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…

Israel, Philosophy, Politics

On Jewish Activism. Part I: Backburner Zionism

This was originally going to be one long post, but I’ve decided to split it in two for sake of ease. Today, in part one, I’ll identify a specific issue of great importance to Jewish activism, parse it out, and propose a few solutions. Tomorrow, in part two, I’ll take a look at the theoretical underpinnings of this issue and propose a new (though not that new) paradigm for Jewish activism of all kinds.

12.05.2009 UPDATE:I’ve changed the title of this post to reflect the direction my thoughts are moving in. It now looks like this will be a three-part series. You can read part two here.

* * *

About a year ago, in a series of posts, I commented on the trend for pro-Israel (what does that mean, anyways?) rallies to go around masquerading as a form political/social activism, while ultimately being nothing more than glorified (and in some cases, undignified) cheer-leading.

The gist of my argument was that while 10,000 people at a rally or boycott makes a nice, loud statement for the press, the trade-off is that you lose the ability to ensure that those 10,000 people stay intimately invested and active with the cause; most of them will go home with a false sense of accomplishment. The flip-side is that a small, grassroots political or social movement may maintain more personal involvement, but it can lack the punch of a 10,000 strong rally.

Case in point: recent attempts by anti-Israel folks to boycott Canadian companies that deal directly with Israel (specifically Mountain Equipment Co-Op and the Liquor Control Board of Ontario) have prompted the Canada-Israel-Committee and UJA Federation of Greater Toronto to launch www.buycottisrael.ca – a campaign to get people to purchase the Israeli goods in question. A nice idea. Israel’s economy could certainly use help.

But if the overarching issue at hand as viewed by the CIC is that Israel’s economy does not deserve to be boycotted and that it should be supported by those in the international community, then why is there not a continually active “Buy Israel” movement sponsored by the CIC and Federation? (During the height of the intifada when tourism waned and Israel’s economy took a serious hit, there was such a movement in cities with large Jewish populations, though that has fizzled out as the intifada ended and there’s been less for people to react to). Why be reactive when you can be proactive?

I’m led to believe that the issue is less about an ingrained belief in the importance of economic support for Israel and more that the CIC and Federation don’t like it when other people speak out or organize against Israel. It’s easier to react to others than it is to stand up and maintain a proactive stance for something you believe in. Which is not to say that the boycott shouldn’t be responded to. It should. I don’t believe that Israel’s economy deserves to be singled out in this way, but that’s a separate topic of discussion. Do I believe that the CIC, Federation, and those who went out to buy underwear from Mountain Equipment Co-Op truly care about Israel and it’s financial stability? Absolutely. But do they care enough to make these actions a part of their ethos? Aye, there’s the rub.

If the goal of the counter-boycott was just to raise money for Israel and Israeli companies, then it was a success. But if there’s a greater goal, as one might assume from reading the Canada Israel Committee’s mission statement, then it is not entirely a success. The CIC’s mission seeks “the promotion of increased understanding between the peoples of Canada and Israel,” and seeks to “enhance Canada-Israel friendship.” Noble goals. Does the BUYcott lead to the achievement of these goals? Not so much.

This counter-boycott just balances the equation set in motion by the boycott, it doesn’t rise above it. It’s reactionary, and worst of all – like rallies – promotes a false sense of activism. Unless buying Israeli products is part of a larger movement by the purchaser to be actively and intimately involved in strengthening the Israeli economy, or in carrying on substantial discussions with the anti-Israel group, it remains a passive project wearing the mask of activism.

Yes, a tangible result is attained from the counter-boycott: Israel’s economy is supported (good) and the boycott is counteracted (which it turns out didn’t enjoy that much public support to begin with). And none of this is bad on its own. But it’s a closed project, it ends when people bring their clothes home from Mountain Equipment Co-Op. It’s just a step above chequebook Zionism.

To meet the stated goals of the CIC and Federation, and to take this BUYcott from a passive display to a proactive, sustainable, educational, and meaningful initiative, I propose the CIC and Federation use these questions as a guide:

– Where are the educational materials on Israel’s economy?

– Where is the list of Canadian vendors that carry Israel products?

