When I asked the man next to me in a crowd of several hundred pro-Israel demonstrators outside the Time-Warner Center in New York if Chloe Valdary had spoken yet, I was met with immediate enthusiasm at the very mention of her name. “Chloe is amazing … so determined. We need more like her,” the man said. An hour later, Valdary headed to the platform dressed, as any 21-year-old might be, in jeans, gold hoop earrings, and pink-rimmed sunglasses. As soon as Valdary’s name was called, protesters turned to each other and murmured in excitement.
“Judea!” she shouted in greeting. Speaking in a slow, lyrical rhythm, Valdary emitted a type of love letter to the Jewish people. “You are the sons and daughters of former slaves in Egypt, of warrior poets, and kings who slayed giants, and queens filled with courage, and prophets and dreamers,” she proclaimed. “Rise, Zion, rise,” she declared in closing, and the crowd immediately began to chant her name.
While some of the enthusiasm surrounding Valdary’s activism might stem from her large and precocious talent as a public speaker and provocateur, it is often accompanied by a sense of bewilderment as to how an African-American Christian from New Orleans became a self-appointed defender of the Jewish people. Yet her journey is more organic than many realize, she explained to me, when we spent a day together recently in New York. After her father came to the conclusion that the New Testament could not exist without the Old Testament, she told me, her family left their Baptist church and began to incorporate the laws of the Old Testament into their religious outlook, finding fellow believers in this form of Christianity at the Intercontinental Church of God in New Orleans. Since Valdary was a child, her family has not celebrated mainstream Christian holidays; instead, they observe Shabbat and Jewish holidays and keep kosher according to the Leviticus dietary laws. “That distinction between mainstream Christianity and how I observe my Christianity has shaped the way I think about the world, the way I think about myself, the way I think about others,” she said.
Valdary’s interest in Judaism and Israel, first introduced to her through her religious upbringing, began to grow consistently as she matured. She remembered picking up a few leftover Leon Uris books that were being given away in high school—“it was like divine providence,” she said, the cover looked interesting—and being captivated. When she took an Intro to International Studies course in the second semester of her freshman year at the University of New Orleans, she wrote a research paper in which she studied the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the constructivist theory of international relations, which focuses on the ramifications of social and cultural practices on international affairs. The paper delved deeply into the influence of anti-Semitic values on Palestinian ideology and legislation. Valdary remembered having been appalled at the existence of anti-Semitism ever since watching Schindler’s List at the age of 14. Writing this paper clinched it: She had to do something.
First, Valdary changed her major from film to international studies. Then, at the start of her sophomore year, she decided to take action against anti-Israel sentiment by founding the first pro-Israel group on her campus, Allies of Israel, which received funding through the Campus Activist Project of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting (CAMERA). There are fewer than 100 Jewish students on University of New Orleans’ 13,000-student campus, and anti-Israel activism has not been rampant at the school. But in the spring of her sophomore year, Valdary led Allies of Israel, which consists of about 10 students and a “Campus Adviser,” in organizing a pro-Israel rally at the school. They called it Declare Your Freedom.
While the rally only attracted about 100 onlookers, Valdary’s speech, in which she made an impassioned argument for the necessity to fight against anti-Semitism, went semi-viral, receiving about ten thousand views within a week. It also attracted the attention of Charles Jacobs of Americans for Peace and Tolerance, who contacted Valdary with an interest in filming her speech in a studio setting. Israeli social media picked up the video, and the views began to skyrocket. It was midterms week for Valdary at the time; “this was a bad time for something to go viral,” she said, recalling the countless messages that she began to receive online.
Almost immediately, Valdary found herself receiving attention from the most prominent Israel advocacy organizations in the United States. She was contacted by AIPAC, which invited her to their policy conference, and she visited Israel for the first time through AIPAC’s Milstein Foundation Campus Allies Mission to Israel in May of her sophomore year. She also began to collaborate with ZOA, joining their Israel trip this past December and speaking at their spring conference. As a college junior last year, Valdary juggled her work in the public sphere with her campus commitments, partnering with the pro-Israel group at Tulane University this past spring to organize Declare Your Freedom 2.0 at Tulane, which attracted 400 students. She spent her 21st birthday in July waving an Israeli flag in front of protesters stationed outside of Christians United for Israel’s Night to Honor Israel.
These public displays have made Valdary the subject of considerable criticism by commenters on Twitter and Facebook, some of whom turn to racist comments to express their disdain for her political views. One of the most common criticisms, Valdary said, is the question of how much she is being paid for her advocacy work. Valdary—who earned $1,000 from the Birthright Alumni Community for an appearance with Brooke Goldstein at a Jewish Enrichment Center event in New York this summer—argued that the fees she received weren’t the point. What her critics don’t comprehend or want to address, she said, was the extent of her personal attachment to the issue and the depths to which she goes for it.
