A year and a half ago, I penned a detailed guide to “hasbara” called “The Biggest Mistakes Pro-Israel Activists Make“.
This guide earned me a Hasby Award nomination, propelling me into hasbara stardom. (Just kidding. About the stardom part).
Since then, I’ve spent a year navigating the complex advocacy world of Columbia University, where I worked on my Master’s Degree. After observing very carefully, and comparing the pro-Israel and anti-Israel activists, I realized exactly why the other side is so effective, particularly at Columbia.
The anti-Israel side tends to be effective when the pro-Israel side is very leftist overall. Now I am not bashing leftists – rather recently, I was just as leftist as their average J Streeter, if not more, and still am center-left by Israeli standards. I am bashing their approach.
I felt compelled to write this article after seeing the results of the latest UN resolution, which Obama didn’t veto, that delegitimized the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria. My Facebook friends acted surprised and betrayed. Meanwhile, I just kind of snickered at them, because I totally saw it coming. It reflects an entire Western approach to an Eastern conflict that I find problematic in this context, an approach with two prongs:
- That if you hug your enemies tight enough they’ll love you
- Striving for a Compromise
These are both very Western frameworks for problem solving. It’s what works when negotiating with other Western nations, and it’s very easy to get sucked into the idea that non-Western nations are just like us, because it would be racist to think otherwise, right?
The key thing is that Israel is an Eastern country. Most Israelis are Mizrachi, Sephardi, or Arab. A minority are Ashkenazi, and even the Ashkenazis from Eastern European countries like Russia brought over an Eastern rather than a Western mentality. Furthermore, lest we forget that all Jews (who aren’t converts) trace their roots to the Middle East. All Jews can trace the roots of our culture to this very spot. So Israel is overwhelmingly Eastern, contrary to popular belief.
If you apply a Western problem-solving method to a characteristically Eastern conflict, you’re bound to run into problems.
There are far more Ashkenazim in the diaspora than Sephardim, so it can be easily surmised that most of the pro-Israel activists on campuses and elsewhere are Ashkenazi. Therefore, they have been assimilated into Western culture, and have taken on a Western problem-solving approach. Most of the anti-Israel organizations are run mostly by Arabs and Muslims, who tend to have a very Eastern approach. This ideological clash is why most advocacy gets lost in translation, and why most advocacy on Israel’s side uses the totally wrong approach because it’s ascribing a Western method to an Eastern conflict.
If we love our enemies enough, they’ll love us.
Although I’ve talked about this problem in the Smolani and Me series, I hadn’t yet realized how this issue applies to the campus. This is a problematic view that explains much of why Western countries do things they know are morally reprehensible, in the spirit of getting their enemies to love them and eventually listen to them. Western nations do this by voting in favour of anti-Israel resolutions at the UN to appease Muslims. It won’t appease recent Muslim immigrants, because the ideological issues most Muslims have with the West are much deeper than Israel. These immigrants immigrated for economic reasons, for a better quality of life, but most of them consider Western culture immoral, decadent, and superficial, too focused on career-building and rugged individualism and not focused enough on keeping the family together and maintaining piety. They see our acceptance of gays as abhorrent, as much as the professional anti-Israel activists love to pretend to be pro-LGBT and milk intersectionality to appease their leftist audience. So Western governments’ attempts to “kill them with kindness” don’t actually work, because their disapproval of us runs far deeper than policy.
I see a manifestation of this mentality on campus all the time. If I got a dollar for every time a pro-Israel activist came to me and complained that her club wanted to collaborate with SJP on a peace event, I would be a millionaire.
I also very often see pro-Israel groups trying hard not to offend SJP, out of the assumption that they just want peace like we do, even though they don’t say they want peace, they say they want justice. When I was at Columbia, Aryeh, a pro-Israel student group affiliated with Hillel, told us not to do anything for Israel Apartheid Week, because if we do, they will be provoked and it will escalate. However, my co-president and I saw how crucial it was that the haters didn’t give off the impression that their view was unanimous – as that would lead students to think their unanimity means they are right – so our very presence was of crucial importance. So we went big, and SJP and some anti-Israel Student Government members were so threatened by us they succeeded at shutting us down.
