New York, New York – The AIFL (America Israel Friendship League) is a person to person networking group that has been in existence for close to thirty five years that is also non-partisan and non-religious. It is an organization that focuses on building relationships and friendships between Israelis and Americans from all segments of their respective societies. Though it is not as much of a household name as AIPAC, it is a very influential organization.
The program was founded due to a perception by leading Israelis that among many segments of American society, very little was known about Israel. Given the nature of the goals of the AIFL, non-Jewish participation has been crucial to its success.
How does one accomplish PR for a country? The AIFL has recognized that this is a complicated issue and has taken a multi-pronged approach. The first and foremost of these efforts are exchange activities aimed at a diverse array of groups. The participants in these exchanges range from students, artists, and teachers to slightly more political groups of people such as governors, state justices and legislators, and attorney generals. Other municipal figures are targeted as well. According to Ambassador Uri Bar Ner, advisor to the president of the organization, the networking has also been put to such interesting uses as anti-violence workshops for Israeli schools and sports functions with the NCAA.
Exchanges and awareness initiatives among high school students are important because they are able to reach the youth before they are exposed to the anti Israel bias that is pervasive among so many college campuses.
Mr. Bar Ner, claims that the AIFL has been very successful in bolstering awareness of Israel. He points out not only the large and diverse membership but also significant events occurring under the auspices the group. Ambassador Bar-Ner relayed the example of the divestment of Israel by the leadership of the Presbyterian church, of whom the AIFL hosted twenty of their priests and leaders. Subsequently, many of them initiated a campaign against divestment. The executive committee of the Presbyterian Church has since abolished their resolution.
The AIFL is not to be confused with such groups as AIPAC, which lobby at the federal level. Mr. Bar-Ner states that the AIFL is different in that it works towards “public relations and education” at the “grassroots, local, and state levels”. Support for Israel is being cultivated from the ground up across all segments of society. Guests that take part in the many exchanges run by the AIFL are invited not to be convinced, but rather to see for themselves why they should support Israel.
The AIFL also focuses on networking among business as it is key to Israel’s growth and to its incorporation into the world, and thus its well-being and security. In the words of Jack Kemp (R-New York) “trade crosses borders where armies don’t”. Considering the difficulties in establishing peace in the region, every source of integration counts.
While Christian pro-Israel sentiment is nothing new, the extent to which non- Jews have participated in the AIFL is noteworthy. Some participants include former congressman Jack Kemp, senator Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), Ken Salazar (D-Colorado), Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, and many other prominent non-Jewish politicians. While one may have originally wondered why attorney generals and state supreme court justices were so sought after by the AIFL, it is important to consider that many of these people go on to achieve higher posts, sometimes at the federal level. For example, the Secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton, was formerly a guest of the AIFL as Attorney General of Colorado. Historically, some members have included Scoop Jackson, Nelson Rockefeller, and Hubert Humphrey.
In regards to why he was so dedicated to the organization, Mr. Kemp had the following to say, “friendship between the US and Israel is not just important but crucial”. Mr. Kemp also expressed great happiness that Israel is now supported by both parties in congress.
Jack Kemp, Mitch McConnell, and Joe Lieberman, though seemingly representing vastly different constituencies, by both party and region, are very united in their views on the AIFL. However, one interesting difference between Mitch McConnell and Jack Kemp is that the latter had a significant background growing up with Jews while the former did not. Mitch McConnell was once posed with the question by a Jewish mentor in regards to his non-Jewish friends: “How many of them would they hide me in their attic?”. Hearing this question helped to illuminate the Jewish experience and played a significant role in guiding him to support Israel.
The AIFL annually bestows a “Partners For Democracy” award that honors people that have contributed to strengthening ties between America and Israel. The award also places emphasis on economic accomplishments. This years honorees were Lev Leviev, the international philanthropist and businessman, Chemi Peres, a leader in Pitango Venture Capital, one of Israel’s largest venture capital companies, and William Rhodes, the Chairman and CEO of Citibank who was instrumental in establishing a fully-functioning branch in Tel Aviv that continues to flourish today.
What is interesting about these men is that they are being honored as international businessmen that are working to integrate Israel into the world. This aspect of recognition is reflective of how international inclusion and economic prosperity are key elements in the development of democracy.
While official diplomacy is important, the continued success of the AIFL reminds us that we must remember to put due emphasis on the cultivation of ties between people as well as governments. In addition, we cannot overlook the importance of including economic ties in our considerations for peace. Such a model for cooperation could perhaps be applied to other contentious regions or between Israel and other Arab states. For more information, please visit www.aifl.org.