As BICOM head quits, time to assess how, and how well, boosting Israel works in UK

March 2, 2012
Sarah Benton

Lorna bids a sudden farewell to Bicom

Jewish Chronicle

The chief executive of the UK’s top Israel pressure group is to step down to “pursue new opportunities”, after almost six years at the helm.

Former Labour MP Lorna Fitzsimons, below, will leave her role at the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (Bicom) next week. She led the team which launched the We Believe in Israel conference last year, attracting 1,500 people and more than 80 speakers from around the world.

But despite appointing a dedicated We Believe director, Luke Akehurst, this year’s conference, due to take place in April, has been shelved, in favour of smaller, localised events.

Ms Fitzsimons took up her post in 2006, taking over from Israeli diplomat Danny Shek. The role of the organisation has largely been to counter anti-Israel propaganda and negativity in the media and the political arena, with many journalists and politicians visiting Israel on Bicom tours.

Ms Fitzsimons said: “I did not feel I could explore other opportunities while also devoting my full attention to the hugely demanding role of CEO, especially at this time of immense challenge and threat in the region. The organisation and the pro-Israel community need and deserve this focus from Bicom’s CEO, and in all honesty I could not do that and review new roles at the same time. This decision has not been an easy one, but I think it is the right one at this time.

“To be able to work on an issue that you believe in and care about is a luxury not many people have. My belief in what we do and its importance has not diminished. Now, more than ever, Israel needs friends and I can assure you I will never stint in my efforts to promote and defend her.”

Ms Fitzsimons’s interim successor will be Dermot Kehoe, partner of the late chair of Labour Friends of Israel, David Cairns MP.

Bicom board chairman Poju Zabludowicz said the board had reluctantly accepted her resignation. He said that under Ms Fitzsimons Bicom had “excelled” in campaigning against boycotts of the state, and issues such as a nuclear Iran and Operation Cast Lead.

“Under Lorna’s leadership Bicom has reached exemplary levels. She leaves a huge mark on the organisation, the pro-Israel community and Israel advocacy.”

However, there were other less positive comments. One senior community figure told the JC that pro-Israel advocates in the UK and US believed it was time for a change in strategy from Bicom. One said: “Last time I was in Washington and mentioned Bicom to [US pro-Israel lobby group] Aipac representatives, they were surprised Lorna was still in position.

“If you do a survey which says a larger percentage of the British people hate Israel now than they did five years ago, clearly the strategy has not been working. To be very charitable, I would say nothing has been happening, and that Israel advocacy has got worse. It’s time for change. Bicom should be focused on getting our community passionate, dynamic and loudly supportive.”

Israel advocacy is strong, but we need your help to carry on

By Lorna Fitzsimons,

After five years at Bicom I have the chance to take stock. I believe Israel advocacy is now much stronger in the UK and better serves the community and Israel.

Before Bicom, my sole exposure to pro-Israel advocacy had been the Union of Jewish Students when I was at the National Union of Students, and Labour Friends of Israel when I was an MP. Both were, and are simply brilliant. Yet as involved as I was I didn’t really know of Bicom. There was also nothing for me to get involved in as a non-Jew in between being a student and being an MP.

Over the past five years Bicom has committed itself to trying to achieve a more balanced hearing for Israel in the media and developing a more joined-up approach across the community towards pro-Israel advocacy. That was evident in that marvellous day last May when 26 organisations came together to inspire 1,500 people under the banner of “We Believe in Israel”.

Five years ago many thought that pro-Israel advocacy was only done by Jews. Bicom is now run at the senior level by predominantly non-Jewish staff. Five years ago, there was no real coordination between UK and international advocacy organisations. Now Bicom is held up as an international example of best practice and regularly called upon to brief and train others.

We now have a well-developed and practiced crisis management system and protocol run jointly with the JLC. We used it to great effect in response to Operation Cast Lead, in 2010 as the first Flotilla hit the headlines, as well as last year during the Palestinian bid for UN membership.

Five years ago none of the British pro-Israel advocacy organisations had a presence in Israel and we weren’t really on the Israeli government’s map. Bicom now has an office there allowing us to provide a seamless service for journalists and sister organisations in the region. We are regularly brought into discussions by governments in the UK and Israel as trusted experts. Five years ago there was a lot of turning a blind eye in Britain. Today we have faced up to the use of London as a hub for delegitimisation and we are working hard to counter efforts to portray Israel as a pariah state. This work really started with the Stop The Boycott Campaign, whichlifted advocacy out of smoke-filled rooms to the front pages of every national newspaper. To this day no UK academic institution has boycotted Israel, despite the efforts of the BDS campaign.

Today the danger is bigger than at any other time I can remember, yet we are stronger and have more allies than we think. However there are more projects than we have money for. There is no shortage of the best of the best wanting to work with us, But we can’t do it on thin air. The community talks about wanting a grass roots movement but it hasn’t yet put its money where its mouth is. For example, it talks about the trouble in British Trade Unions yet one of our most underfunded organisations is Trade Union Friends for Israel.

The professionals working in advocacy in the community are some of the best in the world but as the task gets bigger it can’t all be left to a few dedicated people. The time is now if we want to have impact. We can still turn this around. Our polling shows that 22 per cent of the public are with us and 13 per cent against, 17 per cent don’t give a damn and the rest are up for grabs.

The British people like an underdog, for sure, and they think Israel overreacts. But they also think Iran is the biggest problem, they place Hamas rejectionists second, and they did not like the Palestinians’ unilateral moves at the UN. They want to see a Palestinian state but they don’t blame Israel for that not having happened yet. As for their reaction to the Arab spring, it has been more astute than that of the political and media classes. They understood what Israel did, that the upheavals made peace more important than ever but also harder to achieve.

It has been an honour to work for Bicom and with so many wonderful and brilliant people. I will continue to advocate and indeed agitate for you and Israel whatever I do. Let me leave with two quotes that I have to constantly remind myself of. The first is from Abraham Lincoln: “Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other.” The second is from Winston Churchill: “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”

Lorna Fitzsimons served as the CEO of Bicom from 2006 to 2012

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