Spring semester on North American campuses is well known to have an elevated level of anti-Israel activity. Between the annual Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Conference which occurred this month at the University of Pennsylvania; Israel Apartheid Week, coming to campuses Feb. 26-March 3; and the “Al-Naqba” demonstrations marking the “catastrophe” of Israel Independence Day, we are about to see a wide range of anti-Israel activities on university campuses.
The goal of this activity is to demonize and delegitimize Israel. In my 10 years of experience working with campuses across North America, I have yet to see an initiative to educate students about Palestinian culture, history, or society. There is nothing “pro-Palestinian” in the activities of those who claim to support Palestinians. Every element of their activities has one objective: to make Israel look bad.
What is the best strategy to counter these efforts? Many believe we must rigorously expose the true intentions of those who are so hateful of Israel. When blatant lies and distortions are presented as facts on the ground, we shouldn’t sit back and allow these libels to remain unanswered.
This is certainly an important endeavor in educating our own Jewish community, as well as our engaged partners and friends. The Jewish community and its partners must have the facts, knowledge, and awareness to counter the lies and malicious tactics of Israel’s enemies. This is even truer of younger Jews who often lack the historical perspective of or personal connection to Israel.
But if our goal is also to influence those who are not as engaged in issues surrounding Israel — i.e., the vast majority of the population — is exposing anti-Israel propaganda the best tactic? I would argue it is not for two reasons.
First, by aggressively condemning Israel’s enemies, we are also giving them increased attention and exposure. A good example was the BDS conference at UPenn. Of the expected attendees, 99 percent were extreme anti-Israel activists to begin with. It received very little advance attention on campus. The Jewish community, rightfully up in arms, initiated a very public debate about the conference. As a result, the event enjoyed front-page status in the campus newspaper for over a week. This included an editorial by Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the boycott movement, informing Penn students about “Israel’s system of oppression against the Palestinian people, which constitutes settler-colonialism, occupation, and apartheid.”
I am not advocating that we ignore lies and hate against Israel, nor am I advocating that we hush up about our support for Israel out of fear of those who will be inspired to argue back. The point is that we must balance our urge to scream “liar” with the question of whether the lie is even reaching an audience beyond the choir of haters.
Second, even if the hate and lies are reaching a much wider audience, we must also determine what strategies will best encourage people to support Israel.
A recent study commissioned by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Brand Israel Group specifically tried to gauge the impact anti-Israel messaging has had on various populations. The study showed that the virulent anti-Israel messages were only slightly increasing support for Palestinian causes. Instead, the impact was seen in the weakening of support for Israel. People did not feel they should support Palestinian causes because they heard about “Israeli apartheid.” But a large number felt conflicted about their support for Israel if it is not a place of values and morals.
This means our mission as advocates for Israel is not to make the other side look bad. A very small percentage of Americans actually support the Palestinians, the extremist movements on campuses, or groups beyond that portend to support them. Our mission is to increase support for Israel. Exposing the BDS movement or other anti-Israel propaganda does not necessarily do this.
We must give people reasons to support Israel, not to dislike the other side.
Those reasons include the fact that in the midst of the darkness of the Middle East, Israel is a beacon of human rights and opportunity for minorities, including religious, racial, and political minorities.
Or the fact that Israel is surrounded by enemies who are stockpiling missiles and other weapons, forcing her to focus a disproportionate amount of resources on defense and security. And yet even with “one hand tied behind its back,” Israel is a world leader in education, medicine, technology, and environmentalism, among other areas.
These are the narratives and faces of Israel that we must creatively portray in order to increase understanding and support of Israel. It is to this effect that campuses across North America will be organizing “Israel Peace Week” (Feb. 20-March 9) on over 50 campuses (www.israelpeaceweek.org).
Yes, there is a time to stand up against lies and hate. But we must also make sure this doesn’t distract us from our real goal: inspiring pride in and support of Israel.