Israel Advocacy - Grass Roots Activism

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Handbook of Israel Advocacy

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The Case for Israel


Concepts & Definitions



Forming Opinions

Narratives and Issues


Applying the Basics

Techniques & Tactics

Grass Roots Activism


Using the Web

Proactive Advocacy

Anti-Israel Narrative

Zionist Narrative

Web Use Guide

Grass Roots Guide

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The heart of any political movement is grass roots activism: the petition, the letter writing campaign and the demonstration. The heart of grass roots activism is "taking it to the streets." A political movement that advocates a cause cannot exist only in the abstract, through advertisements or in closed meetings or gala gatherings or Web sites alone. In order to get mass support, a movement must have a presence on the street and in campuses, and must be able to make that presence felt when it is needed to back an issue. The "spontaneous" anti-war demonstrations, like the "spontaneous" anti-Israel demonstrations, many of which happened "spontaneously" in several cities on the same day around the world were well organized. Likewise the "spontaneous" boycott and divestment petitions that appeared in the same period in churches and unions and universities in different parts of the world, all required masterful organization and a source of funds. Someone paid for publicity and transportation, someone compiled lists of the faithful. To anyone who thinks about it, it is obvious that these are all the results of coordinated campaigns. To those watching the demonstration on television, it may seem like a "spontaneous" eruption of outrage at the "war crimes" of the Zionists.

Grass roots activities and initiatives are the way to build a movement while educating the public, as well as a way of changing public opinion and influencing government action.

The Zionist movement, especially in the United States, never excelled at grass roots activism. Now it seems reluctant to engage in it at all. A rally against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was sabotaged by domestic political bickering. Large anti-Israel rallies often do not elicit counter-demonstrations. Whatever pro-Israel demonstrations there are, are run by tiny groups, often extremists, with little following, or they are organized through schools. It is difficult to get people to even write letters. It may take time and a directed effort to get Jews to be advocates for their own rights, but that is what must be done.

The main barrier to overcome in grass roots activism is your own reticence and characteristic Jewish fears of "making waves" in connection with Jewish political issues (it is no problem to get Jews to demonstrate on other issues). After you have engaged in some of these activities you will find that it becomes progressively easier and more natural.

Most of the information below is not arcane and is not "advanced techniques." Unfortunately, most of our groups and volunteers don't seem to know the basics.

Below is a modest overview of grass roots activities. A more detailed guide is given in Appendix D.

Grass Roots Resources

There are comprehensive guides to grass roots activism for specific projects and with a general orientation, both published as printed books and online. Here are a few that you can and should consult for ideas

http://www.middle-east-info.org/take/wujshasbara.pdf - WUJS Israel advocacy handbook.

http://www.november.org/BottomsUp/ - A Guide to Grass Roots organizing - how to do everything and what to do - prepared for an organization that lobbies against drug laws.

http://ran.org/fileadmin/materials/global_finance/Flyers_and_Signs_Posters/Toolkit_-_No_New_Coal_Campaign.pdf - A very valuable guide prepared by the "No New Coal" group, but useful for any group.

http://www.peta.org/actioncenter/AAactguide10.asp - Peta's activism guide tells you how to start a group, how to do public speaking, prepare materials etc.

http://action.aclu.org/site/PageServer?pagename=AP_effective_activism - Almost all the activities recommended by the ACLU apply to any cause.


The methods and paraphernalia of grass roots activism are various and only limited by your imagination. Try to do memorable or interesting things at events that will attract media attention without alienating people. One group brought a bus destroyed by a suicide bombing to the Hague court. A rabbi protesting against Israeli policy "bought" a lot of publicity by deliberately getting himself arrested. Speakers, flyers, hats and T shirts and pins and posters with slogans and symbols, demonstrations, counter demonstrations, teach ins, petitions, letter writing campaigns, films, books, boycott initiatives and picketing of institutions are all important parts of a grass roots activist campaign. Each or any of these initiatives may "fizzle." The aggregate will help spread the word about your cause, and you and your group will learn from your mistakes. One or two outstanding successes can help put a tiny group "on the map."

The basic idea of grass roots activism is to make yourself public and to involve the public - everyone - in your cause. The techniques vary, but the major tools of grass roots activism are:

  • Demonstrations and counter demonstrations;
  • Petitions;
  • "Tables" and handouts in universities and other public venues;
  • University "days," "weeks" and panel discussions devoted to your cause;
  • Letter writing campaigns
  • Writing Op-Eds for newspapers and at your own Web site or Web log
  • Use of the Web, email and Internet (covered in the section on Web use);

All of these activities may "look simple," but they are not. They require careful organization and planning, a flair for publicity, and careful preparation of content and messages to ensure that they are effective in convincing "outsiders" - those who are not necessarily involved in the middle east or committed to a particular point of view.

Advocacy groups can and must learn to do all of the above to be effective and reach a large audience. The different types of events are not isolated activities, but part of a process of building your group and gaining adherents for your cause. The events and initiatives must be public. When planning allocation of resources among events, and planning the venue of the event, remember that you are trying to reach the public, not other convinced people. A "table" at a university that attracts a half dozen people who never thought about Israel before is more worthwhile than a Hillel event that attracts 200 people - all of them convinced Zionists who came to hear their own opinions being reinforced.

Events should be in public places that are "generic" and open to all - not Jewish centers or Hillel clubs or other places that are going to attract a mainly pro-Israel audience.

Demonstrations and Rallies

Like the petition, the demonstration or rally should be about a specific theme and should be planned well in advance. BEFORE you announce the date or other information, make sure you have permission to hold the demonstration and that you will have funds, if needed, to cover transportation. After those are all in place, your Web site should have a flyer for the demonstration. You should notify media through press releases and telephone calls to journalists about the demonstration and try to ensure there will be coverage. Try very hard to have all your plans finalized before you start major publicity, to avoid confusing "corrections."

