Canada, Judaism - General, Politics

Altruism or Astroturfing?

I’m always amazed and humbled by how quickly the international Jewish community responds to crises around the world. In the past few hours, I’ve been flooded with information on relief funds setup by various Jewish organizations, including my own, to respond to the disastrous earthquake in Haiti – a place with the tiniest of Jewish communities. This is a true demonstration of altruism.

And isn’t email is great? What we take for granted each day really is a technological marvel that allows unprecedented amounts of aid dollars flow to areas of need in a matter of minutes, courtesy of the organizations that are empowered to do so.

To ensure that these organizations’ aid initiatives are seen as being truly altruistic, and not just a way to keep up with the pack, careful attention needs to be paid to the press releases announcing them. Graphics can’t be too graphic, text can’t be over the top, and the message needs to be carefully crafted to encourage people to donate. There’s a fine line between creating a powerful message and sensationalism. Any good marketing professional knows this.

It appears, though, that B’nai Brith Canada still doesn’t quite understand the basic elements of word choice. Joe Bogoroch, President of B’nai Brith Canada, should have opened up a dictionary (or how about wikipedia?) before sending out their press release email today. In their call for people to send in funds, he used the following text:

“We call on members of the community to once again show their generosity and donate as much as they can afford to the victims of the quake. We hope that our grassroots (my emphasis added) effort will provide some measure of comfort, dignity and normalcy to the victims whose lives have been torn apart.”

This is not the first time B’nai Brith has abused the concept of grassroots efforts. See here for more on that. Yup, that was astroturfing again!

To be sure, their effort in getting out a message for people to donate is supremely important and commendable. But make no mistake, this is not a grassroots effort. This is a top-down organized initiative from a well entrenched member of the Jewish establishment in Canada. Why add a highly political element to an initiative that should be apolitical? Why call it grassroots at all?

My guess is that Bogoroch and B’nai Brith hope that this singular word will make their organization appear more attractive, more attuned to the lives of younger Jews, and more folksy. Perhaps for those that don’t understand the concept, it does. But for most, it’s clear that this a fallacy. In essence, by using this word, B’nai Brith subtly puts their organization’s image ahead of the aid efforts.

UJA Federation, on the other hand – the supreme example of the Jewish establishment, crafted a powerful and well worded press release. And they got it out forty minutes before B’nai Brith did. It includes about five quick sentences that succinctly let us know what’s up. An excerpt:

“As the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, Haiti is simply not prepared to handle such a catastrophe and the Caribbean nation is appealing for international aid.

United Jewish Appeal of Greater Toronto has established the Haiti Disaster Relief Fund to assist victims who, suddenly, find their lives turned upside down and in jeopardy.”

Their webpage also thanks people for their “ongoing commitment to tikun olam, ‘Repairing the World’.” Nicely done, UJA. In just three sentences, we know why this is important, what UJA wants us to do, and how it’s a Jewish concept. It doesn’t sound like they’re trying to get us to join up with them. They just want to donate some money.

Ok folks, let’s just get it out there: Jewish organizations like B’nai Brith and Federation, while becoming increasingly out of touch with the zeitgeist of this generation, are still uniquely positioned to do some real good when crises like the Haitian earthquake arise. They have a vast, connected membership, with the funds and mechanisms to reach out to them. Why not get it right? Why not take the (brief) time to craft your message properly to maximize its ability to connect to people? Sadly, this is an endemic problem in the Jewish community.

If the legacy organizations want to remain relevant over the next twenty years, perhaps a quick and easy step in that direction would be to step back and look at the framework from which they speak…

Canada, Journalism, Judaism - General, Philosophy, Politics

Old White Jewish Men

Last Friday afternoon, B’nai Brith Canada sent out a news release. They do this often. Stuff happens in the Jewish community, and they send out a news release. Stuff happens in the Christian community, and they send out a news release. Someone farts at York University, and they send out a news release. While the many emails from “JEWISH CANADA” can become annoying at times, I ultimately commend them for remaining diligent in their communication efforts – they do a much better job than many other Jewish organizations.

