Stephen Kuperberg

Israel campus advocacy: Old wine in new bottles

Should we be devoting our energies and resources to education, engagement or advocacy? Is it four cups, or five?

Those familiar with Jewish tradition know that there are many formalistic compromises hidden in the folds of custom. The mezuzah on a doorpost by tradition hangs sideways, rather than horizontally or vertically, due to a rabbinic dispute; we interrupt the wrapping of the arm tefillin to place the head tefillin due to another dispute; we insert Hanukkah candles in one direction, but light them in another, due to yet another dispute.

The Passover Seder held this week reflects several great rabbinic disputes, including: Should we drink four cups of wine, or five? As a compromise, the custom became to drink four cups, but to pour a fifth for Elijah the Prophet who, by tradition, will herald the coming of the Messiah; and in the Messianic era, it is said, the answers to all such disputes will be revealed.

Around increasing connections and commitment to Israel, particularly among youth outside of Israel, disputes also approach a rabbinic fervor regarding three strategies: Should we spend our time and money on (1) Israel education, (2) Israel engagement, or (3) Israel advocacy? This dispute touches deeply upon the interests and priorities of those who seek to secure the future of the pro-Israel community.

Fortunately for Elijah and for ourselves, we shouldn’t have to wait for the Messiah to resolve this dispute. Please, Elijah, sit down, grab a drink and let’s discuss.

(photo credit: Flash 90)
(photo credit: Flash 90)

Those who place a premium on Israel education argue that long-term commitment to Israel cannot happen without meaningful education. Feel-good experiences and exposure to Israeli culture, however well intentioned, do not provide real understanding of the place and the people to which we want the next generation to connect. Effective advocacy will ultimately require more than a warm feeling for Israel, or being asked to regurgitate talking points without an underlying deep understanding about the place and the people of Israel.

Proponents of Israel education have a point: Many studies of young Israel supporters in the United States reflect an abiding lack of knowledge about modern-day Israel, a subject about which, by college — where my organization operates — these young people feel they know too little to speak intelligently when challenged. Therefore, the argument goes, the pro-Israel community must invest deeply in extensive educational efforts so that young Israel supporters can know what it is that the community is asking them to connect to more deeply.

Those who prize Israel engagement frequently counter that pure intellectual knowledge about Israel, divorced from feeling, is no more relevant to long-term commitment than dry, abstract knowledge of any other subject. Without the passion for, and strong emotional attachment to, Israel that comes from exposure to Israel and Israelis — through trips, cultural and social events, and interactions with Israelis both in and outside of Israel — the next generation, however well-informed or trained it might be, simply won’t care enough to become further educated, much less shoulder the task of advocating for Israel.

The proponents of Israel engagement also have a point. Many studies also show greater emotional distance from Judaism and Israel among younger Jews outside of Israel. For these young Jews, exposure to Israelis and Israeli culture is exciting, inviting and an avenue to greater involvement with the Jewish community as well — the expressed desire of the Taglit: Birthright Israel program, among others.

Proponents of Israel advocacy often respond that good feelings, and even knowledge of facts and figures, are inadequate without the skills to be able to act upon those feelings and that knowledge. Particularly in the campus environment, which can and frequently does expose students to harsh, unfair and even demonizing portrayals of Israel and Israelis, leaving young people untrained and unprepared to address the virulently anti-Israel rhetoric they may encounter from Israel’s campus detractors can undo all of those feel-good or textbook moments. To prepare the future leadership of the pro-Israel community, it is necessary to provide the skills training — relationship-building, strategic planning, organizing and communications — that will position these young people for the future.

Israel advocates also have a point. Study and experience reflect that no amount of prior education or positive memories will adequately equip students to address, and ultimately reverse, the anti-Israel activity and sentiment that they may encounter in the campus environment. By contrast, providing students and others with the tools and resources they need to be effective Israel advocates has demonstrably built confidence, enthusiasm, tangible results and the abilities for future leadership.

So, is it four cups or five?

By now Elijah — well into his cup — could be justified to ask: What, then, are well-intentioned supporters of Israel to choose? Should we devote our energies and resources to education, to engagement or to advocacy? Is it four cups, or five?

The answer, this time, is that the supporter of Israel commitment shouldn’t have to choose — and that, in fact, our guide lies in the Seder’s teachings.

Israel education, engagement and advocacy are integrally linked as essential parts of a larger, unified whole. To form a complete, self-actualized Israel supporter — whether in the campus space or beyond — requires all three elements. After all, what good are a brain (education), a heart (engagement) or arms and legs (advocacy skills) on their own? To feel, to know and to be able to do are inextricably linked; no one, even two, of the elements will suffice. In fact, effective exposure to one element leads to the desire to obtain greater exposure to both of the other elements.

The answer, therefore, is to identify and focus on providing the element that individuals may need in their personal development. Each of us at different points of our development has needed greater knowledge, positive experiences or skill-building.

In that sense, the Seder’s recounting of the parable of the Four Sons — four children, each in differing stages of development and relationship to their family and Jewish observance — is our guide. For each son — the wise, the rebellious, the simple and the one who doesn’t even know yet how to formulate the question — we provide different, tailored experiences. Our approach to developing commitment to Israel among the next generation should be no different. Indeed, the entire seder experience offers elements of each of the approaches: The knowledge and shared facts of recounting the Exodus; the joyous feelings and positive memories of shared celebration; and skills and empowerment of participation and leadership. So, please, sit, Elijah, relax, and finish your drink. You have enough disputes to resolve; smart Israel supporters should take this one off their lists.


Stephen Kuperberg is executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, an organization dedicated to weaving and catalyzing the campus Israel network to create a positive climate regarding Israel on campus, and publisher of the Israel Campus Beat.

About the Author
Stephen Kuperberg is executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, an organization dedicated to weaving and catalyzing the campus Israel network to create a positive campus environment regarding Israel, and publisher of the Israel Campus Beat
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