When asked about the desired results of her advocacy work, Valdary was quick to name some tangible goals. “I want to see an end to professors being allowed to spew anti-Semitism in the classroom and on college campuses,” she said. She also said of the United States that “I want our funding to organizations that promote and spread anti-Semitism to end.” Valdary also had a less tangible goal in mind for the State of Israel. “I understand that there may be some pragmatic issues to deal with in regards to bringing this into fruition. But I maintain that the Jewish people have exclusive sovereign rights, from the river to the sea, to Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel),” she said of her ideal solution to the current conflict. “I believe that Arabs should have full civil rights in the land in question, that all terrorists should be deported, and the worst offenders executed,” she added.
Valdary’s primary current goal is an increase in Jewish pride, an idea that she links to her study of the African-American Civil Rights movement. “If you look at the black pride movement, it came out of the civil rights movement,” she said. “Not everything in the Black Power movement was kosher,” she is quick to say, “but it’s the principle, right? We had a rich literature and art and all kinds of things coming out of the Black Power movement.”
Valdary would like to see the ideas of black pride echoed in the modern Zionist movement. “In pre-state Israel and when the state was being formed, it was more active,” she said of Zionism. “There was artwork being produced, there was poetry and songs for love of country and there was so much pride.”
In addition to the ideological links between both movements, Valdary often draws upon the historical connection between African American Civil Rights advocates and pro-Israel activism, which she believes go unrecognized by many African Americans. “Zionism is a fundamentally anti-colonialist idea, and a lot of the black leaders recognized that,” she said. “W.E.B. Dubois was a Zionist. He wanted what Zionism was for Jews, for Africans. People don’t know this.”
Finding these connections has enabled Valdary to incorporate her African-American identity into her work. But while many may think that recognizing African-American history within the pro-Israel struggle is what led Valdary to dedicate herself to this cause, Valdary said that it actually happened in reverse. “It was Zionism that brought me back to the civil rights movement,” she said, acknowledging that she may have taken her own history for granted growing up. She emphasized that her identity as an African American isn’t the primary motivator of her pro-Israel work; instead, she is propelled by the fact that she truly identifies with the Jewish people. In learning about Judaism as part of her religious upbringing, Valdary found herself identifying with the fundamental moral values that she associated with the Jewish tradition. “The Jewish people have a culture and a history that is based, to me, on one central tenet, and that is learn to discern,” she said. “Learn to discern between right and wrong, choose right. That was what I learned growing up. Because those lessons came out of Torah, and those lessons came out of learning about this People of the Book, and because that identity is now a part of who I am, it is now linked. Without [the Jewish] people, I would not have my identity.”
Many of Valdary’s online fans and critics alike do not recognize the extent of her personal connection to her work, and she acknowledged that this misconception can sometimes be helpful in increasing the power of her message. “If I’m perceived as someone who has no stake in this fight, but I’m taking my time out to fight and fight so vigorously, then I think it makes people stand up and say, ‘Well, wait a minute, this is interesting.’ ”
Even so, Valdary takes care to make sure that her intense emotional attachment comes through in her writings and speeches, in contrast to the more distanced and analytical style favored by many mainstream Jewish organizations and pro-Israel advocates. “We’re not having a conversation that is linked to our identity,” she said of the pro-Israel community. “It’s a detached conversation. Anti-Israel groups like to have this conversation about colonialism, oppression, aggression. They’re having a fundamentally moral discussion. It’s not a political argument, it’s not a pragmatic argument, it’s a moral argument. We’re having a completely different conversation.”
To steer the conversation in a more personal direction, Valdary relies upon her skills as a storyteller. Valdary has been drawn to the art of the story since high school, where she developed a love of screenwriting and filmmaking and studied film at an arts conservatory that had a partnership with her public New Orleans high school. Her creative impulses are visible in her speeches, which are more reminiscent of the work of a slam poet than a political activist. “I love spoken-word poetry and I love the arts in general,” said Valdary, citing the influence of New Orleans-raised spoken-word poets Anis Mojgani and Sunni Patterson, as well as Martin Luther King, Jr., in inspiring the rhythmic style of her speeches. Valdary feels that her poetic style is instrumental in inspiring emotional connection in pro-Israel advocates. “It’s not something you’re supposed to be detached from emotionally,” she said. “You’re supposed to be invested in this fight from a personal standpoint. When your dignity as a people is being called into question, you have an obligation to stand up for yourself. It’s not just about the politics.”
Valdary’s senior year of college is already jam-packed; she has already gotten invitations to speak at colleges, and she will also be planning her last Declare Your Freedom event before graduating. As for the future, Valdary is ambitious. First, she hopes to live in Israel for a year, working the land and studying Zionism. “Then, I would come back and start a Zionist movement in the country. I’m very serious about that,” she said. “I want to see a movement that centers around Jewish pride. A Jewish renaissance in this country.”
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Isabel Fattal, a former intern at Tablet Magazine, attends Wesleyan University.
Isabel Fattal, a former intern at Tablet Magazine, attends Wesleyan University.