Hasbara 2.0, The Student Edition: Championing for Israel’s Truth on Campus

Pro-Israel students and their allies protesting against antisemitism at the National Students for Justice in Palestine conference at UCLA's Campus in Los Angeles. (Photo by Ronen Tivony/NurPhoto via Getty Images).

Daring to be a vocal Zionist today at an American college campus is fraught with potential backlash, criticism or outright hostility on social media or the public square. While universities intend to create an environment that fosters open-mindedness, this sad reality predominates at many respected liberal institutions, where Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib’s words, “you can’t be progressive and support Israel,” have had a resounding impact. 

As a result, many pro-Israel students opt to keep a low profile, thereby confining themselves to a self-created echo chamber when discussions about Israel arise among friends and, most notably, in class settings. Understandably, they keep their Zionism to themselves to avoid the angst and frustration that surrounds Israel controversy in order to fit in, widen job prospects, or get a good grade. Ascribing to this low-profile, however, amounts to self-censorship that flies in the face of the relentless battles that Israel has faced over its 75-year history and continues fighting today.

The war of words in today’s modern media has become just as critical for Israel’s survival as the one fought on the battlefield—and Zionist students across university campuses are on the front lines. Indeed, several organizations and student clubs do great work in communicating Israel’s truth and its many beauties. But their efforts, for some reason, are largely ineffective, having failed to deal with the hostile anti-Israel sentiment permeating US campus communities. They have been similarly unsuccessful at limiting the spread of false anti-Zionist rhetoric that has contributed to the surge of virulent antisemitism in our society. 

Unfortunately, many pro-Israel student communities have fallen victim to the pitfalls of Israel’s weak public relations strategy, otherwise known as hasbara, Hebrew for “explanation.” The important messages meant to be conveyed are either reactive in nature or fail to reach the audiences that need to hear them. Many pro-Israel events, for example, predominately target students expressing interest about Israel or simply preach to the choir. While I recognize that certain groups are immune to persuasion or influence, current hasbara techniques are largely ineffective in reaching even those who are willing to listen.

Most college students are either uninformed or ill-informed on the subject of Israel or Zionism. Many tend to “listen to what their friends say about it,” as one of my peers said to me. This presents a great opportunity to educate those willing to engage in the subject and to convey the reality about Israel—everything from its history, its myths, and the controversies that surround its democratic society. We should also acknowledge our own misperceptions and approach the issues with nuance.

But this is only half the battle. Advocating and standing-up for Israel is no easy task particularly when your views are likely to be challenged. But, by establishing certain parameters, fruitful conversations can indeed occur. 

First, it’s important to establish purpose: Our goal on campus is not to solve the issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but to steer the conversation away from political rhetoric and to paint a true picture of the reality on ground. Our perspectives may find opposition and tension can escalate when emotions flare. But we must lead with the head and not the heart. We must adopt a receptive attitude, stay composed, and seek out friends in the process.

Our aim is not to impose our perspectives on a specific audience, but rather to encourage discourse that will inevitably include differing opinions. We must allow the benefit of the doubt and perhaps learn one thing or two along the way. We should make use of questions to understand where fundamental controversies lie and use facts as backstops. Presenting factual information along with relevant questions encourages conversation and reduces any perception of pretentiousness or condescension felt by the recipient(s). We must be mindful, however, that winning every argument is nearly impossible. 

And so, with these guidelines in mind, here’s hasbara 2.0–student edition: how to deal effectively with anti-Israel rhetoric on campus.

1. Use Social Media

The ubiquity of social media in our lives has transformed platforms like Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok into the epicenter of our daily news and a virtual-public square. By now, we’ve become experts at advertising pro-Israel events and conveying important information when Israel makes headlines, but our efforts are often promotional and reactive. They fall short of combating the hate that spreads online from organizations like the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) whose anti-Israel rhetoric propagates like wildfire on social media. 

We must look to influencers like Noa Tishby, Yoseph Haddad, Montana Tucker, Hen Mazzig, and many others who successfully use their social media platforms to advocate for Israel and combat antisemitism. As advocates on the front lines, we must adopt similar strategies and post diverse content regularly. This can range from bi-weekly TikTok videos, Instagram reels, Twitter threads, and other messages that shed light on Israel’s truth, diversity, the hot topic of the day, or questions that prompt discussion. 

