Supporters of Israel are raising funds to fight Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) of Israel. Leadership trips to Israel for campus leaders can be a part of solution. I’m not talking about the tourism/beach kind that are created to get marginally affiliated Jews connected to Judaism. I’m talking about “on-message,” fact filled trips that really arm campus and other leaders to make a difference.
A new national poll by Frank Luntz, PhD shows what messages work to build support for Israel and to fight Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). This poll, combined other information, can help people design agendas for Israel trips that will enable participants to be ready to win hearts and minds for Israel when they return home.
Tour groups need to be very careful what they showcase. They need to show that Israel is a democracy defending itself from terror, and working for peace. In Israel ALL citizens — women and men, Christians, Muslims, Jews and others — have freedom of speech and religion, access to education and healthcare, and the right to vote.
What they don’t need to hear are facts about things that happened thousands of years ago or people brag about “Jewish brains” and Israeli innovations. Luntz’s new poll, like many others before it, shows that well intentioned yet tone-deaf messages can actually HARM people’s perceptions of Israel and Jews. More on that below.
So what does this mean for the agenda of thousands of people who actually DO travel to Israel each year? What should THEY see? Quite a lot actually.
1. Create a module on the powerful and independent women in Israel. Israel is the only country in the Middle East where women can be whatever they want. Israeli women have a chutzpa/”sky is the limit” mentality. Some day there should will an institute that celebrates women in Israel such as Golda Meir, Nobel Prize winner Ada Yonah, CEOs etc. Meanwhile, however, you can always meet with women at the forefront of these issues, including Orit Kamir, Shlomit Naim-Naor, Alice Shalvi, Elana Sztockman, Hadar Galron and Raya Strauss.
Be sure to also show that in Israel women are free to cover their hair with wigs and modest clothing if they are Orthodox, or with Burkas if their interpretation of Islam means they choose to do so. Do not “dis” people who chose burkas over bikinis.
Is Israel perfect on women’s rights? No, it’s not. As we know from the battle with “Women at the Wall,” that there are still issues. Celebrate that this is being discussed in democratic ways – not through “honor killings” etc. Be fully inclusive and celebrate the fact that Israel is a country in the Middle East where women have full legal rights. No other country in the Middle East comes even close, and Israelis support women’s rights everywhere.
2. Use a visit to a kibbutz to learn about social justice and equality. Kibbutzim are way more than just about draining swamps or getting crops to grow in the desert. They are places where, way before equal rights became the goal in Western countries; men and women on Israeli kibbutzim had equal access to jobs and the fruits of their labors. The teamwork, collaboration and innovation in early kibbutzim was well ahead of its time. Indeed, in the wake of the Holocaust, hostile enemies who literally wanted to wipe them off the map surrounded early kibbutzim. Despite these challenges they were early innovators and adopters of full gender equality. Such a visit can inspire a commitment to teamwork and collaboration, while demonstrating that “me-first” is not always the best strategy to having a better future.
3. Get a REAL tour of Jerusalem with all its nuances. It is VITAL for leaders to understand that Jerusalem cannot be divided like a pizza. It is more of a checkerboard — with Jews, Arabs, Christians and many other groups interwoven in a grand mosaic. It’s key to understand the freedom of access to Muslim, Christian and Jewish holy sites under Israel. It’s also vital to understand how sewage treatment and general infrastructure like the new light rail system serves people from all backgrounds in the city. Explore hot topics like Silwan, and access to holy sites and the security situation. Former IDF and Prime Minister’s office spokesperson Miri Eisen is the best tour guide on this. But others can learn it as well.
4. Visit Hadassah Hospital or other medical facilities to learn about how Christian, Muslim and Jewish doctors, nurses and others are working to find medical cures and treat patients from all backgrounds. But be careful to showcase Israelis’ commitment to making the world a better place, and don’t brag about Jewish brains! This is dangerous as over and over in focus groups and polls the public say things like:
– “If Jews are so smart that they invented (insert whichever invention here), then why don’t they have a solution with the conflict with Palestinians? It must be that they don’t want to do so!”
– “If Jews/Israelis are so smart, they must be rich and able to take care of themselves. Why should America be sending them billions of dollars?”
– “Are they really bragging that they are smarter than people from America? Who do they think they are?”
– Worse yet, it would feed old anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jews being greedy and rich.
A good model of how to frame innovations is the film “Israel Inside”. The concept of “tikkun olum,” of “mending the world,” when discussed in words that resonate with broad audiences, can be a powerful friend. Fortunately, is really does accurately describe Israeli today.
5. Learn about Israel’s humanitarian work during times of natural disasters or other crisis. Create an exhibit/film about the amazing humanitarian work Latet or other Israeli groups are doing to save lives when earthquakes, hurricanes and other disaster hit. The work they do l’tikkun olam” is innovative, creative and inspiring. Have a speaker how can show some of the tools and techniques used to save lives around the world — in places where often there is no electricity or clean water. These include in places where the population is largely Muslim. Programs like “Save a Heart” and NGOs that help Palestinians and Israeli Arabs are also helpful – especially when Jews and Arabs are working side by side equally to help people, and no one is being patronized.
6. Visit projects that focus on jobs for people with disabilities. The IDF has programs, including “Special in Uniform” and a program for people with Asperger’s to work in intelligence, that enable people with disabilities to get real-life work experience. Other programs include the Independent Living program in Tel Aviv, and the outstanding work led by Oren Helman at the Israel Electric Company.