– Where are the talking points for productive discussions with the boycotters?

– Where are the resources on Canadian economic and business partnerships with Israeli companies and organizations?

– Where are the resources on ethical sourcing?

– Where are the calls for further and sustained action?

– And most importantly, where are the communication tools and resources to form a peer-to-peer network? That would truly promote understanding between people and increase friendship. (To be fair, there are facebook and twitter links on the buycottisrael.ca website, but they are in the footer, and aren’t framed as an integral part of the campaign).

If organizations – both Jewish and non-Jewish – want to enjoy popular support that is sustainable, lasting, and intimate, they need to foster that attachment. It must be a central part of the framing of all messaging. It won’t come from just reacting every time a person or group says something they don’t like.

Rallies (or group shopping trips) are exciting and they create noise and attention, but at the end of the day, the day ends. What comes afterwards? Keep a pot of water on the back-burner, and it will just simmer there until the water boils off. Want that pot to be a smorgasbord of activism? You’ve got to keep it in the front and stir it up, and keep feeding it ingredients.

Tomorrow, in Part 2, I’ll look at moving the pot from the backburner to the front.

Canada, Israel, Judaism - General, Politics

Power, Money, & Privilege

A dangerous cocktail.

The Tories used their MP’s free-mail privileges to send flyers to households in communities with large Jewish populations in Montreal, Toronto, and Winnipeg. These flyers (see one here) were an attempt to convince voters (is there an election brewing?) that the Conservative Party is more committed to Israel – and thus, by extension, the Jewish population of Canada – than the other political parties. This is astonishing. On many levels:

1. This is an abuse of taxpayer funding. These flyers were sent for free, under postal rules allowing MPs to send mail to their constituents in the interest of public information. But this is not information being sent, it is narrow-casting propaganda that in fact misinforms (see my third point) the populous. These are essentially attack-ads being funded by public dollars. Would this be acceptable during an election?

2. This is also a fiscally unsound abuse of taxpayer funding. Could the Tories at least be economically frugal with their propaganda? A report issued this week by the Globe and Mail notes that, while MPs of every party make use of free mail privileges, the Conservatives spent $6.3-million on the mailers last year, while opposition MPs spent $3.8-million. What happened to the Tories’ self-professed “fiscal accountability”?

3. In a strange world, this might all be acceptable were the information included in the flyers in fact true. One might excuse Tory MPs for spending millions of dollars on informing the Canadian public that the Toronto Maple Leafs are having a terrible season and there should be an appropriate public response. But the accusations leveled here are just incredible. Quite literally, they are not credible. The ad argues that:

A) Canada’s presence at the Durban Conference in 2001, under the leadership of the Liberals, was an indicator that the Grits are complicit in foreign anti-semitism. In reality, the Israeli government at the time specifically asked the Canadian delegation to remain to “make its voice felt and bear witness to what was happening,” noted Liberal MP (and former Minister of Justice and current Jewish luminary) Irwin Cotler.

B) The Liberals are soft on fight terrorism, and they “opposed defunding Hamas,” and “asked that Hezbollah be delisted as a terrorist organization.” In reality, it was the Liberal party in 2002 that had Hamas and Hezbollah classified as terrorist organizations. Moreover, it was the personal musing of a Liberal MP who wondered if Hezbollah might be delisted. While reprehensible, that personal musing cannot be taken to be a party stance of the Liberals, as MP Joe Volpe argues.

C) The Liberals do not support Israel, as Michael Ignatieff accused Israel of committing war crimes in 2006. While Iggy did indeed did make this accusation once during the war against Hezbollah, he later publicly apologized. So accuse him of flip-flopping if you want, but don’t make this false corollary. Even if Israel committed war crimes, that doesn’t mean saying so lessens support of the country, it’s just an analysis of military strategy. This is just misleading and playing to people’s emotions.

At the end of the day, I’m floored that this abuse of power, money, and privilege took place. MP Cotler, eloquent in his shock, noted that “this goes beyond the pale of politics, this is an abuse of privilege and … I will call I what it is, it’s a lie … this stuff is scurrilous.”