In the spring of 2008, former Virginia Governor Mark Warner was in Boston seeking support for his campaign for the United States Senate. Warner, an authentic, staunch supporter of Israel, met with a small group of Jewish donors in a downtown conference room, and the discussion centered on Warner’s sympathetic appreciation of the threats that Israel has to endure.
One of the attendees began to sharply question Warner’s support for Israel, lambasting him for his support for a two-state solution, and doing so in increasingly obnoxious terms, treating Warner as though he were an enemy rather than a friend. Ignoring the embarrassed body language of those around the table, his attack on Warner grew more and more offensive.
After about 10 minutes of this, Warner, who had made a fortune in the private sector before entering public life, leaned his long frame in the direction of his interlocutor: “You know what the best thing is about being independently wealthy?” Warner asked this fellow. “It is that I don’t have to take money from people like you.”
Despite warning signs that might have given him clues, this gentleman, a successful businessman, did not see his conduct as deeply off-putting. Far less did he perceive that he was alienating not just any friend of Israel, but a friend of Israel on his way to becoming a United States Senator. Hubris and foolishness rendered him blind to the impact he was having. And that hubris, that foolishness, is a problem that those who care about Israel need to avoid, and to address.
With American support for Israel the sine qua non of Israel’s long-term survival and an ugly effort being waged by her enemies to degrade popular support in America for the Jewish state, Israel and her friends would do well to focus like lasers on this fact: the idea is to actually win friends, not to lose them, and not to repel those whose attitudes about Israel are either unformed or under-informed.
The evidence that the old ways of making Israel’s case are no longer working in the United States as they did in the past is extensive, and sobering, and suggests that without some serious soul-searching, the future of American support for Israel is in doubt. It is only 10 short months since Israeli civilians were subjected to 4,500 rockets fired at them by a terrorist enterprise with an openly anti-Semitic charter whose purpose is to kill, maim, or frighten Israelis — and the very demographic groups that represent the future of American society sided against Israel and with that terrorist enterprise.
A Pew poll taken in the middle of last summer’s war with Hamas showed that while 53% of Americans over 65 blamed Hamas for the conflict and only 15% blamed Israel, those en route to ascending to power have a very different view. Among young Americans, 29% blamed Israel, and only 18% blamed Hamas. While 47 % of American whites blamed Hamas and only 14% blamed Israel, Hispanics sided with Hamas by a nearly 2-1 margin, and African-Americans were evenly split. And while 77% of those considering themselves conservatives supported Israel, barely 1 out of every 3 self-described liberals did so.
The threats to Israel and to world Jewry are profound. The truth, however, is that these threats are not all external ones. Behaving with a sense of entitlement, engaging in bombast, disrespecting divergent views and projecting incivility serve us poorly, and exacerbate challenges that are quite daunting enough without the additional damage of self-inflicted wounds.
The recent resignation of Brandeis University President Fred Lawrence illustrates our community’s unfortunate habit of grinding up our communal seed corn, and of undercutting some of our very best leaders, particularly those able to make a winning case for Israel to progressives and young people. Lawrence, a dazzlingly compelling former federal prosecutor, presents an unusual combination of traits: observant Judaism, a strong commitment to Israel and a passion for the First Amendment, in which he is an expert. He was responsible for a series of programs that invigorated Brandeis’ relationship with Israel and vice-versa, like bVIEW, which promotes discussions about Israel among the broad spectrum of the Brandeis student body, and promptly and outspokenly condemned the American Studies Association resolution calling for a boycott of Israel.
Reinforced by a relentless good humor that is inexplicable given the burdens borne by presidents of major universities, Lawrence’s unusual set of gifts is not lost on Brandeis students. “There has never been a president of Brandeis so well-liked,” reports Jonathan Sarma, a Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis for the last quarter century.
And he has resonated with non-Jewish and Jewish students alike. Lawrence initiated and presided over a campus-wide break-fast to mark the end of Yom Kippur annually attended by 2,000 students of every ethnic, religious and racial background.
Lawrence’s difficulties with a narrow segment of Brandeis donors sprang from his strong feelings about keeping discourse civil, and about ensuring that even abhorrent or silly views be considered protected speech. This position may have endeared him to students, but it decidedly did not do so with certain Jewish community bigwigs.
Thus, when one student tweeted that she had “no sympathy” for New York Police Department officers murdered last December, Lawrence resisted calls that she be expelled, or stripped of financial aid, or otherwise sanctioned by the university as punishment for her senselessness. When a group of Brandeis faculty circulated emails denouncing Israel in unhinged terms that would have fit neatly in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Lawrence was blamed by some for not taking some form of official action against them — a course that would have besmirched the university and likely been illegal.
And when Palestinian students at Al-Quds University on the West Bank staged a pro-Nazi demonstration and its President, Sari Nusseibeh, issued an ugly statement denouncing those who criticized the demonstration rather than those who staged it, Lawrence was criticized by some for suspending Brandeis’ relationship with Al-Quds, instead of terminating it altogether. Those on the right who found intolerable Lawrence’s insistence on striking reasonable balances were unmoved by the fact that his critics on the left bitterly denounced him for the suspension. One Brandeis sociology professor actually criticized him this way: “Fred has taken some peculiar stands on civility and free speech that have bothered many faculty”, he complained, apparently oblivious to how very peculiar his complaint sounded.
Lawrence understands what many do not: attacking free expression is a very poor strategy for those hoping to succeed at persuasive advocacy. Invective and disrespect for diversity ill-serve the Jewish community in making Israel’s case.
The bad news is that the pro-Israel community has a problem with young people, with people of color and with progressives. The good news is that Israel’s case on the merits is a strong one, and one that can easily prevail on those merits. Incivility within our community or directed at others only worsens our problems, and makes it more difficult to fix them.