7. Join with Israelis to a service project. Birthright Israel already does some of this, and it’s fantastic. But other groups can do it as well. The IDF has thousands of young people doing service projects around the country. Create a series of projects where young Israelis would partner each day with a different group to do some sort of service project. Frankly, my top choice would be to pick up the trash in the streets and on the beaches in Israel. I am constantly disgusted that a nation that I love so much is so disrespected with litter, graffiti and more. But service projects could include feeding the poor (there are a lot more poor people in Israel than you would think), painting classrooms, doing art projects with children, or visiting senior citizens. The best projects will also include Arab Israelis in the volunteer/service efforts.
8. Visit an agricultural science place where Israelis find solutions to agricultural and hunger problems. Learn about drip agriculture, efficiencies in milk producing cows and other innovations helped Israel and are now helping people in China, India and Africa. Talk about Israel’s rapidly increasing ties to China and India.
Again, beware making it about how smart Jews are. By talking about shared Judeo-Christian values and the good hearts of the Israeli people, you can win friends for Israel. But you need to use concrete examples and real facts about how Israelis had to innovate to survive, and how now Israelis are using innovations and their commitment to making the world a better place to help people in need around the world.
9. Learn about diverse Israelis. This is important in fighting BDS because American Jews have a lot of experience with liberal Ashkenazi Jews. But Israelis are much more diverse both demographically and ideologically. Explore Sephardic traditions, and the multi-faceted world of Orthodox and Haradi groups in Israel. These are big voting blocks who have big power in the Knesset. Speak with settlers and people who are peaceniks alike. Be sure to do it in a way that is respectful of ALL. Indeed, many Israeli guides, who are largely secular, will spend a lot of time speaking respectfully about Christianity, the Bahai and the Druze but then speak disdainful about religious Jews or settlers. To fight BDS you need to at least SEE a settlement and speak to settlers, and meet with Jewish and Arab peacemakers.
10. Create opportunities for home hospitality. Nothing is better than having a home cooked meal with an Israeli family. You’d want to reimburse them for their food/time, but it still could be cheaper than restaurant food. Yes, the logistics of findings dozens or perhaps hundreds of families from across Israeli stream and sectors could take some time. But it would be worth it. Ask them for THEIR views on BDS, the peace process and Israeli security. After such an opportunity, bring your tour group together to share the experiences you saw. Some members of the group might be with an Orthodox Jewish family, and others with Israeli Arabs, for example.
11. Meet victims of terror attacks in Israel. Sadly, terror attacks are still happening in Israel. Take the time to learn the story of a horrible terrorist attack in Haifa on March 5, 2003. A suicide bomber boarded the bus and killed 17 people — including the many school children on their way home. There were Jews, Christians and Druze all on the bus.
Many of the parents of these children, including a group that became known as the “Three Fathers” (Yossi Zur, Ron Kehremann and Yossi Mendelovich) did something as a response to the deliberate murder of their children. They went together to The Hague, NY and Washington to help educate reporters and leaders about the need for the security fence, about the threats from terrorism, and the need for peace. A short video with them and others could be created and shown at the cemetery where their children and other terror victims are buried. Then you could have tour groups speak a family member of terror victims. Sadly, there are SO many of them. A partnership with “One Family” could be very productive, as they have helped so many families deal with these horrible losses. Let them talk about the security fence and other issues from a personal perspective.
12. Visit the Ayalon Institute and/or the Ghetto Fighters Museum to learn more modern stories about how Jews needed to defend themselves. At the Ayalon Institute you learn the story of how even before the war of Independence, Jews put a bullet factory under a laundry and next to a bakery to disguise it from the British. But the bottom line of these two places is that you can never take the safety of Jews for granted.
13. Make sure people understand the map. The best way to do this is through an “intellicopter” tour – a helicopter tour of all of Israel, which takes about 3 hours. But this costs $1,000 per person – very much out of the range of most travelers. So do it with maps up front so people understand, for example, that in Israel’s densely populated center of Tel Aviv that Israel is only 15 miles wide. Help people understand the security challenges, while Israel desires a secure and peaceful solution that is respectful of the rights and freedoms of Christians, Muslims, Druze, Bahai, Jews and others alike.
14. Visit Ramallah and the modern city of Rawabi – IF the security situation allows it, it is worth seeing these places with your own eyes. It is modern and way more developed than most people imagine. Try to meet with peace activists on the Palestinian side.
15. Make sure your own tours are inclusive. Ensure that ANYONE who wants to be a leader for Israel and against BDS can do. This includes people with disabilities. It’s terrific that Birthright enables young Jews with disabilities to go on Birthright trips. But ALL tours should do so, and these opportunities should be inclusive, not with separate trips for people with disabilities. Include non-Jews who are respected campus and community leaders in the tours. The bottom line of how to “sell” Israel is that it is a democracy that respects and welcomes differences and has freedoms. So the make up of our Israel missions too needs to be inclusive of all.
16. Stop spending so much time visiting Masada, Caesarea, Ir David and other places from thousands of years ago. Don’t take them to visit Yad Vashem yet again either. Chances are this group will have seen all these sights already. However, the “We were here first,” and “we’re right, they’re wrong” messages will not win the day on BDS. People on college campuses want to talk about TODAY and TOMORROW. Things that happened thousands of years ago, or during the Holocaust, will not resonate with BDSers.
17. Role-play and get media training. There are several experts in Israel who can help groups get the tolls they need to speak effectively on camera and campus in ways that will win against BDS.