Pro-Israel Advocacy: Out With The Old, In With The New
When I started speaking up on behalf of Jewish people and Israel, I had one goal: to dispel the notion that Jew hatred is in any way acceptable. As someone who has experienced bigotry and prejudice I didn’t like seeing it being applied to other people, and while I didn’t really know the internal politics of the Jewish community, I saw an issue and decided to apply my reasonable intelligence and somewhat strong will to try to fight something I find abhorrent.
When I started getting more involved several years ago, it was because a Jewish girl named Sarah reached out to me on Facebook. We went for supper (where she interrogated me), and by the end of the meal, we had decided we were going to be friends. She asked me to join a group she was starting, and that in a nutshell is how Calgary United with Israel really started. Sarah had been fighting with the local federation, who were stuck in the 1980s version of pro-Israel advocacy – the “stay quiet and don’t rock the boat” non-advocacy advocacy that many old-school Jewish organisations continue to insist is the most effective. They told her they had “studies” that showed that their form of advocacy worked better than being confrontational, but given the massive rise in antisemitism, I am not certain that they understood what was happening.
Many of this old guard – former activists who collect a safe paycheck now working for staid organisations – don’t really want to change anything. If you’re familiar with Alberta, you’ll understand when I describe it as an oilfield safety meeting: “nobody moves, nobody gets hurt.” They are tired because they fought the fight a long time (and a long time ago), but rather than step aside and let fresh legs run the race, they hang on because they think they know better, and stepping out of one’s comfort zone can be an exhausting experience. There are still some of the old guard who still fight hard, but those people are few and far between. The organisational task of these groups is no longer to defend Israel and the Jewish people, but to stay in the middle of the road and collect as much money in donations as possible. Many of them are successful, and their success has protected them: one wealthy lawyer in Calgary told me, “I’ve never experienced antisemitism in Calgary.” I told him to wear a kippah and to shop in the north east where I lived. He shops at Whole Foods and Holt Renfrew, and his life insulates him from the experience of the average Jewish person in Calgary. How can someone like that determine effective strategies?
You can trace the problem back to outdated ideas of advocacy, catering to the people they believe are important while simultaneously remaining oblivious to the actual majority. A gala event will certainly will help you get donors, but it will not help you persuade the average Joe to the righteousness of your cause. (especially when your keynote speaker is a guy most famous for cheating and lying about it *cough LANCE ARMSTRONG *COUGH, In fact, the other side uses those elitist fundraisers to attack Jews: “See those rich pale skinned people? They just charged $2,000 for a plate of food at their fundraiser. They are rich and don’t care about you.” If you think that doesn’t resonate with someone who might make $2,000 before taxes a month, you probably should stop reading now and go work for the federation, because I can’t help you.
The old federation pro-Israel advocacy consisted mainly of verbose posters, extolling the virtues of Israel and its people, computer chips, beaches in Tel Aviv, facts that nobody bothered to read. It consisted of being apologetic, on the defensive, sounding like you are trying to sell something rather than celebrating it, EXPLAINING RATHER THAN ADVOCATING. Even the name for what they did – “Hasbara” – means “explanation” and tends to sound more like rationalisation or justification for behaviour that those who advocated against Israel insisted was wrong. In fact, it became the tagline for “baffle them with bullshit” rather than disproving the claims of the other side. The old advocates were all slick-talking, suit-wearing “professionals” who came off like pyramid scheme prophets. They were taught obfuscation rather than plain talk, and they have actually hurt our cause. They might do well in backroom negotiation scenarios, but they cannot and should not be speaking to young people at universities.
I recently got myself into some trouble with CIJA the Committee for Israeli and Jewish affairs, because I took their “advocacy specialist” to task for something he was quoted for in an interview. He was quoted as saying something I found highly offensive to the effect of “do not defend the indefensible, like the settlements.” I said pretty bluntly that someone who feels that way shouldn’t be calling themselves an advocacy specialist, or presuming to teach pro-Israel advocacy. I doubt that endeared me to to them but I remain oddly unconcerned.
The problem is that these older-school organisations and federations don’t understand young people, sometimes even willfully. When many of my generation sees someone in a suit, we often tune them out. When they come up to us using unnecessary words to express an idea that could easily be captured effectively in just a couple, we (and likely many others) tune them out and roll our eyes. We are a generation that has grown up with Youtube, not even MTV. This generation thinks in sound bytes and doesn’t like anything that takes longer than 30 seconds to process (I am from the MTV generation just before these kids, and think in longer sound bytes and have an attention span of about a minute before I get bored.)
Most young people do not want to think deeply, and they would prefer that if you have something to teach them, you do it quickly and with minimal window dressing: offer plain talk, easy to understand, and they will listen. Be aware that if you try to talk with no purpose, you will lose your audience to their smart phones and are supplanted in seconds by Angry Birds, Clash of Clans, Facebook, or whatever game it is they are playing right now. if you look at the pro-Israel blogs that younger people read, you will see Israellycool, Blazingcatfur, and Elder of Zion, all of them blogs that combine humour with actual Israel news and NON APOLOGETIC PRO ISRAEL STORIES.
