Those of us who went to college in the 1960s, 70s and 80s might remember campus as a battleground of ideologies and ideas. When we see video footage of a rancorous anti-Israel demonstration, we might assume that campus hasn’t changed much and students are still debating away at the big issues, especially the Arab-Israel conflict. Supporters of Israel naturally want to equip pro-Israel students with the necessary tools to win that debate.
Today’s students, however, are different than students of a generation ago. If we want to strengthen support for Israel on campus, we better pay attention to how they’ve changed and adjust how we do campus advocacy.
The biggest change in students is the nearly complete, even if unknowing, embrace of a soft form of postmodernism, a system of thought that influences a wide of range of fields from the arts to architecture to philosophy. Postmodernist thought questions the structure of reality as we know it. It’s suspicious of claims of a single truth, instead describing reality through varied narratives. A post-modern take on the Israel-Arab conflict might look at the disparate narratives of Jews and Arabs, rather than take sides among seemingly contradictory perspectives. Thus when expressing an opinion on global affairs, today’s students often speak of “thruths” rather than “truth.”
After a recent trip to Israel, one non-Jewish student leader, reflecting on a meeting with a prominent Israeli Arab activist, opined that “the Jewish majority has become stuck in a mindset of fear and paranoia because of their history of persecution, while the Arab minority suffers from a mentality of victimhood because they live as a minority in a Jewish state.” This is vintage postmodernism: neither side holds a monopoly on truth, just its own version of it.
A modernist perspective, by contrast, believes in the human ability to discern the truth. A modernist might suggest that Israeli Jews have good reason to be fearful of the Arab world, or that Israel’s Arab minority has every reason to feel like victims. While the modernist on either side of the dispute would argue “the facts” surrounding the conflict and the essential truth of a single perspective, the postmodernist will assert the context and story of each community. Both Alan Dershowitz and Noam Chomsky are modernists, through and through.
By no means limited to global affairs, postmodernism has become the dominant framework for resolving all manner of social disputes. For example, a workshop on workplace conflict will almost invariably train employees to speak in “I Statements” rather than outright blaming another employee for a perceived transgression. Participants are trained to make such statements as “when you prevent me from speaking up at the meeting, I feel like I’m not part of the team.” Couples therapy teaches spouses to do the same in working out their differences. Neither spouse is right; each has his or her own perspective. With its widespread application to everyday life, is it any wonder that postmodernism has become the dominant worldview of a generation?
Notwithstanding any criticism one might have of postmodernism—frankly, some of it drives me crazy—we must acknowledge its profound influence on the discourse.
The postmodernist majority is likely to be turned off when it hears one-sided arguments on the Arab-Israel conflict. I’ve heard students who might have otherwise sympathized with a Palestinian narrative say that they are revolted by one-sided Apartheid analogies. Likewise, I’ve heard Zionist-leaning Jewish students say that they are put off by fellow pro-Israel students debating Israel’s detractors on the campus quad. The majority of students simply don’t want to be part of a polarized debate because such a dispute negates the “truth” of the other.
Rather than using the old modernist framework for making “the case for Israel,” and turning off the very people we are trying to influence, it’s time that the pro-Israel community work within the post-modernist framework that governs campus discourse and learn to effectively influence the discussion on campus as it actually exists.
Rather than regurgitate talking points (which have their place), pro-Israel students should share a personal narrative and connection to Israel, which will resonate far more deeply among most students. Rather than present the conflict as a zero sum game between Israelis and the Palestinians, students should express empathy with the other’s narrative and speak of potential solutions. Rather than bring a single issue agenda to the campus space, students should engage with other groups on their issues as well.
All of this comes quite naturally to most Jewish and pro-Israel students, whom, after all, have been influenced by the same intellectual and cultural forces as the rest of the campus. It may, however, be harder to stomach for us modernists i.e. people over, say, 35, but it has the added advantage of actually working. Until and unless we make the switch, we will be positioning Israel in a way that’s fundamentally at odds with a generation’s worldview. Israel deserves better.
Follow David Bernstein on Twitter @DavidLBernstein