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Jewish leaders grapple with the rough-and-tumble Internet

WASHINGTON – After the botched terror plot of the “Christmas underwear bomber,” David Harris took to the Huffington Post to argue that the United States had something to learn from Israel’s stellar record in airport security.

The argument seemed fairly innocuous as far as Israel-related matters go. But the vitriol unleashed suggested that Harris, the executive director of The American Jewish Committee, might write about the pleasant Israeli weather and still get hammered.

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American Jewish Committee Executive Director David Harris says, “To read some of the reactions to anything I write about Israel is sometimes to require a very strong stomach.” AJC

“israel is not on the front line of fighting Islamic radicalism it on the front line of creating Islamic radicalism,” said the second of hundreds of commenters, using the name “baffy.” “These crazy guys are trying to blow up Americans primarily because of our government’s support of israel’s illegal occupation of palestinian land as well as invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq etc.”

Off topic, like many of the comments, but not anti-Semitic.

Things became a little more questionable a few Web pages later in an entry by “jomamas”: “Jews need to get something straight: because somebody says ‘we shouldn’t be like Israel’, doesn’t mean that we want to be like Arabs or Iranians, nor does it make them anti-semitic nor Israel haters. I can’t understand how the relatively progressive and educated jewish population is so utterly and completely biased when it comes to the issue of Israel. I don’t like Israel. I am not anti-semitic. I don’t really like Iran or Syria either.”

As the response to Harris’ post demonstrates, defending Israel and Jewish interests in tweet time can be rough, anonymous, and dirty — and organizational leaders are grappling for strategies on dealing with the phenomenon of personal and anonymous attacks in the comments section.

“To read some of the reactions to anything I write about Israel is sometimes to require a very strong stomach — it can be nasty, over the top, vitriolic, and dripping,” Harris said.

Still, the AJC leader added, he enjoys access to readers unfiltered by letters-page editors.

“I welcome this new environment,” he said. “Everything I write, I write myself.”

And in the case of left-wing sites such as the Huffington Post, it is important to confront anti-Israel voices, Harris said, rejecting the view of a segment of the organized Jewish community that sees the fight for liberals as futile.

Harris, who also has a regular Jerusalem Post blog, raised some Jewish organizational eyebrows when he decided to reply with a second entry on the Huffington Post, this one commenting on his commenters.

“For some readers my last piece, posted December 31, provided a handy excuse to unleash their unbridled hostility toward Israel,” Harris wrote, and outlined his counter-arguments.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, was less sanguine in describing the comments responding to the material that he has posted on the Huffington Post.

“It’s a magnet for conspiracy theorists and for haters,” Foxman said of the comments section. “I look at it and sometimes wonder why am I bothering.”

The answer, he adds quickly, is the “silent majority” — those who don’t post replies but are searching the Internet to learn and acquire the tools to defend Israel in their own communities.

Nevertheless, Foxman has his doubts.

“It’s a vehicle for educating, but it’s a vehicle for all the kooks in the world who want a platform,” he said. “I’m not sure we have the antidote.”

A spokesman for the Huffington Post, Mario Ruiz, said the blog endeavored to screen offensive comments.

“All comments made on blog posts are currently monitored by paid moderators,” Ruiz said. “While every effort is made to eliminate offensive comments, they do occasionally slip through the cracks of a process that handles nearly 2 million comments a month. But from its inception, HuffPost has taken comment moderation very seriously, and devotes a lot of energy and resources to maintaining a civil conversation, free of name-calling, ad hominem attacks, and offensive language.”

Ruiz said it was “great” that Harris was taking on his commenters.

Faulting the Huffington Post for such comments would be unfair, considering their ubiquity on pro-Israel Websites, including The Jerusalem Post, said Eric Rozenman, the Washington director of CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America.

“Look at the talkbacks at any place to any article that stirs a little controversy — the Post, Haaretz — it can be appalling and disconcerting, the kind of stuff you used to see on bathroom walls,” he said. “The technology has enabled the fringe to go mainstream, and no one knows what to do about it.”

While it’s difficult enough keeping the anti-Semitic genie in the bottle in the mainstream media, CAMERA’s most recent struggle has been with C-SPAN, the cable broadcaster dedicated to making government transparent through live broadcasts of the U.S. Congress and the executive branch.

