At Israel advocacy summit, the message is the message

At Israel advocacy summit, the message is the message

Experts instruct 300 activists in telling their story

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Kasim Hafeez described his trajectory from hater of Israel to Zionist at the Stand Up for Israel Advocacy Summit on Nov. 2. Listening are Malcolm Hoenlein, left, and Gordon Haas.
Kasim Hafeez described his trajectory from hater of Israel to Zionist at the Stand Up for Israel Advocacy Summit on Nov. 2. Listening are Malcolm Hoenlein, left, and Gordon Haas.

Muslim man who changed from anti-Israel activist to Zionist mesmerized a crowd of more than 300 at the Israel Advocacy Summit held Nov. 2 at the Aidekman campus in Whippany. 

Kasim Hafeez received a standing ovation for presenting the kind of dramatic pro-Israel narrative organizers and participants said was essential to advocating for the Jewish state. 

The summit included panels on finding success in legislative advocacy, learning messaging that works for different audiences, defeating the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, and responding to anti-Israel bias in the media. 

Among the presenters were Malcolm I. Hoenlein, executive vice chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; Meagan Buren, president and CEO of Buren Research and Communications; David Dabscheck of the Israel Action Network; and Gary Kenzer, North American executive director of Honest Reporting.

The summit was sponsored by the Community Relations Committee of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ and the NJ region of the American Jewish Committee in partnership with local synagogues and organizations. 

“We brought in top people from around the country to form our own strategic public relations model based on the truth — the facts about Israel,” said CRC chair Gordon Haas before the event. 

For one expert, advocacy is about telling Israel’s story better. Steven Goldstein, deputy vice chair of the NJ State Democratic Committee, said he learned important lessons in political advocacy as a producer on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

He shared a panel on legislative advocacy with Greg Menken, NY regional director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. 

When he first started working for Oprah, Goldstein recalled, she told him, “We tell stories that make people laugh, scream, cry, or gasp.” 

Goldstein, who went on to found Garden State Equality, said that Israel advocates need to do a better job at telling stories. He suggested having friends and relatives in Israel video themselves telling their most poignant story about living in Israel with rockets falling. That will be far more successful in winning over politicians, he said; “you have to make them feel passion.” 

Most important, he said, “Get them to commit their support to the legislation and to lobby their colleagues. The most effective lobbying is legislator to legislator.”

Hafeez, the child of Pakistani parents in England, recalled how he used to think that “the way to peace was to kill Jews.” In 2007, on a trip to Israel meant to confirm his extremist views, he encountered Israel’s diversity. 

Hafeez, a resident of Winnipeg, is now education and community relations officer for the Midwest region of B’nai Brith Canada and a member of the StandWithUs UK Board. 

Hoenlein began by saying he hopes the summit will be modeled around the country. “People need to know the facts and information to make the case for Israel,” he said. “We have a great case but we need the confidence.” He underscored that ISIS is a true threat throughout the Middle East, where, he said, Israel is the stabilizing — not destabilizing — force.

Buren, a public opinion research expert and strategist, said that Israel advocates “must recognize the suffering of the Palestinian side. If you can’t, you will damage the cause. We care about all children, and we need to show we care.” By doing so, she said, “we build the case that all people deserve a life free of violence.” 

During the panel on BDS, Peter A. Petit, a Lutheran from the Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding at Muhlenberg College, talked about the importance of finding common values with mainline Christian churches. 

“We need to build relationships,” he said. Church representatives “have been led into a strategy for the Palestinian national cause with an anti-Israel mode,” but, Petit said, “there are a lot of important issues that the Jewish community can work on with the churches.”

Elliot Mathias, director of Hasbara Fellowships, talked about the growing anti-Israel programming on college campuses since the summer’s Gaza war. 

In a spirited interaction with the audience, Sharon Musher of the Academic Advisory Council of The Third Narrative talked about fighting BDS resolutions within academic associations. She lauded the just-published The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel, and emphasized the need to uphold academic freedom while engaging in conversations with people who have different opinions.

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