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Countering the assault on Israel’s Legitimacy 

Community Action Partnership to train Central Mass. Jewish community

By Laura Porter

WORCESTER – Central Massachusetts is the first community in Massachusetts to participate in JFNA’s Community Impact Partnership (CIP).

Run by the Israel Action Network (IAN) of the national federation in partnership with the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), the CIP program is intended “to counter the assault on Israel’s legitimacy and positively change the discourse on Israel,” notes the JFNA website.

Specifically, the goal is “to reach out to a Jewish and non-Jewish audience who may be vulnerable to messages and campaigns designed to undermine the democratic Jewish State….”

To do so, IAN staff members train a core of lay leaders and Jewish professionals from small to mid-sized communities who then, as advocates for Israel, develop positive relationships with a range of different groups in their areas.

Howard Borer, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Central Mass. (JFCM), believes that the time is right for such an endeavor, both nationally and locally.

“As Israel becomes more isolated on the world stage, and there is so much misinformation and misconceptions, it has become incumbent for there to be a cadre of community members who can deal with these issues factually,” he says.

The Jewish community in Central Mass. has luckily “not had to deal with a scourge of anti-Israel propaganda. But we do not have the resources to conduct the appropriate training that is necessary to deal with these issues. This program will allow us to be pro-active and not reactive.”

Indeed, JFCM was actually selected to participate in CIP in 2014-2015 but chose to defer because of its involvement in a strategic planning process at the time. However, upon reapplication this year, they discovered that competition had become fierce as more communities had learned of the value of the program.

Rabbi Michael Swarttz is heading the CIP program. Currently the rabbi at Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Westborough and Jewish chaplain at Phillips Academy in Andover, Rabbi Swarttz ran programs through JFCM’s Harold N. Cotton Center for Leadership Excellence for several years.

For the past couple of months, he has been “publicizing and recruiting from all sectors” in the local Jewish community to build a roster of CIP participants, he says. Twenty people have committed, and the first of two training sessions was to take place this week. (The second follows in two weeks.)

“[IAN staff] will be coming in and training the group to talk about BDS and other efforts to delegitimize Israel’s reputation and status, as well as effective messaging and ways to counter negative messages,” he continues. BDS, or Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, is the growing effort to create a global movement that seeks to delegitimize Israel.

In the next phase of the program, participants will apply the techniques and concepts they learn to community projects they will design themselves.

Rabbi Swarttz expects that, in this phase, the group will divide into two or three action committees, one based in Worcester and one in Westborough.

The goal of each project is to work with “a group within our community,” he says. “It could be a church group or an ethnic group, a dinner or a conversation. I’m looking forward to learning from [IAN] what type of projects have been developed elsewhere.”

The JFNA website indicates that likely target groups will include “mainline churches, college campuses, labor unions, racial and ethnic groups, as well as other constituency-based organizations, media and influentials.”

The key to the program is to establish, strengthen and cement a broad swath of connections within each community.

“I see this as anticipatory and proactive,” says Rabbi Swarttz, noting, like Borer, that “there hasn’t been much of an issue in our community,” including with BDS.

In the event that a problem does arise, however, the relationships and infrastructure will be in place to counter it.

“At the least,” he says, “the program will give participants more information and background about supporting Israel and providing effective messaging on Israel’s behalf.”

The Central Massachusetts CIP group represents the full political spectrum of opinions about the Middle East, reflecting different views on the current Israeli government and its policies. All, however, have “a bottom line support of Israel,” he says. “Most people view BDS as an insidious way to delegitimize Israel.”

He expects the project implementation to be complete by May or June and hopes to reconvene the group then to discuss their experiences.

“Israel is often seen as the Goliath to the Palestinians’ David,” says Rabbi Swarttz, noting that the media rarely portray either the reality of Israel’s tenuous position in the Middle East or its positive contributions.

Perhaps, as a result of the CIP program, “people won’t be so quick to judge and will understand that the situation is much more nuanced,” he says. “If it helps some people in some communities be more sensitive and aware, that’s a good thing.”

Borer concurs. “As times have changed and Israel continues to be demonized, we are no different from other communities in trying to deal with these issues,” he says. “With so many messages being delivered about Israel, it is difficult to sort through the clutter to determine what’s true and what’s not. We are confident that this program will help.”

CAP: Rabbi Michael Swarttz

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