For the last year and a half, CAMERA has tracked a cadre of diehard anti-Semites who have been abusing C-SPAN’s open-caller policy, injecting vitriol against Israel and Jews into just about any discussion, ranging from taxes to Middle East policy.

Until now, the reply from C-SPAN has been radio silence.

Michael Scheuer, a former CIA analyst who has claimed he lost work because of his anti-Israel views, was a guest Jan. 4 on the network’s “Washington Journal” program. A caller identifying himself as “John from Franklin, N.Y.” launched into an anti-Semitic tirade saying he was “sick and tired of all these Jews” who were “willing to spend the last drop of American blood and treasure to get their way in the world.”

Jews, the caller said, have “way too much power” and “jewed us into Iraq.”

In response, host Bill Scanlan turned to Scheuer and said, “Any comments?”

Scheuer appeared to approve of what John had to say.

“Yeah. I think that American foreign policy is ultimately up to the American people,” he said. “One of the big things we have not been able to discuss for the past 30 years is the Israelis.”

On Monday, in response to a JTA query, the broadcaster acknowledged that the host should have been more proactive in dealing with the caller.

“Program hosts, whose role is to facilitate the dialogue between callers and guests, are certainly permitted to step in when a caller makes ad hominem attacks or uses obscenity or obviously racist language,” C-SPAN said in a statement to JTA. “Given that this involves quick judgment during a live television production, it’s an imperfect process that didn’t work as well as it should have that day.”

Readers can judge whether the Huffington Post’s screening process worked in response to Harris’ piece on Israeli airport security.

One official at another Jewish organization who also blogs on Huffington Post wondered about Harris’ decision to engage with the commenting crowd.

“Jewish fascists and anti-Semites are the prominent animals” in the comments sections, said the official who spoke on background to avoid a contretemps with Harris. “It’s like watching pornography — who’s going to get the sickest thing in.”

The official said he enjoys Huffington Post as a platform to reach liberal cognoscenti and the current political leadership — not the commenters “banging away in their footsie pajamas in their mothers’ basements.”

“To go to the comments and take them seriously — they’re not representative, you should stay away from it,” he said.

Harris says knocking those guys off the page is the point.

Ultimately, he adds, his target is the “sophisticated consumer” who can tell the difference between the vicious and the civil — and he noted that he also earned civil critiques from those who criticize Israel.

“I rely to a large degree on the sophistication of the consumer,” Harris said, “and I think we underestimate that.”

JTA

 
 

Pro-Israel groups set to counter campus apartheid claims

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An “apartheid” wall erected during the last week of February at UCLA features information critical of, if not hostile, to Israel. StandWithUs

At universities across the globe, the annual springtime ritual known as Israel Apartheid Week is kicking off, and Jewish students and pro-Israel groups have been readying themselves to respond in force.

Unlike past years, when intense pro-Palestinian activity in the wake of Israel’s offensives in Gaza and Lebanon caught many Jewish students off guard, this year the pro-Israel community is ready with initiatives of its own.

The largest effort, Israel Peace Week, is helping to coordinate responses at 28 campuses and counting. StandWithUs, the Los-Angeles based pro-Israel group, is promoting a U.S. speaking tour by Israeli soldiers to counter claims that the Israel Defense Forces engaged in widespread misconduct during 2009 offensive against Hamas in Gaza. The David Project, the Anti-Defamation League, and CAMERA all have made material available online to counter the apartheid charge and help students disseminate pro-Israel literature.

Hasbara Fellowships, a campus Israel group affiliated with the outreach group Aish Hatorah, is promoting a film about anti-Semitism on campus through the Website Campus Intifada. And in Canada, where Israel Apartheid Week activity is often far more intense than in the United States, a pro-Israel initiative called Size Doesn’t Matter enjoyed a brief spell of notoriety when it released a sexually suggestive video that spoofed Israel’s smallness.

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In advance of Israel Apartheid Week, the pro-Israel public relations house BlueStarPR released a poster with information about how to cure “Anis” — anti-Israel fixation syndrome.

Continuing the below-the-belt theme, the pro-Israel PR house BlueStar released a poster with information about how to cure “Anis” — Anti-Israel Fixation Syndrome.

“On the pro-Israel side, I think there’s much more of a focus on this week than I’ve ever seen before,” said Eliot Mathias, the director of Hasbara Fellowships. “So many different organizations and groups. There is more of an awareness of what’s happening.”

