Soldiers in the War of Ideas

, April 27, 2010

Bloggers at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. The author is at right.

With cracks appearing in the U.S.-Israel relationship, the need to explain Israel’s case clearly and cogently has become more important than ever for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Founded in 1976 by the late Prof. Daniel Elazar to research Jewish communities, the Jerusalem Center developed into a foreign policy and public diplomacy center when Ambassador Dore Gold became its president in 2000. Today, scholars, lawyers, policy analysts and advisers, as well as former diplomats and journalists, convene at the independent, non-profit research institute to advocate for Israel and address a range of challenges the country faces.

Amb. Gold sees the Jerusalem Center as an opportunity to engage in serious strategic planning that could formulate concrete goals and clearly identify policies. “I’d always been struck by the fact that Israel had not sufficiently articulated its needs in the peace process when it engaged in public diplomacy,” he said. “If you wake up a Palestinian diplomat at two in the morning and ask him about Palestinian goals, he will answer, ‘a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.’ But if you did the same thing to an Israeli diplomat, he would say ‘peace,’ or maybe ‘peace with security.’ As a result, you learn that there is a huge asymmetry in goals, and in any political struggle, the side with the defined goals wins.”

The center’s public diplomacy initiative, the Institute for Contemporary Affairs (ICA), plays a crucial role in fulfilling this mission. “ICA has built close relationships with the foreign diplomatic community and the foreign media in Israel. It gives them a single address to gain strategic perspective and context for the stories they write and the cables they send back home,” said Dan Diker, who directs the institute. “The information we provide comes from the most knowledgeable, expert sources,” added Adam Shay, ICA’s projects coordinator. “There aren’t too many organizations in Israel that are able to provide that access.”

The Jerusalem Center has led the public campaign to raise awareness of the issue of defensible borders for Israel. Gold recalls: “In early 1997, Prime Minister Netanyahu asked me to prepare a presentation that he made to President Clinton at the White House about Israel’s security requirements in the West Bank and the Golan Heights. He then asked me to accompany him to the meeting, and it was there that the whole issue of ‘defensible borders for Israel’ crystallized.”

A few years later, Gold was in Washington again as a member of Ariel Sharon’s team during the prime minister’s first visit to the White House to meet with President Bush. “I prepared his presentation on seventeen index cards in English, with a focus on defensible borders for Israel. Sharon reviewed the cards before the meeting and told me, ‘Here you have encapsulated the national security strategy of the State of Israel.’”

The Jerusalem Center has organized international conferences and meetings in Israel and Western capitals, and has produced a wide spectrum of scholarly articles, reports, books, periodicals, and newsletters. In the past decade, the center has focused on presenting Israel’s case online through an array of websites in English, Hebrew, Arabic, French, and German. Its free Daily Alert Israel news briefing reaches tens of thousands of email subscribers, providing excerpts of key news stories from the mainstream English and Hebrew media.

The center’s Global Law Forum counters diplomatic and media assaults on Israel in the realm of international law. The project has published studies by legal experts on false claims of apartheid, occupation, universal jurisdiction, proportionality in warfare, and the delegitimization of Israel.

Another facet of the center is the Institute for Global Jewish Affairs. Its founder, Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld, explains that the institute deals with strategic issues affecting the Jewish people, with a particular focus on anti-Semitism after the Holocaust. “Other institutes on anti-Semitism deal mainly with the past. We deal with the threats of today and tomorrow,” he said.

An economically secure Israel is the focus of Dr. Glenn Yago, who heads the Israel office of the U.S.-based Milken Institute, located at the Jerusalem Center. His mission is to stimulate financial innovation in Israel with projects that include community reinvestment, tax relief and financial reform, as well as environmental solutions like river cleanups and renewable energy. He emphasizes the country’s openness to innovative ideas: “You can really make a difference here. If you work really hard and come up with a unique idea, people might actually try it.”

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Vassar College student Allison Good has written for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, LA, and the Poughkeepsie Journal in Poughkeepsie, NY. She is currently a student at Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School in Jerusalem and an intern at the Jerusalem Center.

About Allison Good

Allison Good is a graduate student at George Washington University. She earned a B.A in political science at Vassar and studied at Hebrew University. She has been an editorial researcher at Foreign Policy.com and has written for the Huffington Post, Tablet, the Jewish Week and The Times-Picayune.