Lessons learned from AIPAC


Being an effective pro-Israel activist in South Africa is no easy feat.

Dan Brotman, ex-Capetonian AIPAC lay leader Clive Lipshitz, Congressman Steven Rothman of New Jersey and SAZF Cape Council Chairman Ben Levitas.

We do not yet have a strong American-style ‘lobbying culture’, which is partially because our democracy is only 18 years old. The historic relationship that existed during apartheid between the regime and the Israeli government; and between the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the ANC, makes many South African leaders view Israel negatively by guilt of previous association.

The SA Jewish Board of Deputies and Zionist Federation in Cape Town made the decision to send our first (albeit small) delegation to this year’s policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which took place in Washington in early March. While we cannot replicate AIPAC in South Africa because of our vastly different political systems, I left the conference having identified elements from the AIPAC model that could work here. Most important, the conference opened my eyes to the possibility of growing a pro-Israel lobby in South Africa. In no particular order, here are the six most important lessons I learned from the AIPAC Policy Conference:

    • The pro-Israel lobby must be streamlined. AIPAC is known among American policymakers as the pro-Israel voice, which is its strength. When too many organisations are doing the same lobbying, it dilutes this voice. Policymakers must know exactly whom to approach when talking about Israel. In South Africa, the Board of Deputies lobbies the government on issues important regarding Jews, but it is a separate entity to the Zionist Federation. It’s hard to imagine today, but there may come a point when we as a community come to the conclusion that there is a direct correlation between one’s ability
    to express one’s Zionism in South Africa and one’s ability to be comfortable as a Jew in this country. It would then make sense to have one united organisation that speaks on behalf of both the Jewish community and pro-Israel South Africans.
    • People are influenced not only by numbers, but also by effort. Jews in the United States constitute only 2.1% of the population; and 15% of American Jews live in only 30 congressional districts. Nevertheless, the pro-Israel lobby in the United States is stronger than ever. This is because of AIPAC’s philosophy that every American Jew and his or her allies can personally lobby local representatives. Direct and indirect lobbying can take many forms. Not only is our Jewish population much smaller than that of the United States, but we are essentially concentrated only in Joburg and Cape Town. It is thus essential that we build relationships and work with members of Parliament from provinces that have few or no Jews.
    • Individual relationships matter. Pro-Israel activists must engage individuals from various communities who can potentially influence a large following of people. It would be worthwhile for us to do a
    comprehensive audit of all members of Parliament to see with whom we have a relationship, either directly or through a key contact. We also must empower community members to build such relationships with members of government in order to broaden our network.
    • Trips to Israel and follow-up are the best return on investment. AIPAC organises trips for rising leaders and policymakers, and this facilitates building a broad coalition of non-Jewish support for Israel.
    Nothing is more powerful than being able to talk about Israel in the first person, but this happens only if members of your constituency follow up with you after the trip and encourage you to speak publicly about your experience. Without follow-up, a visit to Israel is a one-off trip with little return on investment.
    • Support young and future decision makers. The key is to form relationships with young rising stars who will one day become policymakers. For example, form a relationship with an SRC president or with a young person who has volunteered for a political party or his or her local councillor. Chances are that this person will one day be sitting in higher office.
    • Pro-Israel voices come in many colours and speak different languages. As only 8% of South Africans speak English as a first language, we must build relationships with pro-Israel activists who can speak to their communities in other languages. This principle is also true of political parties thought of as ‘hostile’ or ‘anti-Israel’. There are always individuals within the party who are the exception. Find these people and support them as they talk about Israel. They know best how to speak to their colleagues in the party’s language.

A country like South Africa, which is struggling to create jobs and attract foreign investment, stands only to benefit from a strong relationship with Israel. At the same time, South Africa’s liberal constitution and expertise in conflict resolution could be of great assistance to Israel, which now and then needs to balance its security needs with maintaining a pluralistic democracy. AIPAC has been incredibly successful in building an effective lobby. Both South Africa and Israel have much to gain if we can apply its lessons here.

Dan Brotman is the Media and Diplomatic Liaison of the Cape Board. You can follow him on Twitter at @DGBrotman. This article was originally published in the Jewish Daily Forward.