Oddly enough, Hillel also wanted to shut us down, because our presence was too offensive to the Palestinians. They sent people to our booth to try to convince us to take it down and that it’s the wrong approach, and when we refused, they made it a point to tell the media that we are crazy radicals who don’t represent them. Hillel was motivated by fear that we will undo all the careful diplomacy they’ve worked so hard on, as pro-Israel groups continue to assume that if they’re nice enough even to our sworn enemies, if we try very hard not to offend them, then suddenly they will like us.
While there is an element of truth to the importance of being diplomatic, the obsessive desire to do so often waters down the pro-Israel advocacy itself, as we have seen from their desperate attempt to ensure Israel Apartheid Week with its three anti-Israel displays (SJP, JVP, and Student Workers Solidarity) proceeds unopposed. In the desire to be “sensitive” to SJP and other anti-Israel groups, we shy away from the tougher topics and stick to “cherry tomato advocacy” – lighthearted, superficial fluff that’s meant to cast Israel in a positive light while ignoring the important issues that keep intellectuals from feeling comfortable supporting Israel.
Due to our fear of saying that only Jews are indigenous, or that we have a stronger claim to the land, or that Palestinians are the descendants of colonizers, or that the term “Palestinian” to refer to an Arab was only popularized by the PLO in 1964 to fake indigenous status when bragging about one’s colonialist ambitions was no longer cool, we put on cotton candy events. “Look how good this Israeli food is!” “Look how much technology we invented!” “Look how much Israel loves peace!” When things get rough, we get defensive rather than offensive. Unfortunately the result of all this is that intellectual, observant students, who are most likely to become the leaders of tomorrow, think that we are not super convinced of the veracity of our claim and are therefore masking that with frilly superficial cherry-tomato propaganda, or that have something to hide because we avoid the elephant in the room.
If we are seen as going out of our way to not offend the Palestinians, we are seen as doing so because we think we “owe them” for the Nakba in 1948, thus bolstering the “Israel steals Palestinian land” narrative (which is why I always say that we should completely cut any help or aid we give the Palestinian Authority or Gaza because they are not our responsibility, and the fact that we give them aid makes it look like we are paying reparations). Moreover, as I and others have said ad-nauseum, If you say “Israel invented cherry tomatoes” and they say “Israel kills babies”, we look like the assholes who are trying to cover up something or put rainbow cherry tomato band-aids over our gangrenous scars.
That being said, I’m not advocating you change your advocacy strategy to “Israel: Because We Aren’t Babykillers!” That’s defensive rather than offensive, and I’ve warned about these strategies in the second installment of my Hasbara Guide. I am saying that we should be instead turning the tables. We should not be afraid to offend the sensibilities of our Palestinian snowflakes, our sacred cows, because the only way we can get somewhere with advocacy is to do something that will inevitably offend them (since anything that is a strong argument against their narrative is bound to offend them). We need to point out the hypocrisies and falsehoods inherent in the Palestinian side. It’s what they do to us and why they are so effective. My suggestion is to take a common Palestinian argument and find someone to destroy it. Hillel at Hebrew U had a speaker named Dany Tirza, who was in charge of building the security fence. He gave an incredible presentation about why the wall is so important to the security of Israel. At the Jeff Seidel Student Center at Hebrew U, Steve Gar, who is in an elite anti-terrorism unit, talked about why Israeli security is important but also did a great job at pulling our emotional strings. Kay Wilson, who survived a machete attack and speaks at StandWithUs Galas and Synagogues, would be fantastic for campuses, but students are afraid to bring her because they are worried accusing the Palestinians of terror is too confrontational.
The only effective advocacy is at least somewhat confrontational in nature.
SJP is disruptive, and it works, because they appear passionate about rebuking the oppressor at every opportunity so their cause looks more legit. (That being said, I’m an advocate of free speech and do not support disrupting any Palestinian talks, rather I am all for challenging speakers in the question period).
Just as the West betraying Israel at the UN hasn’t stopped the surge of terror attacks that has plagued the region, so too does trying to “make nice” with SJP and the haters, and diluting our advocacy to avoid offending them, only weaken our case. We need to be strong, resolute, and unafraid of offending – because any good pro-Israel argument will cause the Palestinian side to act offended to encourage us to retreat, or to try to shut us down.
Remember this is an Eastern conflict and the only way to solve it is by Eastern methods. so if SJP doesn’t feel threatened and offended, it isn’t good advocacy.
Stay tuned for the next installment on the common misconception on campus that compromise will win the hearts of the next generation.