2. Build Alliances

We’ve seen how effectively BDS and like organizations acting through their campus affiliates, namely the Students for Justice in Palestine and the Jewish Voices for Peace, have forged alliances with other campus groups. They tend to host events in partnership with the queer Black, environmental, and some feminist groups. Recently, at George Washington University, a rally against arming campus police brought all of these groups together. While it’s understandable that social justice groups band together over some particular injustice, the protest presented a wonderful opportunity for the anti-Israel groups to label Israel as racist, white supremacist, and genocidal.

Let me be clear. I’m not advocating for an alliance between Zionist students and other minority groups as a means to advance some pro-Israel message. Instead, I’m espousing bridge-building with diverse groups of students to get a taste of their views on Israel. Getting involved in campus diversity spaces is a great way to forge connections while shedding light on Israel’s truth.

3. Engage with Anti-Zionists

Despite the daunting nature of the task, finding common ground with anti-Israel students is important. Many of them abide by BDS’s anti-normalization guidelines, which bars them from engaging with pro-Israel students because a “parity between the oppressors and the oppressed presents the inherently abnormal, such as oppression and injustice, as if it were normal.” Zionist students must debunk not only the fabrications involved in this statement but explain why such guidelines are entirely unproductive to the Palestinian cause. 

One means of engagement is to attend some of these anti-Zionist events to get a better sense of their perspective. While likely to induce angst or frustration, it’s important to listen openly. If permitted, we should ask simple questions that aim at better understanding the narrative or idea. We should engage with the students following the event to try, finding common ground or new paths forward founded on peace. Fighting injustice effectively starts with healthy dialogue, not silencing the so-called ‘oppressor.’

4. Speak Up in Academic Settings

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a lecture hosted by four George Washington University professors presenting their new book, Israel/Palestine: The One State Reality. It certainly was an interesting analysis of the regional situation except that the conversation took an ugly turn when Israel was termed an “apartheid state” involving “systemic racism” and “Jewish supremacy”—drawing comparison to white-ruled South Africa until the early 1990’s. 

While Israeli Jews and Arabs may have distinct perspectives on discrimination in their shared society, to suggest that Israel’s Jewish majority equates to a notion of “supremacy” is absolutely ludicrous. Not only are these assertions false and incendiary, but as promoted by respected academicians, they are also reckless and dangerous: ‘Jewish supremacy’ readily translates into the old antisemitic canard of Jewish world dominance—echoed in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, by the Nazis, and perpetuated by today’s neo-Nazis in their Great Replacement Theory.

These events are hardly isolated. Just last year, the Middle East Studies Association scholars voted 768-167 to join the BDS movement which espouses similar myths and mischaracterizations. 

In the classroom, students who are new to the subject of Israel and Zionism are bound to take their professors’ teachings dogmatically. As Zionist students, we have a duty to respectfully, yet assertively, challenge professors when such myths or distortions are disseminated. We communicate our objections by writing papers, presenting, and speaking up in class when given the opportunity.

Centuries of antisemitism have taught us that assimilating and downplaying our identities failed to shield our Jewish communities from persecution and oppression. Israel’s existence is the Jewish nation’s only protection against Jew-hatred and is a beacon of diversity and democracy in the Middle East. On this momentous 75th Yom Ha’Atzmaut celebrating the rebirth of the Jewish state, our gift to Israel lies in bearing the responsibility to uphold her legacy of triumph and independence. 

About the Author
Sabrina Soffer is an undergraduate student at the George Washington University where she is double majoring in Philosophy & Public Affairs and Judaic Studies. She is the former commissioner of the George Washington University's Special Presidential Task Force to Combat Antisemitism and the Vice President of Chabad George Washington. Most recently, Sabrina was a speaker at the American March for Israel in Washington D.C. She is also the author of My Mother's Mirror: A Generational Journey of Resilience & Self-Discovery, a dual-perspective memoir that offers creative, narrative-based tools based on the USC EDGE Center award-winning Self-Ex Guide, authored by Sabrina and her mother.
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