Why Pro-Israel Activism Fails — And What Succeeds

Activism works if you want attention or disruption.

Increasingly, however, the battle over hearts and minds is becoming irrelevant – simply because the attention span of modern audiences is so short, and as for hearts, they gravitate towards emotions, and if they are conditioned early enough,  no argument or even presentation will change their direction.

It’s not just the difference between plain old advocacy – the dry, informative, fact-based style that the old-school Jewish establishment proffered. Even rallies, image-driven articles, photographs, and personal narratives are losing the sway that seemed to have been yesterday’s promise. The pro-Israel crowd somehow seems to be lagging a few steps behind the times. When you have incoming college students already conditioned to believe that Israel is illegitimate, that every argument has to be somehow tied to intersectionality, and when violent mobs are an accept norms, it’s too late for pictures of victimized Jewish babies and abused animals. Even the Teen Vogue has become politicized. Anti-Israel sentiment is spreading even to religious denominations and other groups which previously either voted as a block on Israel-related issues or at the very least were neutral. Part of this trend can be easily explained a way by the failure of outreach to sufficiently diverse swaths of population.

How many American Jews travel to the middle of the country to have real conversations about Israel-related issues with people who live there?

How many engage with average non-activist Europeans?  Where Jews are inert, other groups are not. They don’t just talk to world leaders; they engage in deeply personal conversations with regular folk they meet on the streets, with friends at dinner, with anyone who is willing to listen to their words. They know how to be human long before they traverse into the territory of becoming violent gangsters. That’s just the next phase of the manipulative state and non-state forces funding and encouraging these activities. The fact that for many supposedly pro-Israel activists and defenders, Israel is not the number one issue, and they consider social justice or other domestic agenda at least equally important also figures into equation.

If you are not deeply, almost insanely passionate and zealous about your cause, how can you expect to convince anyone? Lack of interest in the subject matter inevitably affects the quality of your presentation.  Also, if you are willing to constantly compromise on your position, while the other side takes whatever it considers an issue of principles dead seriously, guess who is going to be convincing? Not the more reasonable person willing to compromise in order to reach a mutually satisfying conclusion, but whoever appears to believe in the rightness of his cause more, even if they ultimately come across as fanatical and counterproductive.

Few, if any, Israel defenders are willing to ask themselves tough questions before they go out and claim the limelight for their activities. One basic question for any cause is always: “What am I willing to sacrifice to reach my goal?” Not surprisingly, people who are not prepared to answer that question often find themselves cowering before obstacles, because they are simply  not mentally prepared to withstand the pressure from hostile faculty, fellow students, colleagues, government officials, or mobs on the street.

The younger generation in particular also places a particular emphasis on spontaneity and authenticity – something that major Jewish organizations not only don’t understand but fundamentally lack.  Fundraising campaigns are not a substitute for originality, warmth, or credibility. Having the same people in the same roles for decades raises the issues of whether the leaders of these organizations are ready to meet the new challenges when stuck in the mindset of their own generation. Ossified bureaucracies and personal agenda-driven efforts just don’t work if one is actually trying to shift the discourse.

It’s time for some creative destruction.

It’s time to walk away from tired old doctrines and top-down fiats from people far removed from events on the ground.

Smaller, flexible operations are the key to the future of reaching future generations on Israel (or anything else). In essence, the Jewish organizational world, beyond lobbying Congress or the administration, should disassemble into a loose and interactive “cell” structure, which would position it competitively to respond to revolutionary movements inspired by successful radical movements of the past. The issue, of course, is not the ethics or the goals, but what structure ultimately succeeds. Cells can respond quickly; they can act independently of each other, and form alliances on an ad hoc basis, while also forming and maintaining deeply personal long-term relationships and sharing resources and best practices without shifting into the competitive defensive close-minded turf war approach of the alphabet soup of Jewish organizations.

Time also to do away with the very concept of talking points. Talking points don’t work, particularly if you are not already well versed in your arguments to begin with.

Talking points might be helpful in a meeting with a diplomat, but not much can be expected to change as a result of such an encounter. Government officials, whether in the United States or anywhere else on the planet, are both self-interested and very human.  They want to see a genuine interest and commitment to developing relationships, and not merely one-off meetings based in seemingly logical transactions.  Various Jewish groups have met with various high level officials of a number of countries; however, in many cases these meetings resulted in no real changes on the ground for several reasons.

First, many such groups involve several senior staffers and a group of lay leaders, mostly older donors who may or may not be well versed in the geopolitics and issues of the region, and who frequently repeat the same fairly naive questions and proclamations. (One particularly annoying example I’ve heard at every single gathering, meeting, or event I’ve ever attended: “When is Muslim country X going to normalize with Israel? Why haven’t they done that yesterday?” Elaborating on the absurdity of this question is beyond the scope of this post, but I may yet address this tired old trope elsewhere in the future). This sort of setup gets old real fast. And it plays to the very stereotype that these groups are allegedly trying to escape – powerful rich Jews who control the US government/the media/the financial system.  There is no real conversation, just a show. At times, it may get real and some of the more active participants may share real concerns with their counterparts, but overall these presentations are meant to make the VIPs feel important, while the staffers proudly pat themselves on the back for doing the “real work” behind the scenes.

