Narrative is essential. Narrative is voice. Do the Jewish people have a voice?
Without going into underlying rights and wrongs associated with more than 100 years of conflict, the advocates for the Palestinians have a simple clear unified intuitive narrative.
The advocates for Israel and the Jewish People worldwide have not.
This is why, despite valiant efforts, the war for public opinion always seems to pan out so negatively for Israel.
Even now, after one of the world’s largest scale, most widely publicized, most graphically illustrated and least deniable terrorist atrocities, the Jewish voice is still drowned out.
Some will say the problem lies in Israel’s response.
And yet, even on those awful days when Israel’s focus was to liberate its agricultural communities from armed rapists, kidnappers and torturers inside Israel’s internationally-recognized borders, even as the gruesome footage of large-scale massacres at a music festival and in small residential towns and rural villages were beamed around the world, even before any significant Israeli counter-action against Hamas inside Gaza, already the poisonous incitement and defamation had started on social media, already the violent street demonstrations were happening, already the harassment on campuses worldwide was underway, already the media and the international institutions were blaming Israel for the massacre of its own women, children, elderly and disabled.
Therefore the lack of empathy worldwide stems from a deeper issue.
So what is the problem with the Jewish voice on Israel?
Problem 1 – it is complicated, not intuitive.
It struggles to stand up against the simplified version of the Palestinian narrative: until the mid-20th century, there were many more Arabs than Jews in the Land; the Arabs are the ndigenous people in the entire Middle East; the Jews came to the Land from Europe; and many Arabs were displaced in the events that created Israel.
Problem 2 – it is fragmented and can divide us.
Is the legitimacy of Israel about the fulfilment of scriptural promises to a chosen people?
This is a common position among religious and traditional Jewish communities and sympathetic evangelical Christians but may not be accepted by secular Israeli and diaspora Jews or the international community, and tends to rub up other faith groups the wrong way.
Is the legitimacy of Israel about the self-determination of a scattered oppressed nation?
A common position among many Jewish groups, and probably most Israelis, but not well understood by many non-Jews who understand Judaism primarily as a religion not a nationality, conflicts with misguided notions of so-called ‘Jewish privilege’, and without contextualization, leads to unfavorable comparisons with the Palestinians.
Is the legitimacy of Israel about keeping Jews safe after the Holocaust?
This is a common position among sympathetic politicians, including President Biden and many European leaders, but would not be accepted as the main pillar for Israel’s legitimacy by many, perhaps almost all Jewish groups, and is prone to fade with the memories.
Problem 3 – it is unclear, especially the highly contested concept of Zionism
Is it simply the rights to national-self-determination of the Jewish people in the land of Israel? And/or does it imply a particular form of secular democratic political structure? And/or to what extent does it include the imperative to re-settle the land of historic Israel? And/or – the unquestionably false counter-narrative – does it require the genocide of the Palestinians to accomplish it?
What do we need to do?
- Agree what is our narrative – distill through a participatory process the essence, the common ground, the most important absolute truth, about what Israel means to the Jewish people that is embraceable for all parts of the global Jewish community. These three sub-narratives – scripture, self-determination, and safety – must become like a ‘threefold chord’ which we are taught will not be ‘quickly broken’ (Ecclesiastes 4:12).
- Simplify it – there needs to be an ‘elevator pitch’, 5-, 10- and 30-second and 2- and 5- minute versions of the Jewish narrative that are at least as apparently intuitive and compelling as the false 5-second counter-narrative that ‘Israel is colonizing Palestine and committing genocide against the Palestinian people’.
- Provide evidence for it – all relevant historical, archaeological and genetic data should be mobilized with no less vigor, no less methodical-ness and no less attention to detail that Yad Vashem devotes to preserving the memory of the Holocaust and its victims; this evidence should then be seamlessly woven into the narrative.
- Unite around it – all Jewish denominations, parts of Israeli society, and other allies should adopt this common narrative and stay on-message, not because people are not allowed to think or talk for themselves, not to brainwash anyone (on the contrary, focus should only be about what is absolutely true within the historical Jewish predicament, as jointly and participatorily decided by the global Jewish community itself), but because war requires discipline, solidarity and coordination, and because promoting the global Jewish narrative is actually not only how to win this war but is actually the very war itself.
- Don’t despair, the opposition is less than you think – most people around the world are still struggling to understand the conflict; their opinions are often swayed by personal contacts; they need information and they need it in swallowable doses; those that shout the loudest are often a small minority, their violent methods alienate their soft support and the undecided alike; many are cowed into fearful silence unless they see confidence and strength on the other side; the vast majority of countries, even in the Arab world, are in fact horrified and supportive for obvious reasons, but don’t want to put their heads above the parapet until they see who is winning; the media tend to live in an echo chamber characterized by a groupthink that can only be punctured by constant challenge.
