How To Build Relationships

Jews make up less than 2 percent of the U.S. population. On some college campuses, the percentage may be significantly higher, but the reality is that support for Israel depends on a large majority of Americans recognizing that it is in the U.S. national interest to support a nation that shares our values and interests.

The latest (February 2010) Gallup Poll indicated that 63% of Americans sympathize with Israel compared to 15% for the Palestinians so a majority currently has a positive view of Israel. This has not always been the case, however, and may not remain true if the BDS movement has its way.

Given Jews’ minority status, it has always been vital to build coalitions with others who share similar values and interests. All groups and individuals should be viewed as potential friends and even those who may start out as critics may come around when they have more information. To give one example, Jane Fonda joined a boycott of Israeli films honoring Tel Aviv’s 100th anniversary at the 2009 Toronto film festival. After she learned more, however, about the one-sided nature of the boycott, she recognized she had made a mistake.

The range of campus groups all represent potential allies. These may include College Republicans/Democrats, fraternities/sororities, LBGT groups, environmental organizations, Hispanics, Asians, and African-Americans, Muslims and Christians. Groups often change leadership from year to year and so a group that was unfriendly in the past may have a different membership this year.

On campus, relationships can be developed between organizations, but they are most effectively nurtured by ongoing personal relationships. These can be meetings of convenience or, in the best case, conversations between friends.

This is not a Jewish cause, but a human cause. Non-Jews can and should be at the forefront of the anti-BDS response. Through coalition building, non-Jewish advocates can be highly effective in the fight against the slanderous BDS movement.

General Reasons to Form Coalitions

  • To highlight areas of common interest and amplify political power.
  • To create a representative voice for a larger portion of the community while still allowing groups to keep their individual identities.
  • To provide learning and teaching opportunities to expose activists to new approaches, strategies, cultures and styles.
  • To attract media attention.
  • To engage new audiences.
  • To develop greater understanding among student groups.

Advantages of a Coalition

  • Elimination of duplication of advocacy efforts.
  • Consistency of information among groups.
  • Shared skills and knowledge.
  • Shared energy and resources.
  • Increased resources.
  • Larger network of relationship.

Tips for Building Successful Coalitions

  • Choose issues that you have in common to unite members. Be broad to garner wide support.
  • Understand and respect individual self-interest.
  • Respect the organizational culture of partners which may differ from your own.
  • Make sure that all the partners have a voice and feel they are making a difference.
  • Agree to disagree. Focus on areas of consensus and avoid contentious issues. If the discomfort level with a partner’s positions on other issues is too high, it may be better not to work together.
  • Reciprocate support for partners. If you want them to be there for you when you need them, you must be prepared to support their issues when called upon. This is another reason to be careful about forming alliances with groups with whom you have strong disagreements on non-Israel-related issues.
  • Acknowledge your partners’ contribution.

Potential Dangers of Coalitions

  • The larger the group, the more pressure to adopt a position that reflects the lowest common denominator. This can lead to watered down positions that weaken effectiveness. Don’t sacrifice core principles to be popular.
  • Coalitions can be awkward if partners’ positions on other issues are antithetical to those of your group. You may hurt your organization if too many members become offended by your allies.
  • Muddled messages. Unless the coalition agrees to have a single message or spokesperson, partners may give mixed or confusing messages to your audience.
  • Agendas can be hijacked by more vocal coalition members. It is important that partners feel they have a say in decision-making but more aggressive members can sometimes purposely and other times inadvertently alter or harm your agenda.

Where to Start

  • Make a list of organizations on campus. Include all those with a potential interest in your issues or a connection you can make between Israel and their interests.
  • Encourage the Hillel director to keep a list of “who you should know on campus” that can be used each year and then set up meetings with those on the list.
  • Suggest a meeting between your organization and each potential partner.
  • Invite the leader or a member of another group for coffee. Perhaps make these meetings routine.
  • Ask Hillel to sponsor or host a meeting.
  • Invite partners and potential partners to programs and seek opportunities to cosponsor events.