WASHINGTON, Feb. 18 (JTA) — Knowledge = power. That was the Israel advocacy message for representatives of local federations and community relations councils from 123 communities who convened in Washington this week at the annual conference of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. Skills-training workshops on hasbarah — a Hebrew term that falls somewhere between explanation and propaganda — focused on how local communities can more effectively explain what is happening in Israel and how to balance media coverage of Israeli-Palestinian violence. The four-day conference, which was to conclude Tuesday, also addressed domestic issues such as the balance between security policy and civil liberties, updates on immigration policy and energy policy. But there seems to be a real thirst for knowledge about the situation in Israel and a desire to reconnect with the Jewish state, said Isabel Goldman of Rochester, N.Y. "People are very anxious to have a better understanding of Israel," she said. Goldman believes the Jewish community grew complacent about Israel over the last few decades. Now, Jews are concerned about the political situation and wish to understand it better. With the ongoing Palestinian intifada now nearly 17 months old, an effective hasbarah effort on Israel´s behalf is even more necessary, plenum participants said. The CRCs want to give activists and others the tools to feel secure in their support for Israel and the ability to articulate that support to others. People were shocked at the anti-Israel sentiment they began hearing in their communities and were ill-equipped to answer it, according to Hannah Rosenthal, JCPA´s executive director. "We have to get back to ‘Israel 101´ and ‘Advocacy 101,´ " she told JTA. Larger communities find themselves with more resources but a more organized opposition to Israel, while smaller communities with fewer resources are still left not knowing how to respond to anti-Israel arguments, Rosenthal said. Many communities bring in speakers to help disseminate information and advocate for Israel. Speakers´ bureaus consistently were listed as effective means to rally a community to events and spread the word about disseminating the pro-Israel message. "People want to get involved but they don´t know how," said Lynn Liss, of St. Louis. The St. Louis CRC has a detailed plan, which includes getting speakers for community briefings on Israel, making speakers available to campuses and schools and recruiting participants for an Israel Speakers´ Bureau for adults and teens. The plan also calls for maintaining e-mail lists, distributing background information and advocacy material to newspapers and other media, and creating and maintaining "Israel committees" in synagogues and Jewish community centers. Even in smaller communities, federations are making Israel advocacy a top priority: • In Hartford, Conn., Israeli teens are making the rounds at public high schools and talking about life in Israel. • In the Tidewater region of Virginia, a speaker series is used to give bimonthly community briefings, and the Israel Speakers´ Bureau has made 10 presentations in the past month. • The Tampa community is working to expand its speakers´ bureau, which has proven very popular. But in Tampa, as in Rochester, work needs to be done to deepen the Jewish community´s own understanding of the situation in the Middle East before spreading the word to the general community, according to Michael Eisenstadt, Tampa´s CRC director. Among the most important places to start in the Jewish community is on college campuses, many leaders agree. Whether the campus is a "battle ground" or simply a place where Jewish students are hungry for information and to organize a response, the communities recognize their importance. Richard Joel, president and international director of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Life on Campus, said Hillel is working to get the facts, speakers and trained professionals to the campuses and to convene different Jewish organizations to launch a more coordinated effort, he said. Students have to stick to the basics, Joel said, and be able to explain Israeli democracy and the legitimate need for a Jewish homeland. Michael Saratovsky, a student at Muhlenberg College and one of 400 participating students at the Charlotte and Jack Spitzer B´nai B´rith Hillel Forum on Public Policy, a Hillel-run seminar for college students that takes place in conjunction with the JCPA plenum, said Israel is a hard topic to explain and debate. His Hillel looks to educate people, not just respond to events, Saratovsky said. At the University of Kentucky, there was a lot of anti-Israel programming last year, but bringing Israeli speakers to campus has helped effect a change in tone, said Daniel Chejfec, executive director of the Central Kentucky Jewish Federation. Beyond college campuses, there is a need to reach out to all parts of the community, said Jill Tekel of Metrowest, N.J. The federation there works with high school students to write letters to newspapers advocating for Israel, and works with synagogues and JCCs to get young people more involved. Tekel said the community will continue to make Israel advocacy a priority until the situation in Israel improves. Like her counterparts from across the country, Tekel came to the JCPA conference to learn about ways to get the message out, and said her community wants to do more. "The grass roots is the way to go," she said.
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Sharon Samber is a contributing writer to JTA.
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