Israel advocacy challenges and opportunities in California

While anti-Israel activists in the Golden State have plainly become emboldened, pro-Israel advocates are at last fighting back in an organized fashion.

California protesters 311 AP (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
California protesters 311 AP
(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
When the going gets tough, the tough get organized. That’s the lesson that pro-Israel advocates in California have learned the hard way in recent months. As post-flotilla global elite opinion has calcified against the Jewish state, the Golden State hasn’t been immune to the fevered cries for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. But this time, Californian Israel advocates have pushed back, hard, against their adversaries, using organizing and PR skills that have left even the most hardened anti- Zionists watching in admiration.
The latest round of trouble was sparked in February, when Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren arrived on campus at the University of California at Irvine. The school sits in conservative Orange County, but the campus in recent years has become such a den of Israel hatred it’s earned the sobriquet “UC-Intifada.”
True to form, the Muslim Student Union continually disrupted Oren’s speech with shouts of “killer!” and “how many Palestinians did you kill?” After lengthy delays, Oren completed the speech, but not until after campus police had hauled the most outrageous hecklers away.
Then, in May, blocks from where I live, pro-Palestinian groups at UC San Diego sponsored an “Israel Apartheid Week,” complete with a mock separation fence funded by $40,000 in mandatory student fees and a roster of virulently anti-Semitic speakers that would have made Hizbullah’s Hassan Nasrallah blush. The hate-fest featured a by now famous public comment by a Muslim UCSD student pledging her fealty to Hamas’s and Hizbullah’s genocidal impulses.
These events followed a very narrow rejection by the UCSD student union of an anti-Israel sanctions measure, along with passage of a similar resolution by the student body at UC Berkeley, which its president courageously vetoed.
Other cities in Northern California, from cosmopolitan and famously liberal San Francisco to gritty, working class Richmond, have also considered BDS measures.
“There are over 100 anti-Israel organizations chipping away constantly at support for Israel,” says Lenny Kristal, the incoming chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the East Bay, “and more than 30 anti-Israel events are held every month.”
In June, radical activists in Oakland tried to block an Israeli ship from unloading its cargo; when they couldn’t find a suitable Star-of-David-flagged target, they besieged a Chinese vessel instead.
BUT WHILE anti-Israel activists in the Golden State have plainly become emboldened, pro-Israel advocates are finally fighting back in an organized fashion.
Here in San Diego, new coalitions have formed among academics and ordinary folks that are coordinating their messaging, working hard to combat anti-Israel bias, and engaging local media and other luminaries on behalf of Israel. While AIPAC has always had a strong presence here, it has (appropriately) focused its mission on influencing members of Congress, not local officials, college campuses, or the hometown press.
But three recently-formed organizations – the San Diego Israel Coalition, the San Diego chapter of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, and Teaching and Education About the Middle East (T.E.A.M.) – have closed any gaps that may have existed, creating a rapid reaction force that can mobilize on a day’s notice to furnish bodies for counterdemonstrations and tough (but polite) questions to anti-Israel speakers.
Upon arriving in San Diego, “I found that practically all Jewish organizations were fiercely territorial and competitive with each other,” says J.J. Surbeck, a longtime public servant in various international organizations. He founded TEAM to end the “silo mentality” that divided Israel advocates along organizational and ideological lines.
Now Surbeck’s people attend pro-Palestinian speeches, “sit right in front of them on the first row and make it very clear to them that they’re not going to get away with their usual lies without facing our sharp questioning.”
His goal is to train at least 30 pro-Israel speakers to be “confident enough to face any crowd.”
Up north, San Francisco-area advocates have, in Kristal’s telling, “begun to formulate newer, integrated, ramped-up and broader-based strategies.”
These efforts include collaborating with a wider array of Jewish agencies, cultivating Jewish faculty groups on campus, and facilitating activities with Hillel. “We will significantly increase the number of pro-Israel spokespeople with positive messages in our community,” Kristal told me.
DOWN IN Irvine, pro-Israel campus activist Jeffrey Wienir wrote a detailed account of “a sizeable force of concerned community members [that] has mobilized and is now providing students with support and desperately needed numbers on the campus during events.”
Wienir tells the story of Dee Sterling, a former Irvine Hillel member whose fire for pro-Israel organization was stoked by the Muslim Student Union’s extremist and hateful tactics. Wienir writes that, through a series of simple parlor meetings and grassroots organized, Sterling “managed to wake up a large number of people to the UCI problem and inspire them into action.”
This pushback has borne fruit so far. In an unprecedented move in June, UC Irvine revoked the Muslim Student Union’s charter for a year because of its anti-free speech activities. In a blistering report, school officials found the MSU had engaged in “obstruction or disruption of teaching, research, administration…or other University activities.”
Likewise, Israel advocates across the state have thus far fought BDS enthusiasts to a standstill, thwarting their efforts to enact symbolic city council sanctions resolutions.
And in Los Angeles, in the heat of the Mavi Marmara episode, a pro-Israel rally drew some 3,000 supporters, including Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, while smaller numbers flocked to a solidarity gathering in San Francisco.
Unfortunately, the BDS folks in California are not letting up, and they will surely adapt their strategies to accommodate the new pro-Israel activism. But the good news, at least for now, is that Golden State supporters of the Jewish state are finally waking up and meeting fire with fire.
The writer is an attorney in San Diego.