But. Last Friday’s email was different. The title was:

United Church of Canada Resolutions Insult to Grassroots Canadian Jews

Hmm. Something jumped out at me. Angered me a little. Can you spot it? Moving on, the first sentence in the email read as follows:

B’nai Brith Canada, the voice of the grassroots Canadian Jewish community, was disappointed to learn that resolutions that enable United Church Conferences, Presbyteries, congregations, and community ministries to boycott the Jewish State of Israel, if they so choose, were unanimously passed at the United Church of Canada’s (UCC) 40th General Council.

How about now?

B’nai Brith is many things. They’re a Jewish advocacy organization. They’re an Israel advocacy organization. They’re a human rights advocacy organization. Their newspaper in Canada claims to provide “the real story – and the story behind the story – from a Jewish perspective,” though more often than not, that appears to be code for the Right Wing perspective. I should also say that they run a number of summer camps, and Jewish camping is more than important to me. They are indeed many things, but they are certainly not grassroots.

What is grassroots? For starters, labeling an organization as grassroots implies that there is a movement behind the organization. It implies that a collection of people – the roots – have come together independently to identify as a group with a shared philosophy. What is the B’nai Brith movement? Visit the “About Us” section of the website, and you’ll learn that:

B’nai Brith Canada is the action arm of the Jewish community. We believe in:

1. Reaching out to those in need
2. Fighting antisemitism, racism and bigotry;
3. Promoting human rights and peace throughout the world.

What is B’nai Brith’s philosophy? Their ideology? Their social perspective? These are things we would expect to know about a movement. How many people today will claim that they are part of the B’nai Brith movement?

The term also implies that the movement and its related organizations evolved spontaneously and naturally as a response to some stimulus. B’nai Brith – at least in the USA – certainly had a grassroots origin, with German-Jewish immigrants gathering to do something about the squalor in which Jews were living at the time. But now they have evolved into something beyond this grassroots origin. They do wonderful work, representing their constituents and advocating on behalf of certain Jewish views, but they are far past the days of being a small, grassroots movement. To be sure, they are part and parcel of the Jewish establishment. Meet your friends Federation, the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency, and the State of Israel.

Labeling a group grassroots is also a way to highlight the differences between that group and its accompanying movement, and other organizations governed by more traditional power structures. A quick glance at B’nai Brith and B’nai Brith Canada’s websites is more than enough to show you that they are intimately familiar with “traditional power structures,” as the names and pictures of their leadership look like they came from a Facebook group called “old white Jewish men.”

The labeling of B’nai Brith Canada as grassroots is a curious move by the organization. For one, it is an abrupt change – they’ve never called themselves this before. Last Friday’s email was the first appearance of this adjective. Why, all of a sudden the need to add this term in August 2009? (8.28.09 Update: Turns out they have called their constituency grassroots a few times before. Mostly in press releases.)

I take great issue with this. It’s an attempt to make it look like they aren’t facing declining relevance like the rest of the organizational Jewish world. It’s an attempt to make it look like they don’t have a member base that’s almost entirely made up of people who were born before 1950 (not that there’s anything wrong with people born before the invention of the VW minibus). It’s an attempt to make it look like they attract the same type of people that Obama attracts.

There’s a term for what B’nai Brith is doing. It’s called Astroturfing. And in the political, advertising, and PR world, this is a BIG no-no. By calling themselves grassroots, B’nai Brith Canada is trying to project an image of something it isn’t.

Let me re-iterate: B’nai Brith does many wonderful things, many vital things for the Jewish and broader communities in Canada and the US. But they are not grassroots. To try and present this image is dishonest and unfair.

I’m also left with a few final questions from B’nai Brith’s email of last Friday…

Is there a difference between “grassroots” Canadian Jews and “regular” Canadian Jews? And if so, is the Canadian Jewish community insulted and disappointed en masse, or is just the “grassroots” Jews? And if so, is B’nai Brith really the voice of the entire “grassroots” Canadian community?

This is where B’nai Brith shows their true colours. You can’t just blanket label a group of people as grassroots. At the end of the day, I’m left wondering what B’nai Brith Canada’s “grassroots” movement is all about…