Now in its sixth year, Israel Apartheid Week is actually two weeks, running March 1 to 14. Mainly confined to university campuses, the internationally coordinated series of events aims to reinforce the analogy between Israel and apartheid South Africa and strengthen the activist tools that helped bring that regime to its knees.

Events often employ an element of political street theater — obstructing campus byways, for instance, with mock Israeli checkpoints or an “apartheid wall” — in addition to more conventional lectures and film screenings. Israel Apartheid Week is closely aligned with the so-called BDS movement — an acronym for boycott, divestment, and sanctions — and calls for an end to Israel’s “occupation and colonization of all Arab lands” and the right to return of Palestinian refugees.

Given the harsh rhetoric and strident anti-Israel policies encouraged by the events, Israel Apartheid Week has united a broad spectrum of Jewish groups that while often agreeing on few other Middle East questions, have all condemned the Israel-South Africa analogy as illegitimate and anti-peace.

Joining StandWithUs, the David Project, and Hasbara Fellowships in their condemnation of Israel Apartheid Week are J Street and its campus arm, J Street U, and the liberal Zionist group Ameinu.

J Street has taken a slightly different tack from the other groups, largely eschewing on-campus fliers in favor of a campaign it calls Invest Don’t Divest, which aims to promote fund-raising for cooperative efforts between Israelis and Palestinians that “help set the context for a sustainable peace.” A spokesperson for J Street told JTA the group did not want its “nuanced pragmatic” approach to get lost in the “shouting match” that some groups engage in during Israel Apartheid Week.

And inevitably, the shouting does happen. Israel Apartheid Week reliably brings at least a few speakers each year who shock the campus Jewish community by tiptoeing ever so close to the line separating ant-Zionism from outright anti-Semitism — and arguably marching right over it.

Even so, the wider significance of Israel Apartheid Week is a matter of some dispute in the pro-Israel community. At many, if not most, American schools, little or nothing is done for Israel Apartheid Week, whose official Website lists events in 45 locations, only about a quarter of them in the United States. Anti-Israel activists at some schools — like the much-discussed University of California, Irvine — run apartheid activities other weeks that are not listed on the official site.

“In the U.S., I’m aware of some isolated pockets of activity, but in five years that IAW has been running, we haven’t seen it catch on in the mainstream campus community,” said Stephen Kuperberg, the director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, an umbrella group comprising 30 groups.

Still, virtually everyone in the pro-Israel campus community agrees that the frequency and intensity of apartheid/BDS activity is growing. And some even link it to a spike in anti-Semitic activity on campuses. At the University of California, Davis last week, a Jewish student found a swastika carved into her dorm door.

“I think it’s absolutely a big deal,” said Lawrence Muscant, the acting executive director of the David Project. “The fallacious lie of Israeli apartheid is seeping into the maintream. It’s extremely disturbing.”

JTA

 
 

Federations, JCPA teaming to fight delegitimization of Israel

The Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs are launching a multimillion-dollar joint initiative to combat anti-Israel boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaigns.

The JFNA and the rest of the Jewish federation system have agreed to invest $6 million over the next three years in the new initiative, which is being called the Israel Action Network. The federations will be working in conjunction with JCPA, an umbrella organization bringing together local Jewish community relations councils across North America.

The network is expected to serve as a rapid-response team charged with countering the growing campaign to isolate Israel as a rogue state akin to apartheid-era South Africa — a campaign that the Israeli government and Jewish groups see as an existential threat to the Jewish state. In fighting back against anti-Israel forces, the network will seek to capitalize on the reach of North America’s 157 federations, 125 local Jewish community relations councils, and nearly 400 communities under the federation system.

“There is a very, very high sense of urgency in [fighting] the delegitimizing of the State of Israel,” the JFNA’s president and CEO, Jerry Silverman, told JTA. “There is no question that it is among the most critical challenges facing the state today.”

In fact, Silverman added, Israeli leaders identify this as the second most dangerous threat to Israel, after Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Under a plan approved in late September during a special conference call of the JFNA’s board of trustees, the JCPA’s senior vice president, Martin Raffel, will oversee the new network. He will be working in concert with the head of the JFNA’s Washington office, William Daroff. Over the next several months, Raffel will be putting together his team, including six people in New York, one in Israel, and one in Washington.

