Israel Advocacy and its discontents

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I was a student at the time. I sat with a friend in the quad in front of the student center. It was a beautiful Spring day. We were enjoying a break between classes. The quad was a known gathering place for students at Montclair State University, as well as for those wanting to speak to them. Suddenly we heard a drum, and chanting of slogans–anti-Israel slogans by a crowd which had seemingly appeared out of nowhere. They were packed tightly together to make it seem that there were even more of them. There were Palestinian flags, a kafiya here and there, and people on the fringes of the crowd handing out fliers. It was also a few months before the start of the first intifada.

My friend, an Israeli American, told me ” I am not going to tolerate this!”  It’s said that bravery isn’t the absence of fear, but the decision to do what’s right despite the fear. We were 18 and 20, for us it was solely the absence of fear.  I thought she was in potential danger, so I went with her.

She argued with the demonstrators, their responses seemed emotional and irrational, what I could make out of their arguments contained a great deal of blatant anti-Semitism, not always cloaked in anti-Zionism. One person, showed me the sole of his shoe where he had drawn a Jewish star so that he would always be walking on it. No campus police were present, no Jewish organizations were there to oppose it. We were in it alone. Time stood still as it can at moments like this. Eventually the crowd dissipated and we went to our respective classes.

As time went by, I crossed paths with the students who had participated in the demonstration. Despite my first impression, apart from the crowd and the cause they turned out to be quite nice. Honi, who had been among the demonstrators showed up in my marketing course. On the first day of class he sat next to me. We awkwardly acknowledged each other, put the past aside and got to work. Over the following months I learned more about his experiences, and he took the opportunity to ask me everything he had always wanted to ask a Jew, as if I was the spokesman of the Jewish people. In time he was reading about the holocaust. He told me once that a professor on campus, one who was actively involved with the Arab student organization, asked him why he was reading about Jewish topics and that he explained he wanted “to understand the enemy”, but through this his views moderated. I was 20 years old at the time, and I can’t say I didn’t follow a similar route from the Jewish perspective, including the starting point. We both expanded our worldview. More than the facts I became aware of, I realized that it is in everyone’s interests to put themselves in the shoes of the other side for a moment. Even if the initial motivation is “to understand the enemy”, understanding does not need to lead to accepting the narrative of the other but it is a prerequisite for dialogue, which in turn leads to pragmatism and working out a way to live together.

Years later I worked in a United Nations organization alongside many Arab coworkers. I was the first Jew most had ever met. I neither wore it on my sleeve nor made any effort to conceal it. This was an organization the Lubavitcher Rebbe had once referred to as “a house of darkness”. My coworkers went out of their way to be welcoming and friendly to me. Behind closed doors I was again approached as if I were the spokesman for the Jewish people, as if this was their one chance to ask an actual Jew what they had always wanted to ask. It was evident that they had never heard the pro-Israel side of the story. Where was Israel advocacy?  After some research I discovered that Israel advocacy seems to be focused on synagogues and other Jewish groups, “preaching to the choir”. Why is Israel advocacy not done in Arabic, in mosques and madrassas? There are Moslem and Palestinian figures who could facilitate this. Communication requires delivery of the message in the language of the intended recipient.

In my first weeks at the United Nations a coworker from an Arab state, one which is known for hostility to Israel, told me that Palestinians should put themselves in the shoes of Jews for a moment, and by implication that we should put ourselves in the shoes of Palestinians for a moment, and in this way we both build the understanding necessary for real dialogue, dialogue not with ourselves but with the opposition, and not to accept one another’s narrative but to understand it, to literally and figuratively speak their language, to find real solutions. The idea of shoes as a metaphor in this context suddenly reminded me of a Spring day in the quad at Montclair State University decades ago, and a young Palestinian man showing me a Jewish star on the sole of his shoes, which actually led to the first steps on a path leading to understanding and dialogue.
About the Author
Steve Cohn, President and Founder of Belltown Analytics, was born in New York City. He worked with mostly the Islamic world while at the United Nations for 5 years where he gained experience in conflict resolution, an in depth exposure to global issues, and an intensification of his life long interest in issues involving Israel and Jewish continuity in the diaspora. His background consists of over 3 decades of financial and technical education and experience which he now applies to help small businesses stay in business after the social, political and economic upheavals of 2020.
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