Today I’m far from Israel. I stand outside suffering the effects of a capricious New Orleans downpour. My pruned toes are entrenched in the mud-strangled grass at Tulane University, but I’m not complaining. I nod my head to the jazz-infused beat bounding off the stage in the center of the quad.
Today I’m far from Israel, but its spirit is alive in this soggy outpost of the Diaspora. Declare Your Freedom, a student-run, pro-Israel music festival, has been in full swing for nearly an hour, but something strange is going on.
It’s not the weather. It’s not the sadly ironic smattering of uninformed minorities who are picketing against the only Middle East state that wouldn’t hang them just for being “them.” Perhaps it’s that I’m one of the only Jewish speakers at this event meant to advocate for Israel. So I’m a token—Ha! That’s a new one.
Since when do an African-American pastor from Stockton, an Aboriginal activist from Calgary, a British Muslim of Pakistani origin, and a Jewish IDF veteran from Miami all end up on the same stage together, let alone to promote Israel?
The answer is: Chloe Simone Valdary.
“We’re having a DYF festival in New Orleans,” reads Chloe’s Facebook message, “and we want you to speak.”
“Count me in,” I respond, despite not having a clue what the acronym DYF stands for, nor what type of venue we were talking about for this mysterious “DYF” event. But it’s darn near impossible to say no to such a woman. For me, especially, it’s hard to say anything but “yes” to a person whose avocation includes daily sassing online anti-Israel bottom-feeders; entering heated debates about Israel with her clueless professors—and winning those debates before the proverbial bell rings. As an International Studies major at the University of New Orleans, Chloe lives far from Israel, but she remains one of its most vocal and ardent campaigners. As a flagship of this campaign, her Declare Your Freedom festival – DYF – is spreading from her university to schools all over the South, the front line in the battle against anti-Semitism in America.
Earlier today, four of us speakers are sitting in a conference room, talking the clock down until the festival begins. “Did you guys see those ass-hats protesting outside? Ryan asks. “One of their signs reads, “Anti-Zionism does not equal anti-Semitism.” Bunch of ass hats…”
Ryan’s an imposing, six-foot-four, 300-pound member of the Métis people, one of the recognized Aboriginal peoples in Canada. Why is he here? His greatest passion is fighting for the rights of all indigenous folk. I learn that his favorite method is hunting the Internet and pouncing on cowardly trolls.
“Dumisani,” Ryan says, “What say we head over there? Teach those college kids a real History 101?”
“Sure thing, Brother,” responds the tall, dreadlocked, African-American. Dumisani is a pastor in California, a musician, and a father of six. He lives in California but spends much of his time on campuses, spearheading the anti-BDS campaign across America. The “BDS” or “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” movement advocates the demonization of Israel and all her actions, just because they’re her actions. After spending five minutes with this guy, I understand why Christians United For Israel chose him to lead the campus charge.
Dumisani doesn’t just fill up a room physically with his large presence. His passion for the cause is an overwhelming force, and I find myself asking him, “How do you do it? Where do you find the energy to deal with people who hate you for supporting Israel?”
“Simple, my friend,” Dumisani says with a smile. “I’ve got two daughters in college. They both have a strong moral compass, and when they hear anti-Israel rhetoric, they stand up against it. I feel like all the students who fight that fight are my children, too.” Then he frowns, closes his eyes. “They’re the ones who’ve got it tough, the students in the trenches. I show up for a day, maybe get booed and heckled for supporting Zionism, but these kids continue to live it, each and every day. They have to go to class the next morning, see the people who hate them, over and over again, dodge the same bullets. People like us help when and where we can.” He pumps his fists in the air. “We cheer from the sidelines—but we’re not taking the hits, and we can’t substitute for them.”
“I’ve actually grown to enjoy the controversy,” says Kasim, joining our conversation. In a thick English accent, he proceeds after a pregnant pause, “It’s actually a lot of fun watching an uninformed imbecile insert a foot in his mouth.”
“Totally,” agrees Ryan, with a devious smile. “There’s nothing like a delicious dose of schadenfreude in the morning.”
Kasim is a British Muslim of Pakistani origin. Like most of his compatriots, he grew up in England as a fierce opponent of Israel. “I was ready to martyr myself a while back,” Kasim confessed the night prior, as we sat over coffee. “Thank heavens I decided to visit Israel. I went there to prove once and for all that Israel was in the wrong. Instead I realized everything I’d learned about the Jewish state was utterly false. It was brainwashing.”
Now, back in the conference room, Kasim is talking about a recent campus conflagration. “So she gets up during the Q and A, and I already know what’s coming, of course. She goes straight for Islamaphobia. And I’m like, no. Just no. There is nothing Islamaphobic about me being pro-Israel. In fact, that’s insane. So I tell her, as a Muslim, I find your deep-seated anti-Semitism highly Islamaphobic.”
“What did she say to that?” I ask, as the others chuckle.
“You know,” Ryan says, “We’ve all been there. There’s nothing she could’ve responded.” He turns to Kasim. “She sat down and shut her mouth, didn’t she?”
Today I’m far from Israel. But I find myself sitting here among these three titans of the land I cherish. Why do these men spend a big chunk of their lives getting hated on for a cause that isn’t, at first glance, their own?
Maybe it’s because they see the similarities between their personal battles and that of Israel. Maybe because they believe it’s not about color or race, but about justice, fairness, and supporting what’s morally right. Maybe it’s because they understand that, while Israel isn’t perfect, it’s the only nation in the Middle East that was founded for the purpose of inclusion rather than exclusion.
It’s time for my talk. Back out in the rain. I’ve given this speech a thousand times, but this one’s a little different. With me are those who understand our need to band together in a world whose morality has again taken a hairpin turn toward a frightening, unthinkable horizon. Whatever their reasons for enlisting, I’m bolstered by their strength, their wisdom, their willingness and even their need to rush once more unto the breach.