Israel supporters seeking to change their campus environment for the better increasingly embrace relationship-based engagement as a key strategy. They find that nurturing and sustaining meaningful, personal relationships and infusing those relationships with understanding about Israel and Israelis works both in cultivating support among key campus decision-makers as well as in inspiring connections with Israel and Israelis among Jewish students.
But if our community has an appreciation of the importance of relationships to support Israel and Israelis, what does it mean for campus Israel supporters to be in such relationships—with campus leaders, with each other, and, most significantly, with Israel itself?
We spend most of our lives in relationships, but do not often step back and examine the principles that underlie them. The most central relationship principles are those of openness, trust, and respect.
1. Openness: we expect those with whom we are in a relationship to communicate with us openly and honestly. If there are issues, we expect those with whom we are in a relationship will raise and resolve those issues with us.
2. Trust: Just as importantly, the essence of a relationship is that of trust. To encourage open, honest communication, we expect that issues in the relationship will be raised within the confines of the relationship and not outside of it.
3. Mutual respect: each party to that relationship is able, in the end, to choose their own course, and the other parties will respect that right to choose.
When a relationship is built upon openness, trust, and respect, the relationship thrives. Think of the very best relationships you might have, whether they are with a spouse, a sibling, a close friend, a confidant, or even the Divine: those relationships thrive around unshakable feelings of openness, trust, and respect. If that relationship partner is someone about whom you might say, “I could tell her anything, and I know she respects and supports me,” then you know that degree of intimacy that openness, trust, and respect fosters.
In contrast, when partners in a relationship do not communicate openly and with a spirit of maintaining trust or respect, the relationship founders. A spouse who airs their partner’s dirty laundry; a friend who harbors ulterior motives but leaves those motivations unsaid; a business partner who does not reveal activities or plans that will affect the success of the enterprise; or, horribly, the abuse of respect and trust that comes from an abusive relationship: we can all relate to circumstances like these that would violate the basic principles of openness, trust, and respect that are essential to the continued success of any relationship.
As with anything, there are limits to openness, trust, and respect. Certain things like immorality or illegality, if hidden within a relationship, cannot stay within its confines, because they concern a relationship with the larger community. But barring such extremes, one would expect that issues within a relationship both be raised within, but also stay within, that relationship, and that one will respect the right of a relationship partner to choose what is best for himself.
In a voluntary relationship such as a business venture, a friendship, or even a marriage, the consequences of violating principles of openness, trust, and respect are obvious, and one possible outcome—the end of the relationship—at least provides an outlet for those whose interests truly do not align. But what about involuntary relationships, such as family relationships? Even when such relationships founder and the principles of openness, trust, or respect are violated, the hurt and resentment of a damaged relationship lingers because the relationship itself cannot be unmade. One is ever a child of one’s parents, a sibling, a cousin, or a parent. The relationship continues to exist even if one person within that relationship violates the spirit of the relationship—indeed, even if one denies the relationship itself. Anyone who has ever worked to maintain family cohesion in the face of family members who do not demonstrate openness, trust, or respect can appreciate the difficulties and tensions such behaviors create. Challenging as it may be in such circumstances, to encourage appropriate behavior, one ultimately needs to emulate it—and to communicate in a spirit of trust, respect, but also openness with the family member whose behavior is causing the difficulty.
In the community of Israel supporters, even as we embrace relationship-building with those outside the community, there are many who struggle with the notions of relationship within the community. In part, that stems from the fact that while being an active Israel supporter is a voluntary relationship, many, but not all, Israel supporters are also part of an involuntary relationship with Israel through being part of the Jewish people. And, although many frequently confuse the two, the two relationships are distinct: even though every Jew stands in relationship with the Jewish people and with Israel—largely involuntarily, by virtue of being Jewish—not every Jew chooses to abide by the principles of a personal, active relationship of openness, trust, and respect with Israel or other Jews.
Our community would do well to consider the differences between these two essential relationships. Without question, a Jewish student who chooses not to abide by the principles of a relationship with Israel or other Jews remains part of the Jewish family. But such a student is also missing out on the richness of an intimate relationship with the Jewish people and Israel. Just as one would extend a trusting, respectful, but open conversation to a family member, such a student would deserve the same approach. One can support and affirm the continued membership in the family without condoning the behavior.
The student community intuitively understands the essence of relationships. Today’s campus environment is diverse, multicultural, and prides itself on the free exploration of challenging and conflicting ideas. Students commonly remain friends with peers even as they disagree, both inside and outside of class, on any number of subjects, including discussions surrounding Israel. Ironically, it is most often when the off-campus community interacts with the campus that the intuitive sense of openness, trust, and respect that abides in the campus environment becomes threatened; and that is principally because members of the off-campus pro-Israel community too often violate the principles of openness, trust, and respect among themselves. Even as those of us in the broader pro-Israel community seek to encourage campus Israel supporters to build effective relationships on campus, then, we need to learn to practice what we preach. The future of our relationships requires nothing less.
Stephen Kuperberg is executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, an organization dedicated to weaving and catalyzing the campus Israel network to create a positive climate regarding Israel on campus, and publisher of Israel Campus Beat.