Israel Advocacy- You’re Doing It Wrong: The Problems Plaguing Campus Advocacy and How to Fix Them (Just in Time for “IAW”)

It’s that time of year again! Radical anti-Israel activists descend on college and university campuses spreading lies, intimidating Jewish students, and creating a toxic environment: it’s IAW (Israel “Apartheid” Week).

For many students, it is a time to fly under the radar—tucking their Magen Davids under their shirts and staying silent amid the barrage of anti-Semitism. Others stand up to the hate, refusing to allow the blood libel to go unchallenged.

While laudable, these efforts are often ineffective and even counter-productive. There are several interrelated problems: the way we organize, the way we as Jews see ourselves, and the way we talk about Israel.

We fight among ourselves, make poor choices in partnerships, and our activism is often top-down instead of student-led. The way we see ourselves is often a reflection of the way anti-Semites see us. Finally, when we talk about Israel, we are either apologetic, out of touch, or superficial.

The Way We Organize

Zionist groups must fight shoulder to shoulder instead of fighting each other; the size of a group’s logo on a poster is not as important as the quality of the messaging. Students, not donors, staff, or CEOs of Jewish organizations, must dictate the direction of programs and campaigns, because they know better than anyone else what will and will not work on their particular campus. They are also the ones who have to live with the consequences. The machertocracy and community organizations can and should support student groups, but should not interfere with their work or try to dictate the direction.

The Way We See Ourselves

We must use caution when labelling something anti-Semitic. Criticizing Israel is not anti-Semitic; if it were, I could be rightly accused of anti-Semitism myself. When that criticism is directed only at Israel, when it argues that a moral equivalence exists between Israel and the IDF on one hand and dictatorships and terrorist organizations on the other, when it involves accusations of atrocities with no factual basis, when it ignores Israel’s many efforts at achieving peace or its neighbours’ violence and virulent anti-Semitism, when Israel has no right to exist and Jews have no right to self-determination–then it is anti-Semitism, and it behooves us to call it by its proper name.

Jews, and only Jews, determine what is and is not anti-Semitism (and Zionism, for that matter). Of course, our definition must be reasonable and based in fact and moral principles, but it is our definition. The Jewish voice and lived experience deserve the same deference as that which is accorded to other marginalized groups.

Jews are being told that they belong to a wealthy, white, privileged monolith—and we have been internalizing that falsehood. We apologize for our very existence. It is then no wonder that our existence is a legitimate topic for debate.

Jews are not a monolith. We are not all white, wealthy, or privileged; even if we were, anti-Semitism is still unacceptable. We need to internalize that and stop apologizing.

The Way We Communicate

We have allowed the anti-Semites to dictate the terms. Literally. Language is important, and we have tacitly accepted their words as legitimate. Words not only allow us to express thoughts but also help to shape them. By using their terminology, we limit the ideas we can express to those which are mere responses to their accusations. We are playing defence, and that is a weak position.

We have been opposing BDS (“Boycott Divestment and Sanctions”) by arguing that boycotts, writ large, are ineffective and unfair: they stifle free speech and are obstacles to dialogue. The BDS camp’s response: Apartheid South Africa. We then find ourselves back at the starting line, responding to their accusations, using their terminology.

Boycotts can work and can be morally justified; I boycott Mel Gibson movies and any product or company associated with the BDS movement or other anti-Semitic rhetoric. Many Jews and Zionist do, so don’t give me a schpiel about why all boycotts are wrong. It was right—and effective, in South Africa, and it is right in other contexts as well.

We must take a principled stance against BDS and IAW; they are not objectionable because they stifle free speech (though they certainly do); they are objectionable because they are predicated on anti-Semitic lies.

It requires more chutzpah and a more sophisticated understanding of the facts, but it is absolutely necessary to confront the lies and call them what they are. If we do not, we accept the premise that Israel is an apartheid state and only part company with the BDS camp regarding solutions. That is what you are saying every time you stop at objectionable because it stifles free speech; now you know.

Another disappointing phenomenon is the superficial response of Zionist organizations to the apartheid blood libel. The “Size Doesn’t Matter” campaign in Canada is a perfect example of ineffective advocacy orchestrated by out-of-touch machers. The campaign attempts to counter the very serious accusations being levelled against Israel with punny tote bags and sunglasses. If all we can do is try to wag the dog and distract people with shiny things, we are being intellectually dishonest and we are doing a disservice to Israel.