Effective,modern Israel advocacy is the opposite of what many existing organisations want. It is vibrant, unapologetic, boisterous and in-your-face. It is positive and yet unafraid to attack the other side’s hypocrisy. It is not defensive but rather, proactive. Its music festivals, ethnic food, and aggressive messaging target the emotional switches. Its events aren’t at the JCC but at the centre of campus and downtown in the city, not hidden away and preaching to the 15 Jews and 3 evangelicals in the choir. It is inclusive and builds bridges with other minorities, bridges that for too long were ignored because those communities offered no obvious benefit. Now, university students themselves are building these bridges – often with little or no help from existing organisations. They are, in fact, reanimating and redefining advocacy.
Effective speakers are no longer the slick suit-wearing pyramid scheme prophets, but genuine people who have captivating stories. They might not all sound like they attended Oxford like my friend Kaseem Hafiz,a man who at one point hated Jews so much he was considering how to become a terrorist. His awakening led him to become one of the most outspoken of young pro-Israel advocates. This new breed of pro-Israel advocates have something common with him: they all have engaging stories and are compelling speakers. There are people like Dumisani Washington, a tall African American Christian pastor, an incredible Zionist, who also happens to be an awesome dreadlock-wearing musician. I cannot make up these stories! You have guys like Izzy Ezagui, a good-looking American kid from Miami, who is very well-spoken – and who not so incidentally happens to be an incredible warrior who lost an arm in a mortar attack, rehabbed, and rejoined the army. Izzy, though, didn’t simply rejoin the regular army, but the ISRAELI SPECIAL FORCES, in less than a year (yes, with one arm). The average university student can relate to these guys because of their story alone, even if they may not agree with their politics. There’s Chloe Valdary, a young Black woman whose unapologetic advocacy should be the bellwether for any advocate. Chloe, who attended university in New Orleans, just decided one day she didn’t like seeing so much Jew hate and became a force for change. She started a pro-Israel music festival, and she speaks out against the coopting of the social justice movement by people who do not give a damn about social justice but simply stole the language.
What do you see here? And what do the old school organisations fail to see? It is not some suit droning on about how computer chips making Israel “cool.” These are story tellers making it cool to talk about Israel, and if we are honest, Israel needs better people telling its story than it has had. I cannot be more clear: Israel has one of the most compelling and engaging underdog stories in the history of the whole world, yet somehow it has let its enemy sell the false narrative that this small country is the Darth Vader of the Middle East. They have taken David and made him into Goliath, and they even call themselves – entirely unironically – the Philistines. Again, I can’t make this stuff up.
The saddest part is that many of this new type of advocate do not get enough support from the community organisations, and even worse sometimes they are actually actively fought against.
In Canada the organisation I helped start CUWI (Calgary United With Israel) has accomplished some amazing things in just two years, yet I found out from a friend who was helping me fundraise for a potentially paradigm-changing trip involving Native and Jewish activists that the CEO of CIJA expressed “grave concerns” about me personally, and about CUWI, and suggested that she distance herself from our efforts. He would not provide a reason for this view. He insinuated that I am in this only for personal financial gain, which is funny because by my calculation, I have now spent almost $15,000 of my own money in the past two years on Israel-related advocacy. I paid for a trip last year to Berkeley for myself and 3 other people to lay the foundation for my Native and Jewish activist trip; I paid my own way to Cal Davis to confront a Jew hating professor who was teaching lies to Indians. If the CEO of CIJA had asked me, I could have told him this, and proven my truth. It’s not about money – if that were so, I would have quit a long time ago.
On another occasion, several members of the Jewish club at UBC were pulled into a room and threatened that if they continued their association with one of the founders of CUWI, they would be unwelcome at Hillel; in fact, they were detained while Sarah and another woman handed out pamphlets. The woman accompanying Sarah was assaulted because there were only three people there – Sarah, the Chabad rabbi, and the woman I just mentioned. The seven pro-Israel students had committed to come and were waylaid by some Hilell and federation employees.
I had a talk cancelled by Hillel in Montreal, and I later found out that “an outside organisation” pressured them to cancel my presentation. While I am reasonably certain who was responsible for that, I didn’t speak up about it, because I didn’t want the university students to be the ones who took the flack for it. Besides I have had some amazing experiences with other Hillels like Indiana university where the Hillel people are brilliant.
Recently in California, a young pro-Israel activist named Sharon Shaoulian was doing exactly what I was talking about when it comes to modern advocacy, proactive, positive relationship building, she ran Ifest, a festival CELEBRATING Israel and Jewish culture, unapologetic visible advocacy, by all accounts brilliant and successful – yet the CEO of the local Federation insulted her in public, yelled at her, and attempted to publicly humiliate her. There is absolutely no excuse for his behaviour, and an apology is clearly owed.
There are people out there and some organisations who are really trying to be more modern and more effective at pro-Israel advocacy. They need to get it sorted, because frankly, we are at war; and one side doesn’t seem to get that and spends more time infighting and worrying about donations than actually taking the fight to the enemy. In a war you don’t waste time fighting with your allies, you find a way to get along without sabotaging them and you fight the enemy.