WASHINGTON, D.C.—Recent anti-Zionist and antisemitic activities at the George Washington University has left Jewish students in search for answers to understand all-things Israel. The Executive Vice President of American Friends of Lubavitch, Rabbi Levi Shemtov, and Chabad GW board members have worked diligently to bring Israeli Ambassador Michael Herzog to address an anxious Jewish community on campus. Unlike many other appearances by Israeli dignitaries or officials at US college campuses met with anti-Israel demonstrations, Ambassador Herzog’s presence at GWU successfully avoided disruption.
Hailing from a family of religious leaders and dignitaries, Herzog is a true renaissance man. He served in the Israeli Defense Forces reaching the rank of brigadier general, participated in attempted peace negotiations in the early 1990s, and was an international fellow at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, a prominent DC think tank. Rabbi Shemtov described him as someone who “the right, the left, and center could trust.”
For students and community members of all faiths, ethnicities, and opinions, Ambassador Herzog was the ideal candidate to shed light on the Middle East perspective, Israel’s battle of the narrative, and the impact of virulent antisemitism plaguing America today.
“This is my first diplomatic mission,” said Herzog, introducing himself. “As we like to say in Israel—in one hand we hold the sword in order to be able to defend ourselves, and in the other hand we hold the olive branch so we stretch our hand to peace with our neighbors. In my case, I’ve held both of them.”
This event, hosted by Chabad GW, was attended by prominent university figures, including the University President Mark S. Wrighton, the Dean of Students Collette Coleman, and President of the Student Association Christian Zidouemba. Following the recent protest outside GW Hillel’s building during Sukkot celebrations, President Wrighton sent a school-wide message emphasizing that we must “all respect each other even when we disagree because we each belong to a shared community.” The protest organizer, Students for Justice in Palestine, now faces disciplinary charges as reported this past Thursday.
Wrighton echoed this valuable message of a “shared community” in his remarks at the event: “As we agree or disagree, it’s vital that we remember that we’re a part of a shared university community. I kind of think of it as a family. In families there are disagreements, but those disagreements [must] not rip apart a community, a family […] This has never been more critical than in the times we live in right now.”
Since its establishment as a modern state, Israel is exemplary in its commitment to mesh diverse identities and divergent opinions: Israel can be described as a mosh pit of Jews, Arabs, Muslims, Christians, Druze and other minorities that has cultivated a flourishing society. Albeit chaos and conflict, undisguised or sometimes hidden harmonies of coexistence and teamwork are key to Israel’s thriving democracy, booming innovation, and rich cultural values promoting progress. So much for the false claims of Israel being an apartheid state.
“If you go to Israel and see this kaleidoscope, this diversity, that’s the real story of Israel. Many people look at Israel only through the prism of wars and conflict, but Israel is much more than that,” said Ambassador Herzog. Beyond statistics that show, for example, that 21 percent of Israel’s population is Arab, or that Israel’s non-Jewish population participates actively in its government and military, students witnessed living proof of Israel’s diversity at the event. Minister of Public Diplomacy at the Embassy of Israel to the US Sawsan Natour Hasson, who is Druze, accompanied Herzog that same evening.
After touching upon Israel’s distinct democratic attributes, Ambassador Herzog spoke on the many ironies of Israel’s story. This included Israel’s success and triumph “against all odds” in the aftermath of the Holocaust, along with Israel’s paradoxical nature as a strong yet vulnerable nation given her geography. Surrounded by far larger hostile neighbors, some of which aim to erase her from the map, Israel’s strong presence in the region, let alone its very existence, is not only ironic but miraculous.
Students at the event were most eager to hear Ambassador Herzog’s thoughts on anti-Zionism. He brought up yet another irony: that the “campaign of delegitimization” against Israel has mostly infiltrated the west while the modern Middle East presents a growing acceptance of Israel’s presence in the region.
“It’s a whole other world out there,” said Rabbi Shemtov who just returned from a trip to the Gulf region. He shared that he could roam the streets freely with “a yarmulke (skullcap) and traditional Orthodox Jewish garb” in formerly unwelcoming settings like Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Bahrain. Herzog characterized this new atmosphere in the region as a “different order of peace, a peace between people [not only governments],” and something that people want to be a part of.
But the journey ahead is long and arduous. There are indeed two camps in the Middle East—one of violence and incitement, and one of tolerance and peace-seeking. Israel’s government continues to do all it can to combat the former and promote the latter, however, imminent threats and attacks on civilians are unabated. It’s not surprising that, after repeated efforts to extend the olive branch to her neighbors—some of which have succeeded—Israel is still forced to hold the sword.
Back in the West, the battle of the narrative rages on. Spurious media campaigns have so effectively manipulated and imbued zealous passion in young fertile minds. American Jews, specifically those in college campuses, lack the tools and “swords” to combat these fabricated falsehoods and anti-Zionist canards.
Herzog shared a fascinating proposal to navigate the epidemic of Israel and Jew hatred on American college campuses. He aspires to bring university presidents together to “adopt a codex” of permissible and impermissible conduct on university grounds.
“I would include very simple principles. One: No discrimination against any group; two: tolerance to other people and other opinions; three: freedom of speech for all which means—if I come to campus to speak, I am given the same freedom of speech as you, not only those who disrupt me.”
Herzog also drew a parallel between anti-Zionsim and antisemitism—a message that must be disseminated widely and reinforced on college campuses. Respectful criticism and critique of Israel, as most Israeli citizens do, is totally acceptable. In the same manner as we do not contest, say, France’s right to exist, denial and delegitimization of the Jewish state is absolutely unacceptable. Anti-Zionism is an ideology that discriminates against the Jewish people because it denies Jews’ right to self-determination and existence in their historical homeland.
While Israel is by nature a Jewish state, she is a secular and democratic one. Judaism is what provides Israel her compassionate, spiritual heart—rooted in the tenet of Tikkun-Olam, the never-ending quest to repair the world. It’s Judaic principles inspire value-based policies like its military code of ethics and efforts to enact ethical laws such as outlawing torture practices among many others.
Beyond hasbara—the Hebrew term for “explanation” in justifying Israel’s actions and policies, Jewish students must be equipped with easy-to-communicate facts and methods that can effectively combat misperceptions, and heinous, baseless bigotry that has tarnished Israel’s brand. This will also embed a love for Israel in Jewish-American students’ hearts, enabling them to display their identities openly and proudly.
It was a distinct honor to embrace my Jewish-Israeli identity and deliver the closing remarks at the event with a deeply personal address. My words were a testament to how strongly I hold Israel at my core, and how strongly I feel about disseminating a true understanding of this exemplary nation. In the words of Ambassador Herzog, “Overall with all the challenges we face, we are optimistic; with all the imperfections, we are an amazing success story.”