A recent study states that the young generation of North American Jews is divided into three main groups: The “Affiliated” group – the 15% who’ve been to Israel at least once, know about many of the issues in the Knesset, and participate in the pro-Israel efforts in their communities; The “Anti” group – the 15% who have a negative relationship with Israel. These students are usually committed to progressive ideals like equality and liberty; And the “Apathetic” group – the 70% who mostly haven’t been to Israel, are not familiar with the natural gas debate and the Jewish state has no special importance to them. And so a key question to ask is what two-thirds of Jews actually know about Israel?
When coming to New-Haven three years ago to serve as the Jewish Agency Israel Fellow at Yale University Hillel, I was sure that I would be spending my time debating the Camp David peace talks, comparing 47’ to 67’, and answering questions about Palestinian refugees. So I was particularly surprised when I heard a Jewish Yalie say to me: “I think Israel is like Afghanistan. It is like a desert, with camels and it’s not safe”. This is what most of the 70% think. Israel was to them what it is for most of their non-Jewish friends – a troubled, developing, middle-eastern country. Just like they saw on TV and read in the Times.
Herein lies the most vital component of our advocacy failure: we don’t know our consumers well enough. American students think Israelis commute with camels and we respond by waving maps with a “green line” back at them. This lack of awareness is forming this circle of distorted perception. Pro-Israel “Hasbara” is designing products only for the “Affiliated” group by offering information on issues like bombing Gaza, maintaining checkpoints in the West Bank, or sending troops to Southern Lebanon. But these efforts, ironically, might even be making things worse for the “Apathetic” group by reinforcing the misguided stereotype of Israel as a militant, nationalist, dangerous, middle-eastern country.
While Israel does face more threats than ever before, and a final status agreement with the Palestinians is still a far-off dream, Israel is not the sum of its conflicts. The people of Israel live, thrive, and excel. Israelis are scientists, agricultures, business entrepreneurs, and successful artists. They win Noble prices, Michelin stars, and change the way people communicate.
Unfortunately, Israel’s public advocacy efforts are mainly focused on security. Almost every conversation initiated by an Israeli with non-Israeli begins with something related to Iran, terror, checkpoints, and peace negotiations. Many Israelis are more eager to prove their point, than to get to know the other person. This only worsens the circle of distorted perceptions and strengthens erroneous beliefs.
BDS and the legitimacy war against Israel is a fait accompli for many years now. But here too, it’s all about the perception. The “Affiliated” are not falling for BDS tricks and lies – they’ve been to Israel and understand its very complex conflicts and security concerns. But if I’m a “70%” college student, and can’t tell the difference between the OECD member, liberal democratic state of Israel and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, Israeli Apartheid will make a lot of sense. We are not lacking money, motivation or qualified people – we just don’t know our consumers.