‘We have to go on the offensive against boycotts’

Jewish Federations’ CEO Jerry Silverman speaks to the ‘Post’ during a whirlwind visit.

israel boycott groceries 311 (photo credit: AP)
israel boycott groceries 311
(photo credit: AP)
The Jewish Federations of North America, the largest Jewish fund-raising network in the world, is joining the fight against anti-Israel boycotts, JFNA CEO Jerry Silverman said in an interview in Jerusalem on Tuesday.
Silverman – who was on a whirlwind 48-hour visit to Israel – spoke about the Israel Action Network that his group recently founded, in collaboration with the Jewish Council for Public Action, with the aim of countering the Palestine Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.
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“This is a grassroots enemy, and we also have to go on the offensive, so it’s going to be us working in conjunction with networks and thinking about how we leverage this collectively,” he said. “We’re very serious about this.”
In recent years the BDS movement has scored several successes in getting businesses and institutions to pull their investments from Israel, organizing boycotts of Israeli universities and persuading a long list of musicians – including Elvis Costello and The Pixies – to cancel concerts in the country.
BDS supporters call for Israel’s isolation until it withdraws from the West Bank, grant “full equality” to its Arab citizens and allow “1948 Palestinian refugees” and their descendents to return to Israel.
Silverman said the Israel Action Network, which will have offices in New York and Washington, will work in tandem with local federations and other pro-Israel groups in presenting its viewpoint to the world.
“As part of the network, we would develop various subgroups and committees in various sectors, whether it’s minds in business, the financial circles or entertainment world, and we would create these cohorts of networks,” he said. “If there was some talent who, for the wrong reasons, wouldn’t want to come to Israel, so we would be on the phone with him and explain the right reasons to come to Israel.”
During November’s JFNA General Assembly in New Orleans, some complained that not enough room was allowed to voice criticism of Israel’s policies, such as the settlements in the West Bank.
“We welcome all viewpoints in context of the subject material,” Silverman said in response. “We get influencers out there who would like us to get more political, but that’s not who we are. So given the context, we want dialogue which creates richness that creates discussion which has varying points of view.
In New Orleans, five members of Jewish Voice for Peace, which was involved in organizing a ship that tried to break the blockade of Gaza last year and has called for a boycott of Israel, heckled Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s keynote address at the General Assembly. Later, its members said they had to resort to such tactics because they weren’t given the opportunity to speak their mind at the panels.
Silverman said he was unaware of any requests from Jewish Voice for Peace to take part in the GA, but that he took issue more with the disruption its members caused at the gathering than with their politics.
“In theory, he does not have a problem having a different forum displaying different views, but he would have a problem having a group behaving the way that they did,” Silverman said through a spokesman. “A group with views like that but proper behavior, he would have no problem having them at the GA. However, there are 250 applications a year, and we have to narrow it down.”
Shifting gears, Silverman spoke about his organization’s recent campaign to raise money to help residents of areas affected by last month’s blaze on Mount Carmel. The four-day fire claimed the lives of 44 people, forced tens of thousands to be evacuated and reduced thousands of dunams of forest to ash.
“We focused our attention on the trauma,” Silverman said. “We’re focused on the immediacy issue. One of our big funding areas was the day camp that the [Jewish Agency] opened to get the kids – it was Hannuka – out of an environment in which they were not dealing with the issues.
“We also helped Yemin Orde [a youth village that burned down] together with several other organizations.”
Since former president Moshe Katsav was convicted of rape and sexual misconduct last week, Jewish communities around the world have had to decide what to do with his tainted legacy.
Wherever Katsav visited as president, he left plaques and paraphernalia bearing his name and image, and women’s rights groups have called to have these removed.
Asked his opinion, Silverman said he was personally in favor of removing such signs from Jewish sites in light of Katsav’s conviction.