Hasbarah, Israel advocacy, is the most important thing that we have in our arsenal to support Israel – yes we can give charity, or plant a tree, or we can go to a Yom Haatzmaut celebration, support our local federation, or visit – but short of making a lifelong commitment to live in Israel, by making Aliyah – hasbarah is the most important thing we can do.
Unfortunately most of the time we do it wrong!
When I was both Vice President and Co-President of the Australasian Union of Jewish Students of New Zealand, an organization that is sort of like Hillel on Campus, our executive branch, with help from the Australian executive, had the responsibility of managing and directing hasbara for four campuses across the country – and while that seems small, we were responsible for all Jewish students and their connection to Israel in the entire country.
Over the past several weeks hasbarah has come up in various news cycles. There was the Soda Stream, BDS and Scarlett Johansson episode, there was the Israeli students meeting with Abbas in Ramallah, and most recently there has been the Ramaz High School in Manhattan whose administration cancelled student organized event that invited anti-Israel Professor, Rashid Khalidi. All of these have elements of hasbarah that we can learn from to better our interaction with the State of Israel, and arguing on her behalf.
The BDS Movement: The BDS movement, which has gained in popularity worldwide, especially with college aged students (many of whom are willing to jump on a political bandwagon, but who are also educated and intelligent – and should not be judged as otherwise), is a difficult beast to grapple with. The popular approach to arguing with the BDS is to point out that they shouldn’t be using their laptops, undertaking courses to become a doctor and using medical treatment, or in the unfortunate event that they need medical treatment, they shouldn’t use the equipment, or that they shouldn’t be using a whole host of technology due to the fact that unbeknown to them, all of the above and more is usually made in Israel. While it is cute and gimmicky, the reality is, that in most situations it doesn’t work.
One way that has proven to work is to legitimize their boycott, but also point out that if they want to boycott Israel, then surely they should undergo a number of other boycotts including products from China, Russia, most of the United Arab Emirates, the UK, most of the European Union, and even the USA due to a number of civic issues that do not fit with their political agenda – topics such as Gay rights, women’s rights, war, animal testing just to name a few. It is only when they realize that Israel, while not always perfect, is no worse than the rest of the world involved in manufacturing products, which they might come around to the irrationality of their protest.
Abbas and Israeli Students Dialogue: Abbas’ meeting with Jewish students shed light on a man that is shrouded by his history and his predecessor, and while this event should not give automatic credence to everything he says, or immediate trust to his actions and intentions, it was a refreshing change from the traditional rhetoric. There are too many instances that we get caught up in an argument that focusses on the past, in order to dismiss possibilities for the future – dismissing the possibility that peace might happen because of past statements or actions. But when engaging with hasbarah, the best weapon should be optimism and looking forward.
It is an event like this that we should be trumpeting on campuses world wide – telling the many organizations that seek to delegitimize our country – that there are people that look forward to peace, that want to engage in an open and active dialogue for peace, that are willing to listen, to ask questions, and to seek honest and sincere answers to their questions. If students in Israel, the hot seat of this issue, can do that with the President of the Palestinian Authority, then we can do it on our campuses, in our workplace and within our schools.
Ramaz and Khalidi: This brings me to the final piece, and that is do we need to talk to everyone, and does everyone need to be exposed to everything. While a high school is the place in where foundations are made, it is important that we also realize that they are different than a university campus. The former is a model that is built on structure, and curriculum – engaging students with the tools to grapple with areas, that can contain practice, but mostly contains theory. The latter, is the test tube.
Ramaz’ decision to cancel the student organized event, which invited an active anti-Israel protestor, who delegitimizes our claim to the land, calling upon the dismantling of Israel at best, and the destruction or annihilation at worse was the right thing. Sure there were probably several students who could have intelligently and appropriately engaged with such a topic, but many would have been unable to comprehend the gravity of the situation, let alone engage with the topic or the speaker. It is important that our high schools teach various different sides of the arguments – articles and opinion pieces that can be analyzed, debates can occur, various people can be brought in – but to allow a person of this stature, and magnitude, with this much hatred towards Israel could have been catastrophic.
A university student however, should be able to grapple with these topics, and as such Jewish campus organizations, should work with their anti-Israel counterparts to organize debates and bring in speakers that do not always fit their ideology. Our organizations should give training and have pre-event discussions as how to respond to claims that such a speaker might make or how to question the speaker on views they did not bring up but are recognized as having. It is only when we engage with both sides, with the ability to academically challenge opposing viewpoints that we will be ready to answer or confront with these questions in the real world.