- Raise awareness about it – be proud of our narrative, spare no effort to promote it in the media, in advertising, in advocacy efforts. There will always be cynics and haters, but the vast majority of people are willing to hear both sides of the story and make up their minds accordingly.
- Advocate for it – shape a list of reasonable practical asks around the narrative that will command majority support – here is one for starters: the Jewish narrative must be taught in Jewish, Israel and Middle East studies, and other curricula that covers the conflict, in high schools and at universities: academic freedom may be essential when it comes to research, but it should not justify propaganda and bias in high school, undergrad or postgrad teaching; teachers, lecturers and professors should be held accountable for bringing their bias into the classroom or lecture theatre.
- Most controversially, jettison the word ‘zionism’ – it is simply not helpful these days; it means too many things to too many people; it divides and confuses us more than it unites us; it has now become a caricature used as a tool of the enemy. Just as many propose replacing antisemitism with a more straightforward term, lets replace zionism with ‘Jewish self-determination’.
What could this unifying Jewish narrative look like?
It starts with a thought experiment – if you were a black South African anti-Apartheid activist in exile or, yes, for that matter, a Palestinian refugee languishing in a camp somewhere in the region; or if you could imagine an imperial non-Muslim army destroying in its entirety the Grand Mosque at Mecca, ethnically cleansing the surrounding lands of Muslims, and sending them in every direction into exile: how long before you would give up your claim? How would you keep your claim alive despite the passage of time?
The answer to the first question is that Jews, since their enforced exile, for nearly 2,000 years have never given up their claim to the Land, irrespective of however many empires conquered it: in every era, Jews have found a way to maintain some presence in the Land, particularly but not only in the holy cities of Jerusalem, Hebron, Tiberias and Safed; and among those that were exiled, in every era Jews lobbied to come back, tried to come back, and did come back, despite great risks and hardships of travel, and despite great risks and hardships of maltreatment at the hands of the imperial power in charge at the time; and in every era, those Jews that were in the Land, or came back to the Land, tried to restore their heritage in the Land on whatever scale they could achieve. During that same 2,000 year period, every ruler of the Land was the ruler of an empire governing the Land from overseas; since the enforced Jewish exile until 1920, Palestine was never a single territory or country but multiple distinct provinces; Jerusalem was never a capital city for any people but the Jews.
The answer to the second question – how to keep the claim alive – is that the destruction and exile, and the dreams of return, have been embedded into Jewish religious-national-cultural observances that cover almost every aspect of life – most famously, as has now been featured so prevalently in the movies, the breaking of the glass at a Jewish wedding, but more extensively in every prayer to G-d that we make three times a day, in every blessing of appreciation to G-d we say when we eat and drink, on every Shabbat and at every festival we observe throughout the Jewish calendar, and in the four ‘Jewish Naqba days’ we commemorate every year, including a ‘Jewish Naqba’ three weeks when we cut out all expressions of happiness, and a ‘Jewish Naqba’ nine days when we behave literally as mourners, culminating in the Tisha b’Av fast when our level of mourning is equivalent to a person on the day of the death of a close relative, all of this to the extent that exilic orthodox Judaism itself can be considered not merely a religion but also a national liberation movement.
And it was ever thus – out of the 613 scriptural commandments that constitute the framework for Jewish faith, less than half can be performed outside of the Land. Judaism cannot be complete unless Jews are in the Land. And the basis of our daily prayer which we say three times a day – the 19 sub-prayers of the Amidah – constitute 7 prayers for the restoration of our self-determination in the Land, 6 prayers asserting our faithfulness to G-d and our national mission, and 6 prayers for our collective physical and spiritual integrity. In the biblical portion, ‘lech lecha’, in the first encounters with Abraham, the national mission is spelled out clearly, not once but twice, as the story of exile and return, of Judaism as national liberation archetype (Genesis 12:10- 20, Genesis 15:13-14).
The 5-second version of this narrative:
“Judaism is, and has always been, the struggle for self-determination of a small outnumbered indigenous people in their Land against the imperial power of every age, up to and including the present.”
The 10-second version of this narrative:
“Judaism is, and has always been, the struggle for self-determination of a small outnumbered indigenous people in their Land against the imperial power of every age, up to and including the present, to establish a free, fair, just, open, faithful and righteous society, and keeping that dream alive despite suffering the lengthiest and most extreme possible form of colonization.”
The 30-second version of this narrative:
“Judaism is, and has always been, the struggle for self-determination of a small outnumbered indigenous people in their Land against the imperial power of every age, up to and including the present, to establish a free, fair, just, open, faithful and righteous society, and keeping that dream alive despite suffering the lengthiest and most extreme possible form of colonization over 2,000 years – not just subjugation, not just occupation, not just exile, not just servitude, not just physical genocide but also the attempted and near-successful eradication of Jewish identity itself – and by doing so, to act as a beacon of hope and light for every oppressed people and nation worldwide that, no matter how much time has passed, no matter how deep the wounds, preservation, integrity, return and restoration is always possible.”