The Biggest Mistakes Pro-Israel Advocates Make #5: How to Win Over the Next Generation
Happy (almost) Shavuot, Hasbarites! You can shave your beards now. And get married. But you probably wouldn’t want to do both at the same time.
The mistake I’m about to talk to you about is committed by pretty much every single pro-Israel group ever. It also annoys me to no end. It’s not like it’s any more damaging than the other mistakes, I just find it the most grating. After all, why are organizations paying thousands of dollars to bring in top speakers like Prof. Alan Dershowitz or the Israeli Ambassador who deliver brilliant, passionate speeches, only to have around 10 people show up, all Jewish senior citizens who are already converted (and maybe the one young student who works part time for a production company who was paid to film the event – in other words most likely me)?
The problem is, young Jews in general aren’t raised with a sense of pride in their heritage. They take our history for granted as a result, and don’t seem to care enough to organize events on their own. Therefore, members of the older generation, in other words, Holocaust survivors and their children, usually end up taking all the initiatives. The reason for this is obvious – those who survived the Holocaust saw firsthand what widespread antisemitism can do so they are determined to stop it. They also intimately understand how important Israel’s existence is in order to protect us from what they have known to be a long history of very fickle governments.
There’s a catch: older folks tend to have no idea how to attract young people. For starters, older people often eschew social media, and if they are on social media they usually don’t use it properly. They host events that most young people would find unappealing in the modern age of soundbytes and interactivity, like a screening of a 3-hour documentary on the Dreyfus Affair or a long lecture from a rabbi about Jewish Law or a monotone history professor who rambles on about the 1947 Partition Plan. Even lectures by interesting and famous people like Kasim Hafeez are not well attended (there were more SJP people walking out in this video clip than people actually attending the lecture). Kasim is an excellent speaker and a Muslim Zionist who has seen and experienced firsthand the type of hate his community indoctrinates its adherents with, so I was actually very surprised about that turnout. This begs me to question: why aren’t the fish biting?
I learned in psychology class in undergrad that young people are egocentric, so they won’t want to attend events that force them to be passive and uninvolved. That’s why they are so attracted to the Palestinian side – because the Palestinian side makes them feel special, like they could make a change just by attending their events and boycotting Israeli products. Moreover, the Palestinian side guilt-trips them into not wanting to be associated with anything as “un-PC” as the real problems in the Muslim world. In fact, anything that doesn’t adhere to the radical leftist “social justice” code of conduct is deemed “un-PC” and therefore immoral and can result in severe punishments such as ostracism. Therefore, like socks and sandals, Zionist movements and their associated events are things students are made to feel that they shouldn’t be caught dead in. Manipulation at its most brilliant.
The anti-Israel side has a lot they can teach us. They host music festivals, trivia nights, and poetry slams, which young people really like and consider “cool.” They particularly enjoy these activities because they are interactive and allow everyone to actively participate and contribute, as well as take part in the trendy movement that is “social justice.” On the other hand, university students spend enough time in lecture halls, so unless the speaker is an actual celebrity or the documentary is less than 30 minutes long, they wouldn’t want to spend even more time in a lecture hall they could avoid it. That’s why we need to start holding events in cafés, lounges, and other places where young people of all cultures and creeds like to hang out. Our events have to be informative, but also fun and interactive. That’s why the Palestinian side has got marketing their cause down to a science! Trivia nights, music festivals, and poetry slams are perfect examples of exactly that. They allow people to bond and lose themselves in the experience, things young people enjoy and crave more than anything.
The pro-Palestinian side markets itself as a struggle, a hustle to get by. They relate to the student who is studying day and night while juggling a part-time job or even a kid or two. They relate to the student who is trying to find herself, struggling to make her way through the smoke and mirrors. The movement appeals to anyone who is going through a hard time, anyone who has ever felt oppressed and victimized. Their events are always free and almost always include childcare, in order to attract the most vulnerable and then relate them to their cause. Next to them, the “rich, elitist Jews,” with our ivory tower shindigs that sometimes cost hundreds of dollars (like the AIPAC conference) and involve nonstop bragging sessions about how successful, wealthy, and innovative Israel is, can be a huge turnoff to ordinary students who want a cause, a struggle to relate to, students who want to feel like they are helping make a difference in the world. We need to start appealing to the Davids of the world, as Ryan Bellerose so aptly put it in this amazing must-read post, and stop portraying ourselves as Goliaths.
This might seem like a bit of a digression but I think it’s a good analogy so I’m going to say it nonetheless. When I was in high school (and this is going to be bragging but anyone who knows me from high school knows this was true), I was consistently at the top of my class. I worked really hard and did really well, and very rarely struggled with concepts. When I did, however, I was never afraid to ask for help. When I did ask for help during a teacher’s office hours, I would frequently get shooed away. “You’re doing just fine, you’ll probably get 100 on the next test whether I help you or not, so I would prefer have more time to help the many students waiting in line behind you.” Don’t get me wrong, my teachers liked me and enjoyed chatting with me (I was, after all, awarded my school’s equivalent of Miss Congeniality at graduation), but they were totally right. I was usually smart and capable enough to eventually work through these concepts on my own.
So how does this story relate to Hasbara? If we portray ourselves as if we are at the top, nobody will want to help us or see the need to support us. Nobody sympathizes with the “poor little rich girl” in her Gucci sunglasses and her BMW convertible, as they assume her Daddy would get her a cushy job even if she graduates high school with straight Ds. Nobody feels the need to give aid money to Donald Trump. Most certainly, nobody wanted to waste their time helping the Valedictorian with a math problem I probably could (and eventually did) solve on my own. As Jews, while it’s important to celebrate our triumphs, we also need to emphasize our struggles, as the reason you hear people like Noam Chomsky say that antisemitism isn’t a problem anymore is because we don’t do enough of the latter. We don’t look like people who are resisting an existential threat – which we are!
Making events more attractive to young people will also make them more attractive to non-Jews, whom we absolutely need to focus on getting on our side because non-Jewish youngsters are overwhelmingly anti-Israel. Why? Because young people will do whatever is cool, and the “Social Justice Movement,” which unfortunately means anti-Israelism by extension, is what’s branded as “cool.”Anti-Israel leaders are mostly Arab youngsters who are trained up from birth to want to do this, feel it’s a tribal duty to increase their honour, and know what’s cool and understand what it’s like to be a college student in the 21st century! Pro-Israel groups don’t have that advantage because they’re run by people who haven’t been college students for the last 30-50 years! Contrary to popular antisemitic belief, there are too few Jews for us to ever have much power, so unless we can bring non-Jews into our cause, we won’t get anywhere. If your Hasbara documentary screening is going to just be yet another theatre full of Jewish retirees, might as well just screen the Golden Girls or I Love Lucy because it won’t make any more of an impact on our political goals and public policy than if we screened Crossing the Line 2. We want to persuade the leaders of tomorrow, not the leaders of yesterday!
The score has been settled: The anti-Israel camp has branded themselves as the cool kids and we have branded ourselves as the nerds. The pro-Israel movement has become a senile idiot who fell asleep at the wheel and didn’t notice this paradigm shift happening since the 1980’s, with its roots in the late 1960’s. This installment discussed only part how to become the “cool kids” again. The next installment will cover the missing piece of that puzzle…
NEXT: #6: How to Win Friends in Order to Influence People