I recently saw a deeply unsettling article in the Canadian Jewish News, written by a member of Independent Jewish Voices Canada, a Canadian offshoot of Jewish Voice for Peace, that urges the Jewish establishment to do away with integrating Israel advocacy into their youth programs.
While my first reaction was to be scared and worried for the next generation, aware of the tectonic shift away from enthusiastically supporting Israel that has happened in Jewish communities as of late, I eventually totally understood why the author felt that way.
I started to agree with her a bit. I realized then that we shouldn’t do away with Hasbara, but that our current model is totally unsustainable for the next generation and is causing us to lose people to the other side. It is absolutely essential that if we want to maintain a strong Zionist spirit and near-universal support for Israel among Jews, we absolutely must give Hasbara a complete makeover.
This whole idea that Hasbara necessarily means leaving your critical thinking skills at the door is worrisome to me. It should be about addressing tough topics, because I can promise you that every time I’ve seen an enticing J Street or JVP argument about some human rights abuse, I later find out that either there is an existential reason for that practice, the story is presented in a one-sided manner with Israel’s motive and the Palestinian provocation ignored, the story is an outright lie or heavily twisted, or there are deliberate and strategic omissions. Every. Single. Time.
So why are we trying so hard to hide it, if it can all be debunked?
Students don’t live in a vacuum. They’re bombarded with enticing anti-Israel arguments and plenty of guilt trips by highly trained propaganda artists. By unpacking the more unsettling stuff instead of ignoring it and talking about nice beaches and technological advancements, not only make these kids feel important by recognizing their intelligence and critical thinking, but also provoke ethical, philosophical, and critical discussions about what Israel’s really doing and why.
The crazy part is, you don’t have to become J Street to be critical. The problem with this model is that if you want it to be truly pro-Israel at its core, you need highly skilled Israel advocates who are up to the minute on the latest anti-Israel propaganda, who have integrated in leftist and Muslim circles and know what people are saying and what the truth actually is. Unfortunately, most people don’t have time for that, so they stick to what’s easy: talking about how great Israel is.
The issue with that approach is that it leaves intelligent students with an uncomfortable gap. They’re constantly exposed to anti-Israel propaganda, and Israel advocates like to ignore it or broadly dismiss it as rubbish for peace of mind. This gives off the impression that hasbara has something to hide.
The popularity of groups like J Street and JVP can be attributed to the fact that they make students feel enlightened, as if they’ve finally uncovered the secrets their youth groups and synagogues were hiding from them all their lives. Armed with this newfound one-sided “knowledge,” these young Jews feel compelled to act. So they do. That’s why anti-Zionist Jews tend to be the loudest. They act like an illness sufferer who just found a miracle cure, because that’s how the whole issue is treated.
Here is a sample way this tactic can be used by pro-Israel groups to prevent this from happening:
Facilitator: so I read an article in the paper that Israel is doing x, y, z. Have you also read this article?
Facilitator: why do you suppose Israel is doing that?
Student: because x, y, z.
Facilitator: do you think that justifies doing what it says in the newspaper?[intense ethical/philosophical discussion is provoked]
Facilitator: but what if I told you that in actual fact, Israel has [insert game changing fact here, or a subtle hint that the claim is suspicious] [discussion provoked]
Facilitator: and what if I told you that in actual fact, a, b, and c?[discussion provoked]
Facilitator: so the truth is, [facilitator, after unpacking Israel’s side bit by bit, gives an overall summary of the events and draws attention to the deliberate and strategic lying or omission in the media]
This approach is very helpful but takes a lot of skill, knowledge and training. It also takes a very intelligent facilitator. We need it though. In fact, as a rapidly increasing proportion of the population is college educated, this paradigm shift in approach is absolutely crucial.
- It doesn’t ignore the elephant in the room.
- It empowers participants, making them feel like they figured it out for themselves.
- It makes them naturally more aware and suspicious of anti-Israel media bias.
- It doesn’t make it look like we have something to hide.
- It elicits thought-provoking discussions and makes students feel like you respect their intelligence and critical thinking and don’t take them for Hasbara-consuming robots.
- The knowledge sticks better because it was figured out through discussion rather than passively disseminated via lecture where most young people are on their phones half the time and not paying attention. Discussion style forces them to get involved and absorb the material.
- It ensures students are always up to the minute and prepared to deal with whatever anti Israel stuff goes their way, instead of being flustered and saying “wow….maybe you’re right…” which can easily descend into an anti-Israel spiral.
- It highlights the ethical dilemmas Israel is faced with every day, and teaches participants a way of thinking that involves “so why would Israel do this? What are we missing here?”
- It removes the forbidden fruit aspect of “the other side” that enticed people to groups like J Street and JVP, because we really are only exposed to one side in conventional Hasbara, and it reeks of deliberate brainwashing.
- It unmasks the other side and shows that the emperor really does have no clothes, without it appearing deliberate or malicious. A lot of people have friends in anti-Israel groups, and feel kind of bad demonizing them as evil antisemitic jerks, which many young people see as a gross mischaracterization, since they know these people outside of their political views and understand their complexity and nuance.
- It discussion format instead of the lecture format engages students and makes them feel part of the message, talked with rather than talked at. Given that we are in the “me” generation, that’s kind of a big deal.
I never thought I would relate so intensely for an article that requests doing away with pro-Israel advocacy for young people. The truth is, however, that if we don’t make those changes that completely redefine what pro-Israel means to young people, we might just lose them for good.