The correct response to accusations of racism and oppression is not “but Israel invented ICQ”. Instead, we must, without legitimizing the other side’s claims, make clear that Israel is a diverse liberal democracy where equality and the rule of law actually mean something; that Israel has made concessions for peace and remains prepared to do so; that Israel meets the imminent and existential threats it faces with an unparalleled commitment to respecting human rights and protecting human life; that Jews need and deserve a homeland and that homeland is Israel because there has been an uninterrupted Jewish presence, for which there is archaeological evidence, and that any absence or dip in population was a direct result of persecution; that the intransigence of Palestinian leadership, which has to this day not accepted Israel’s right to exist and continues to teach Palestinian school children to kill Jews, is the real obstacle to peace; that while Arab-Israelis sometimes face systemic and societal discrimination, they are equal before and under the law and have been since Israel declared its independence.

A pun simply is not good enough.

We must talk about all of Israel’s many achievements: the technological innovations, the scientific strides, the artistic wonders. We must do that every day, not just during IAW. But we cannot respond to “apartheid” with “made the desert bloom.” It is ineffective, disingenuous, and makes us appear foolish. And if we continue to do it, we really are foolish.

In a world of “alternative facts” and “fake news”, our advocacy must be informed, honest, and direct.

Advocacy is a specific type of activism, and it requires both passion and discipline. It is not about doing or saying what feels good; it is about communicating effectively. If you rant incoherently about how there is no such thing as a Palestinian, you might be a Zionist (a misguided one), but don’t you dare call yourself an activist. That type of rhetoric is masturbatory and counter-productive.

On the other hand, if Israel is simply a proxy for your other pet causes, you might be an activist, but you are not a Zionist activist. If you use Israel as currency for your preferred political party or in order to vent your frustrations about Feminism or Islam, you are interfering with our important work.

Zionist student groups should reach out to other groups and form coalitions—solidarity is crucial. We also need to be good partners and support the groups from whom we seek support. Partners should be chosen strategically.

Evangelical Christian groups—though vocally supportive of Israel (too often because they want to convert Jews) put us at odd with the groups we need to bring into the fold (Feminist groups, LGBTQ groups, debate societies, professional students’ associations, etc.). More importantly, they often espouse highly problematic views on women, Queer people, and even Jews. The same is true of conservative political groups and parties. The taint that comes with associating ourselves with these groups is simply too high a price to pay and the dividends are meager. For practical and principled reasons, we cannot afford to align ourselves with groups or causes which run counter to the principles of inclusivity, progress, and tikun olam.

We also waste far too much time and effort on preaching to our own base and trying to convince the most radical elements on the other side. It is important to empower Jews and Zionists (and every activist’s wet dream is to bring an anti-Israel activist onto our team), but the bulk of our efforts and resources should be channeled into bringing the rest of the campus community on board.

We must build credibility among the majority of the campus population. Our peers and professors are intelligent and thoughtful (for the most part), so our message must be intelligent and thoughtful. Nuance is key; buzz words and soundbites will only get you so far. We must be able to concede points—Israel is not perfect, nor should it be expected to be.

We are fortunate because the facts are on our side, but we must communicate them at a frequency that can be picked up by the people we are trying to reach. If they cannot hear our message, they cannot engage with it.

Israel will survive the campus crisis, but she still needs strong, effective advocates. Advocacy is a calling, but it is not for everyone. There are other valid and meaningful ways to express your Zionism and support Israel. If you are not committed to doing advocacy right, leave the heavy lifting to those of us who are.

I realize that this piece will anger many on both sides of the political spectrum. That is how I know I am on to something. If taken to heart, my approach will perhaps leave us with fewer boots on the ground, but remember how a tiny, ill-equipped, barely trained people’s army defeated five of the largest, most well-equipped and expertly trained armies in 1948. If you want to fight the good fight, get ready for the difficult, thankless, and absolutely crucial work ahead. Kol hakavod ve behatzlacha.

About the Author
Esther Mendelsohn is a recent graduate of Osgoode Hall Law School, a former IDF combat commander in the Karakal Battalion, and an activist. She is a progressive because she’s a Zionist and a Zionist because she’s a progressive. She lives in Toronto with her beloved Maltese mix rescue, Benzi (short for Ben-Tzion).
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