The network will monitor the delegitimization movement worldwide and create a strategic plan to counter it wherever it crops up. It will work with local federations and community relations councils to enlist the help of key leaders at churches, labor unions, and cultural institutions to fight anti-Israel boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaigns.

Organizers of the network are looking at the response to an attempted boycott of the Toronto International Film Festival last year as a model for how the system could work.

When the festival organizers decided to focus on filmmakers from Tel Aviv, more than 1,000 prominent actors and filmmakers signed a statement saying that the organizers had become part of Israel’s propaganda machine, and they threatened to boycott the event. In response, the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles worked together to come up with a counter-statement supporting the festival. The counter-statement bore the signatures of even more prominent Hollywood figures, including Jerry Seinfeld, Natalie Portman, Sacha Baron Cohen, Lisa Kudrow, Jason Alexander, and Lenny Kravitz.

“The partnership started last year around the Toronto international film festival,” said Ted Sokolsky, president of the Toronto federation. “We jointly produced an ad saying that we don’t need another blacklist.”

Sokolsky went on to say, “I spoke to Jay [Sanderson, the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles] and said, ‘Here, there are a lot of prominent Hollywood types on the delegitimization protest. Can you reach out to the Hollywood community and find some pro-Israel leadership?’ He reached out to some key leadership in Hollywood. And it was like waking up a sleeping giant. Then we realized we can’t all fight this alone.”

He added, “It was a great lesson and set a template on how to respond because clearly, the other side is running a linked campaign with international funding and global strategy but local implementation.”

When similar delegitimizing attempts erupt, leaders of the new network plan to respond early, according to Silverman.

“If the community in Chattanooga all of a sudden is faced with [a boycott of] Israeli products in the mall, they should be able to call the [Israel] Action Network and have response and implementation within 12 hours, and not spend time thinking about how to do it,” he said. “We should be able to do that in every community.”

Toronto and Los Angeles are two of the largest federations in the JFNA system, but the smaller federations feel that the network will benefit them as well.

Michael Papo, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Indianapolis, said that Indiana has not yet witnessed a full-fledged anti-Israel boycott campaign.

“But it could happen,” he said. “It could happen quickly. It could happen on our college campuses, and it would be helpful to have that national network to call for help.”

Papo said he sees the network as being able to provide guidance when his federation has to face situations such as the one it faced several years ago, when the Presbyterian Church (USA) pursued a divestment strategy against Israel. At that time, he and his colleagues were able to influence local Presbyterian churches in Indiana to vote against the divestment campaign at their national convention.

“As a Jewish community, we have a huge range of contacts in the general community,” he said. “We are connected politically, culturally, socially, academically, and in the business world — anyplace we work and live, we have connections with neighbors.… If and when we need support, we are quite capable.”

Steven Nasatir, president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, said that federations and their local partners are uniquely positioned to take on delegitimization campaigns against Israel.

“A top-down approach cannot fully comprehend or appreciate local nuance, and after each and every incident, when the headlines recede, it is the local community that is in the best position to strengthen the community for the future,” Nasatir said in an e-mailed statement. “Over the past few years, active local federations have countered the boycott of Israeli products by buyout of those same products. They have demanded that university institutions require civility from anti-Israel protestors trying to drown out Israeli speakers. And, through ongoing contact with local elected leaders, they have sensitized public officials and institutions to the need for fairness, civility, and appropriate monitoring of anti-Israel thuggery.”

While other groups, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Zionist Organization of America, and J Street, focus primarily on influencing the political arena, and others, such as the Israel Project and CAMERA (the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America), key in on the media, the new network will aim to influence civic leaders.

The Jewish federations have agreed to give the JFNA $1.6 million to fund the project fully in its first year. In the two subsequent years, the federations will split the cost 50-50 with JFNA.

“Israel’s government has been advocating for this, especially over the past six months or eight months,” Silverman said. “It has been in dialogue within our federation movement for a while, especially following the Toronto incident and the incident in San Francisco with the film festival, and divestment movements in the Protestant and Presbyterian churches. This idea was born out of the large city executives meeting that said, ‘It is time. And time is running out.’ We have to do this quickly and we have to be armed in our community and be offensive, not defensive.”

Silverman said that he expects the Israel Action Network to be fully staffed and up and running by Jan. 1.

JTA

 
 
 
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