Winning the War
As Israel Apartheid Week returns to college campuses across the country, how should supporters of Israel fight the battle for hearts and minds?
Persuade the Undecided—Especially in the Classroom
Gilad Wenig is senior at New York University majoring in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies.
Earlier this month, the Israeli government announced that it would be dispatching over 100 Israelis to college campuses in the United States. Timed in accordance with Israel Apartheid Week, the “Faces of Israel” campaign is meant to counter anti-Zionist activities on campuses. But will this strategy work? I’m skeptical.
Quite often, speakers sponsored by the Israeli government come across as overtly partisan, and, in my experience, the people who go to such events already support the Jewish state. In addition, as a report recently released by the David Project claimed, pro-Israel speakers can often be “counterproductive” because they invite protest and controversy.
When he visited NYU in 2009, Yuli Edelstein, Israel’s minister of Information and Diaspora, asked a small group of students how to effectively rebrand Israel on campus. Overall, the answers were uninspired. Three years later, I have a suggestion: Leave it to us.
The key is shifting our focus from debating the anti-Israel types to engaging the much larger group that is undecided, uninformed, and vulnerable to persuasion by a politically assertive teaching assistant or controversial reading assignment.
Contrary to popular perception, students who support Israel can have a meaningful impact in the classroom. Empowering pro-Israel students to engage professors, teaching assistants, and even peers on contentious points should be highlighted as part of a multipronged approach to dealing with anti-Zionism on campus.
Just last year, in a survey course of modern Middle Eastern history, my professor made a comment insinuating collusion between colonialism and early Zionism. Based on sources I had read in another class, I immediately met with the professor and expressed my concern with linking the two, especially in an introductory course. After our lengthy and frank discussion, she publicly clarified her comments during the following lecture and insisted that she strives to maintain an unbiased atmosphere. And indeed she did so the rest of the semester.
Pro-Israel Jewish students can challenge professors directly. Just remember to stay cool-headed, and be sure to have your facts in order. Otherwise, you’re in for a very rude awakening.
Abandon Talking Points, and Embody the Right Values
Yoav Schaefer, a former IDF soldier, is the director of the Avi Schaefer Fund and a student at Harvard University.
Israel Apartheid Week is an unfortunate manipulation of the discussion about Israel-Palestine on campuses, but I believe its bark is worse than its bite. Negative and extreme forms of advocacy tend to alienate the very people they are trying to reach. This isn’t just true of the activists that organize campaigns intended to demonize Israel: It’s often true of the Jewish community’s reaction to such displays. Our overly robust response tends to confer greater legitimacy and publicity to anti-Zionist activities. This occurred in reaction to the University of Pennsylvania’s BDS Conference earlier this month and, unfortunately, seems likely to happen at Harvard’s One-State Conference that begins this weekend.
Consider the fact that about 65 percent of the coverage of last year’s Israel Apartheid Week was in Israeli or Jewish publications. It’s time to reevaluate the ineffective and often counterproductive forms of advocacy promoted by many Jewish organizations, and explore new ways to educate about Israel on campus.
As an activist fighting against divestment at the University of California at Berkeley in 2010, I watched as pro-Israel students, with their well-rehearsed advocacy points and flyers packed with facts, failed to combat the emotionally powerful narratives of pro-Palestinian activists. Our advocacy failed us at Berkeley, it has failed us on campuses across North America, and it will continue to fail us. And, let’s be honest, with the current direction of Israeli politics, it is becoming increasingly difficult to make the case for Israel on campus.
We cannot allow our Israel education to be defined by those who are anti-Israel. Nor can we fall into the trap of debating the merits of every Israeli policy—that’s a losing strategy. Instead, our task is to defend Israel’s fundamental right to exist. This can’t be accomplished through a well-oiled hasbara machine, but by personally embodying values and aspirations with which people can identify: empathy, understanding, and peace.
We need to admit upfront that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is complex, and confront anti-Israel sentiments with nuance and sophistication. Most importantly, we need to engage students with whom we disagree.
Rather than respond directly to Israel Apartheid Week, pro-Israel students should work to promote a culture of civility on campus, and focus on positive forms of Israel education that portray the Jewish state’s vibrancy. One-dimensional advocacy is counterproductive—uninformed students see it as anti-intellectual and ideological spoon-feeding. Only by discussing the fundamental meaning and purpose of Israel—not defending the status-quo, but challenging students to build a more perfect country that embodies the values of the Jewish people—can we transform North American universities into mechanisms for positive change. Indeed, the most important work on campuses is not countering anti-Israel groups, but changing the outdated models of advocacy and education within our own community.
Pro-Palestinian Doesn’t Mean Anti-Israel
Logan Bayroff is the president of J Street U National Student Board and a junior at the University of Pennsylvania.
When it comes to political activism on campus, it’s important to distinguish between what is anti-Israel and what is pro-Palestinian. At J Street U, we believe many parts of the Palestinian narrative are worthy of Jewish consideration. Israeli and American leaders have long understood that ending the conflict requires a two-state solution—and that means supporting Palestinian self-determination.
Of course there is another, uglier face of campus advocacy. Some groups denounce Israel’s very existence, often using the extreme language of apartheid. Understandably, this rhetoric, coupled with demonstrations involving “apartheid walls” and mock checkpoints, causes a great deal of upset among many pro-Israel students. Unfortunately, this tends to lead to exaggerated, pre-programmed responses that ignore the intertwined nature of the Israeli and Palestinian causes and hastily label various activities as anti-Israel or anti-Semitic.
Instead, we should encourage dialogue and pragmatism. Inviting students to discuss Israel’s strengths and challenges gives campus advocacy a productive focus. When the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement held a national conference at Penn last month, our Hillel and Israel advocacy leaders responded by organizing over 50 student-run dinner discussions for the general student body, where Israel was the focus. At dinners hosted by J Street U, students of different backgrounds and opinions came together to share their love for and critiques of Israel.
Weeks later, we held an event in conjunction with a pro-Palestinian student group, with a former IDF officer who is now a representative of a major Israeli human rights organization. Students were confronted with the hard reality of settlements and occupation and were at the same time exposed to a fiercely proud Zionist who is working to achieve the Israel envisioned by its founders. An approach like this trusts in students’ ability to appreciate complex situations. In campus advocacy, as in the conflict itself, extremism is best answered with moderation and engagement toward the achievement of shared goals.
Twenty years before Linsanity, the Knicks City Dancers took Madison Square Garden by storm. I should know—my aunt invented them.