Annoncements of the rally must be careful to state the time and place, including the city, and a telphone and email contact should be given for coordination and last minute information.

A committee should be in charge of trying to ensure that inappropriate placards and slogans are not displayed, and of ensuring discipline and defense if needed in case of confrontations with counter demonstrators.

Counter Demonstrations

For groups that do not have many members or contacts, it can be difficult to organize an effective demonstration. A counter-demonstration can meet some of the same objectives with much less time and logistical effort. Counter-demonstrations are also often important for specific issues, though they are inherently reactive rather than pro-active.

A counter-demo involves getting a group of pro-Israel people together to stand across from an anti-Israel demonstration with a pro-Israel message. It provides the opportunity for some of the same activities as your own demonstration: Signing up supporters, outreach to passersby, and media exposure. It also usually will not require any permits (check local regulations). It can be mobilized in a relatively short amount of time by e-mail and social media; often people on our side will be more willing to come out to challenge and confront those who demonize Israel and distort the facts. The larger the original demonstration, the more likely it is that it had advance publicity and the easier it is for you to organize a counter-demonstration.

A counter-demo has its own specific advantages. It doesn’t require as many people to get nearly equal media coverage. Media love to present controversy and people with opposing views. It doesn’t matter quite as much if there are 2500 people on one side of the street and 50 on the other, but of course, people may draw unjust conclusions if you have only a few demonstrators versus a large crowd.

The Petition

Petitions, whether they are run online or signed on actual paper, are a valuable way of expressing public opinion and of educating the public about a specific issue. They help build grass roots support and grass roots organizations around issues and proposals.

Writing Letters

Letter writing campaigns and individual letters to media, to government institutions and to businesses are an important part of grass roots activism. Open letters, and letters that are made public through your Web site or mailing list also help to educate the public and inspire activism. Be sure to include the address of the person or institution so that others can write.

Letters should always be polite and concise. Letters to newspapers should usually be no more than 150 words in length, and must include contact information so that publishers can verify that you sent the letter and want it published.

"Boilerplate" letters that repeat the same message are sometimes, but not always, a waste of time. Public officials often have functionaries who count the number of letters that advocate different issues. However, it is always better to be original or at least make modifications in a form letter.

Never write 'boilerplate' letters to newspapers or media. Sending different letters conveys the message of spontaneous protest or writing. Newspapers will never print letters that are not original. Do not send the same letter to different newspapers at the same time, either.

Tables and Handouts

A table can be set up and manned on busy streets, where permitted, and in universities. Be prepared for hecklers. Having several members manning the tables discourages problematic behavior. The table can be there to gather signatures for a petition, but it can also simply distribute information. The table should be focused around a specific issue, but handouts and fact sheets may cover numerous different issues. These can include, for example:

  • Israeli democracy;
  • Arab non-recognition of the Jewish right to self-determination as the cause of the conflict;
  • "Anti-Zionist quotes" - collections of quotes showing the real intent of Arab and anti-Zionist leaders.
  • "Zionist quotes" - it is easy to find numerous quotes showing the pacific and progressive intent of the Zionist movement.
  • Human rights in the Middle East;
  • Biography of a terror victim;
  • The Nazi background of Palestinian nationalism;
  • The mythical "right of return" and why Palestinians raise this issue;
  • Jewish national rights in Jerusalem;
  • The Hamas charter;
  • Israeli peace efforts;
  • Why boycotting Israel is wrong;
  • Israel is not an apartheid state.

The table can also be used to distribute announcements for an upcoming demonstration or counter-demonstration. All such tables should have a page where people can leave their names and contact information (make sure it is legible) as well as prepared handouts on plain white paper about different issues. A table can be part of an "Israel day" at a university, or it may be a "counter-demonstration" during a university "Israel Apartheid Week" demonstration.

University Events

Campus activism can consist of separate activities or a coordinated day or week around a theme. Anti-Israel activists have been fairly successful in promoting their Boycott Israel and Israel Apartheid campaigns through such tactics.

Events and activities can include, for example:

  • Invited speakers
  • Tables and petitions;
  • A political film such as Obsession;
  • Israeli food and wine tasting - a great low-key way to make friends for Israel - and an opportunity to put across your message;
  • Cultural events;
  • Panel discussions.

Be sure to choose public, non-Jewish venues for exents. You are not only more likely to get neutral people to attend that way, but you are also more likely to attract attendance of uncomitted Jewish students.

For panel discussions, be sure that a reasonable spectrum of opinion is included. If anti-Israel groups organize the panel, and even the Israeli speakers are anti-Zionist, it is probably not worthwhile participating. Make sure that panels are not scheduled for the Sabbath or Jewish holidays when there may be no Jewish students on campus, and make sure that "our side" knows about the discussion and will be there to help ensure that the audience gives everyone a fair hearing.


There is always an individual or group of people who are ready to explain why your initiative will not work, or is not worth doing. They will say things like: "You'll never get many people to view your Web site" (how's 3 million and counting?) "Internet petitions never accomplish anything," "Politicians don't read those letters," "Demonstrations won't change a thing," Don't listen to them. If you need to convince them, point out that anti-Israel groups have used precisely these methods to change public opinion, a little bit at a time, and that's why Israel finds itself on the defensive.

Grass roots tactics work: Anti-Israel groups have used precisely these methods to change public opinion, a little bit at a time, and that's why Israel finds itself on the defensive.

For an expanded guide to Grass Roots activism see "Appendix D: Grass Roots Activism - A Comprehensive Guide."



This material is copyright © 2009 by Ami Isseroff and members of the Zio-Web group. No part may be reproduced without permission in any form.

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