This spring, I visited 20 college campuses on the East Coast as part of my speaking tour with the media watchdog organization that is leading the fight for accuracy on Israel on college campuses around the world; CAMERA (The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America). Having spoken on more than 200 college campuses in North America and Europe for the past years, I know how hard it is to advocate for Israel as a young student on campus. Unlike the disturbing anti-Semitic activity that tried to prevent me from speaking at University College London last year (here), this tour was incredibly positive. Students from across the political spectrum came out to engage in dialogue and discussion on Israel with an Israeli. But what is the future for Jewish and non-Jewish pro-Israel students on college campuses? How can we create strong coalition of Israel supporters in campuses that have turned into a hornet’s nest of anti-Israel activity?
In my talks, sharing the most intimate details of your life story is difficult — even with one person. Sharing it with a crowd, knowing that many of them have arrived with their own preconceived notions of who you are as a person, based on your nationality, is intimidating. I share with the audience in each talk, the struggle of my family who escaped from Iraq and North Africa as Jewish refugees, after years of prosecution for being Jewish;y family’s challenging time to fit into Israeli society as new immigrants; how at age 12, I was almost killed in a terror attack, prompting me to join a peacemaking unit in the IDF, and that during my service, I came out of the closet and served as an openly gay commander. Every time I shared my story during this tour, I saw how even the harshest critics of Israel take an inward look and soften their dislike of Israel. In the war of words and images, that advocating for Israel often feels like, sharing personal stories can win more hearts than any book or movie.
Oftentimes during the tour, students organizers told me how hard it is to be pro-Israel on campus. They told me how without CAMERA they wouldn’t have any other pro-Israel program on their campus, as I was the only pro-Israel speaker that came to speak at their school. Every time I heard that, I was reminded how crucial it is to be visible and to speak up on campuses. Students need the support of the greater Jewish community to help fight their battles on campus. Remembering the horrific scene at my event with CAMERA in University College London and how brave these students were, I always stress to the students I meet that it was always, and still is, not popular to support a just cause. Standing against slavery was not popular; fighting against apartheid wasn’t popular; fighting for women’s rights; for the rights of minorities — but it is the right thing to do. While it isn’t easy, it is just. We must remind ourselves and the students of this. This is a fight not only for our people and our country — but a fight for all that is right and just.
In the age of “Linda Sarsour” activists, an age with anti-Israel activists that are hijacking almost every just cause to promote their anti-Semitic narrative, bringing the real-life experiences of Israelis to campuses is essential. Traditional “Hasbarah” speakers are not as effective as they used to be. Officials and academics are losing their momentum on campuses and real stories of real people are sought after by students the most. Stories that can speak to both the heart and mind. Sarsour became a household name because her story is one that the American progressives are thirsty for. She doesn’t discuss facts, she merely addresses emotions. She doesn’t speak about the history of the Palestinians, but about women and minority rights, weaving buzzwords like “oppression” and “justice,” even claiming that you can’t be a Zionist and a feminist: coming from a Palestinian, that should have caused quite a riot, but no one seems to care.
Young students must be addressed in their own language. The bon ton word is “intersectionality.” I share my intersections; being a minority (Iraqi/North African) within a minority within a minority (Gay, Jewish, underprivileged community) and how I have overcome the worst challenges using hope in the path to a better future. Israelis and Jews as a whole can explain better than anyone else how different forms of oppressions intersect and affect the individual. But more than just that, how that affects a country. Israel’s story is not about victimhood, but about overcoming it.
Students of different minorities approached me at the end of each presentation to tell me how the talk changed their outlook on Israel. A student from Cuba told me how she related to my story of immigrants coming from a different country and overcoming obstacles. A queer black student told me he never knew Israelis are going through the same challenges as him. A Muslim student from Turkey confronted me about the Israeli Defence Forces actions and left the conversation thanking me for listening and promising to research more. An Iraqi half Jewish half Muslim student said that he was moved by my story and thanked me for sharing it.
Another visible impact of this tour on campuses, in addition to those we reached speaking to rooms full of students, was also being covered in the media. Large number of student journalists were interested in my story and saw it as worthy to cover. To illustrate; just one paper, the Boston College Heights paper published an extensive piece about my event to their 5000 readers in the paper’s printed edition. When the Pride Student Union at the University of Florida withdrew support from my event, dozens of students missed out on an important perspective and story, 23,000 students did read the story online and in print.
The future of Israel advocacy on college campuses must take a sharp turn. College students organizations must adjust to a new age of conversation on campuses and adopt the new language and new topics of interests. You can bring tens of speakers to campuses and have the same pro-Israel students attending these talks, that confirm what they already know. But the real difference is made when a speaker is able to engage with unbiased students, engaging them to support Israel through connecting with their own struggles, whatever they might be. CAMERA understands this and is doing effective work to lead this field. My hope is that the pro-Israel community as a whole will follow. We must.