. It screened a video at the opening plenary featuring glowing testimonies from European Jews on the success of the training program.

Two days later, a closed meeting with AIPAC officials and the Europeans ended in an emotional shouting match. Insiders who attended the meeting said the AIPAC officials accused the Europeans of exercising excessive caution in advancing lobbying in their countries, and the Europeans countered that AIPAC was pushing too hard.

“To train them as if American democracy was their model, it was so bizarre,” said one top American Jewish community official who had been involved in the program and witnessed its breakdown.

AIPAC in recent years has revived its outreach to foster pro-Israel lobbying abroad. AIPAC officials did not return multiple requests for comment.

Officials with numerous American Jewish groups that assist counterparts overseas say that adapting programs to local realities is a key takeaway of their experience over the years.

Superimposing the American model was a proven failure, said David Harris, the AJC’s executive director, which has multiple programs assisting overseas communities.

“The goal has to be to understand what in the American model is exportable, where are you seeking to export to, what are the local conditions and how much adaptation is required for the local model to take root and not fail,” he said.

Dermot Kehoe, a spokesman for Bicom, the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre, which was founded in 2001, said that one element of the American model that he hoped British Jews could emulate is how the Americans have made support for Israel a bipartisan value.

“They have a gold standard of how you get the best for Israel by not aligning yourself with a party,” he said. “The basic tenets of Israel’s right to exist are accepted across the spectrum in the United States.”

On the other hand, the practices of day-to-day American lobbying would seem out of place and unseemly in Britain, he said.

“The parties are much more centralized, the executive is much more in control here,” Kehoe said. “The whipping goes down to the local level. The room for maneuver is very small.”

Americans, he said, “do relationships with the individuals,” whereas decisions in Britain “are taken much more at the top level,” so it makes more sense to cultivate the leadership.

In that context, Kehoe added, pro-Israel fundraising for individual candidates, commonplace in the United States, is unthinkable in Britain.

Even as they are mindful of their differing circumstances, pro-Israel activists abroad look to AIPAC for inspiration.

Dan Brotman, the media and diplomatic liaison at the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, attended the AIPAC policy conference in Washington earlier this month and described his impressions in an Op-Ed for the Forward.

He said that one of his key takeaways was AIPAC’s outreach to diverse constituencies—from African Americans and Latinos to Christians and gays and lesbians.

“As only 8 percent of South Africans speak English as a first language, we must build relationships with pro-Israel activists who can speak to their communities in one of the country’s other 10 official languages,” he said.

But long-established outfits like AIPAC and the AJC are not the only American pro-Israel groups working to foster activism abroad.

The Israel Project, for instance, which was founded in 2002, conducts polling overseas and flies in speakers in partnership with local Jewish communities.

Christoph Heil, the project’s European director, said that bringing German-speaking experts to Germany helped galvanize pro-Israel activism in that country.

“Media tours was something new to our partners in Germany,” he said.

Americans venturing into pro-Israel work abroad should be mindful of how the soil here has nurtured pro-Israelism, the AJC’s Harris said.

“You have a community of 6 million American Jews and a culture deeply rooted in Judeo-Christian and Christian-Zionist roots,” he said. “You have the U.S. Constitution that invites petitioning the government and a system that accepts, if not invites, interest groups on a gazillion issues. Contrast that with nations where Jews are still, to a degree, defined as outsiders.

“The Jewish community will be smaller, both in real numbers and as a percentage, and will not feel as confident in its place or in its ability to be public, will not find in that country as much free disposition to Jewish aspirations as here in the United States,” he said.

One way to assist Jewish communities overseas is to leverage the impression of U.S. Jewish influence, said Michael Salberg, the Anti-Defamation League’s international affairs director—but only if the community makes the request.

“We don’t parachute in and say, ‘We’re going to fight your battles for you,’ ” he said. “But we can be an effective backup for them.”

Salberg cited as an example the recent publication in a Portuguese newspaper of a cartoon depicting an Israeli soldier morphing into a Nazi SS officer. At the request of the tiny Portuguese Jewish population, the ADL wrote a letter explaining the cartoon’s offensiveness, he noted.

“It lets the opinion leaders know there are other people looking at this, it’s not just a local event,” he said.