Second, there is no continuity. You want to develop effective relationships with governments, organizations, or influential individuals? Then you have to have more than one annual meeting at some busy and formal organized function. You have to do real things together. Not just lobbying for causes that stretch the limits of your mission, but have events that reflect your commitment to developing the relationship, meet with each other outside the “mandatory curriculum”; work to humanize what you are doing.  And always push for more. At the same time, be willing to be more, give more, and do more – invite your new friends to visit relevant cultural functions or exhibits.

Introduce them to people that can help them with other issues they are interested in. Ask them what they would like to learn about your culture, and offer to help them explore the issues that are priority for them. That’s how you win friends – through active participation, not just by being a seat warmer at stuffy gatherings, and showing up for the photo ops.  Once again – always ask yourself: how far am I willing to go for the sake of this relationship? What are my limits? What am I willing to compromise on? What are my red lines?  Unless one understands who one one is and what one wants to get out of this encounter – be it a meeting, a rally, a talk, or a briefing – one will never get to the place of success.

Third, always remember – it’s a process.

You’ll win some battles, lose others, , and some will be inconclusive. Not all battles are a zero-sum game. None of it will happen overnight, so if you don’t have what it takes to stay committed to the long game, you may not wish bother getting involved at all. Sometimes staying away from the battlefield is the best thing you can do. Sometimes an uncommitted person can do more harm than good by projecting a bad image to the people he is trying to win over.  Imagine you are at a meeting with a foreign head of state or a leader of an important organization who asks you for a favor that will not compromise your conscience, but will take some time and effort. Of course, if you are an individual member of a group, there is some dilution of responsibility, but overall if no one actually commits to doing anything, and nothing at all comes out of this meeting = not even an inkling of anyone tryiing to be helpful, that same influential person may not want to meet with any of you again and perhaps not even others like you. You are not necessarily responsible for outcomes, but you are responsible for the overall impression you end up leaving.

Unfortunately, most people involved in these never ending conversations and battles are just not all that impressive.

They fail to do basic due diligence before engaging – with rally leaders, radicalized groups, politicians, or anyone else. They don’t know or understand their audience, they do not have a clear goal in mind – to persuade? to raise questions? to make friends? to start a conversation? to shut down a violent, disagreeable, and threatening event? As a result, there is no possibility of a “win” , no matter what the scenario is.

The three relatively new organizations that have been successful have narrow aims, clear goals, successful strategy, and an understanding of their opponents’ success.

The Lawfare Project, for instance, clearly understands the ideological underpinnings of using the legal and financial to intimidate, discredit, or subvert opponents.  Lawfare is a battle of resources as much as it is a battle for hearts and minds. In that case, if someone loses a battle, the victory or the loss is what may ultimately convince the opponent to lay down the arms and stop wasting time and money. They may never be fully “converted” – but they’ll stop fighting, and that’s all anyone needs. Most recently, the Lawfare Project threatened a lawsuit over the Irish BDS bill. Often, the threat of litigation and the resulting reputational damage is enough to stop bad legislation before it ever becomes law.

The Shurat HaDin (The Israel Law Center), one of the most effective organizations out there today – focuses on delivering legal victories which have a lasting impact, representing Jewish and Israeli victims of terror, Jewish issues, and Israeli causes. They do not spread out to represent the whole world. They are focused, they are aggressive, they have a depth of understanding in their field, and they think outside the box. Their most recent major victory was to get a Norwegian Gaza-bound flotilla impounded as a result of a Jerusalem Court decision, with the aim of using the confiscated property to compensate Israeli victims of terror. This is an innovative way of accomplishing the goal, before the issue becomes a security risk and a PR disaster.

The SSI (Students Supporting Israel), a grassroots organization which originated at Columbia University – offered practical assistance to Zionist students assailed by hostile organizations and faculty, by giving them tools to respond at the moment or immediately after (such as countering various “nakba”-related events. For instance, they file criminal complaints against anti-Israel disruptors in various campuses. This is a much needed response to the trend of universities willing to endorse the heckler’s veto and intimidation campaigns against Zionist students.  In other episodes, they have provided an effective counterpoint to controversial anti-Israel activities by setting up informational, yet emotionally poignant posterboards. They have set up public debates; brought in diverse influential leaders to inform members, challenged existing orthodoxies, and by adopting the narrative of Jews’  passionate and historic connection to their land, formed valuable alliances with other indigenous populations facing a long history of colonization, discrimination, and denial of their rights and identity.

All three organizations share commitment to their mission, a creative outlook, diversity of “troops” prepared for battle, so that different missions can carry on simulteneously, the ability to cultivate mutually beneficial long term relationships and conversations that speak to each other’s priorities, and to appear quick to react as well as to prevent, spontaneous, and authentic. They know how far they are willing to go, and they are not intimidated or underprepared for contemporary challenges any defender of Israel is likely to encounter. Be more like them, and less like the behemoth Jewish establishment, that increasingly lives in order to justify its own existence, rather than to serve its causes.

About the Author
Irina Tsukerman graduated with a JD from Fordham University School of Law in 2009 and received her BA in International/Intercultural Studies and Middle East Studies from Fordham University in 2006. Her legal and advocacy work focuses on human rights and security issue, mostly in Muslim countries. She is also involved in diplomatic outreach and relationship-building among different communities.
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