NEW YORK – Spend any time at all in the US speaking with pro-Israel American
Jews and one theme constantly emerges: Israel is losing the campuses.
it is distress over the annual anti-Israel “Apartheid Week,” annoyance over
Palestinian students disturbing high-profile Israeli speeches, or votes in
student government bodies about disinvestment, the overall impression is that
American college campuses are a beehive of anti-Israel activity. The concern
expressed by many pro-Israel supporters in the US is simple: Tomorrow’s
leadership cadre is being trained today at America’s universities, and they are
being poisoned by a virulently anti- Israel atmosphere.
Israel’s consul-general in New York, who spends hours upon hours on American
campuses, has a much more nuanced – and as a result more sanguine – view of
Indeed, Aharoni has a whole different idea of what needs to be
done on the college campuses: less trying to outshout radical Palestinian
supporters on the tree-lined quads, and more quietly trying to make Israel
relevant for the vast majority of students for whom the Middle East is distant
and far down on their agenda.
“In today’s tech environment it is not
about winning debates, but building relationships with people with influence and
relevance, people who matter,” Aharoni says in his spacious office just off New
York City’s 42nd Street. “The public debate on the quad is not where the battle
should be waged. Fighting the fight and arguing the argument will never produce
the leapfrog effect for Israel.”
While Aharoni does not discount the need
to fight against moves such as divestment votes at the University of California
at Berkeley, he maintains that crisis management should not take the place of a
long-range strategic outlook. And that long range strategic outlook on campus
should focus not on winning debates about the “conflict,” but rather on making
A generational shift is taking place among Israel’s
supporters in the US, and is changing the way people look at Israel, Aharoni
“Jewish kids are connected to a different kind of Israel. A cool
Israel, an Israel of opportunity. They have a relationship with Israel different
from their grandparents – not victimhood and survivability. The conversation
needs to be in a different context, of a place where they can express and
fulfill themselves, can start a business, can have a good time.” Without
mentioning any names, Aharoni – a seasoned diplomat – discounts arguments by
those like Peter Beinart and J Street, who say that young American Jews are
turned off by Israel because of its right-wing political tilt.
think that what will create the attraction to Israel is a different political
view on the conflict are dead wrong,” he says. “It is not about Right or Left,
the very topic is a turnoff. We have to broaden the argument, and make Israel
something relevant to them.”
Constantly talking about the conflict – the
Palestinians, Iranians, Syrians and Egyptians – is counterproductive, he says.
“Let’s celebrate what we have, the assets what we have, not what we don’t have.”
The vast majority of the public, he continues, reacts to the constant debate
about the conflict with fatigue, and that leads to “moral equivalence and
“Just by the way we constantly talk about what is bad with the
other side, not what is good about us, we allowed the other side to brand Israel
as a ruthless occupier and aggressor, and played into their hands by insisting
on continuing this debate. Rather than saying ‘stop the debate,’ [we need to]
begin a conversation about what we bring to the table as a country.
have the goods, and when you discuss the goods publicly, you see the results
immediately,” he says.
In other words, don’t allow the other side to
define Israel as being only about Mideast strife. “No country, movement or city
wishes to be defined only by its problems,” he says. “By constantly arguing with
the world, trying to win a debate, we were playing into he hands of our
adversaries, allowing them to define who we are. We were defined as country
without mercy and compassion making no contribution to the world, while the
opposite is the truth.”
Aharoni, who studied marketing and has been
involved in Foreign Ministry efforts over the years to “rebrand Israel,” said
that the first rule in marketing is that if you don’t take the proactive
approach and define your identity to the world, the competition will do it for
By sabotaging Israeli speakers, holding events such as Apartheid
Week and leading divestment campaigns, Israel’s opponents are trying to define
Israel for the public.
“Speaking only about the situation allows the
other side to define you. It reinforces the context: tension, danger and strife,
and you are alienating those in the middle,” Aharoni says.
And the middle
is both immense and the key.
Aharoni says that research conducted in the
US regarding where Americans stand in terms of their relationship with Israel
found that there were three distinct groups.
“Israel’s support base is
about 20 percent of the American people.
They are with us, no matter what
we do: we go to war, make peace, they care about us,” Aharoni says, adding that
there are many Jews among this group, but also many non-Jews as well.
the other end of the spectrum, he says, are what he terms the “unreachables,”
some 8% of the American people who “disagree with us, no matter what we do. We
went to Oslo, and that was not good enough. Of course when we went into Gaza
that was not good.”
According to Aharoni, these people will not like
whatever Israel does. “We are on the wrong side of their narrative,” he says.
“We call them the ‘unreachables’ because there is nothing we can do or say to
convince them otherwise.”
And in the middle, situated between those who
love Israel and those who hate it, is the vast middle – 72% of the American
“We call this group ‘at-risk.’ What is the risk? The risk is not
that they will join the 8%, the unreachables; the risk is that they will be
alienated from the 20%.”
Aharoni says research shows that the same
themes, messages and arguments that are music to the ears of the 20%, fall flat
on those in the middle, and are actually alienating them. “Not because they are
against Israel,” he stresses, “but because they are different people, they care
about different things.” On campus, he says, the 8% – the unreachables – are
very vocal and high-profile.
“What do we do as a community on campus?” he
asks. “We do the human thing, the natural thing.
agitated, we respond to the source of the agitation.
As a result, we
spend a lot of energy trying to deal with the Noam Chomskys of the world and the
like. I say it is a huge waste of energy. Don’t waste your energy on the
unreachables. There is nothing you can do to change their minds.”
of focusing on and responding to the 8%, Israel needs to concentrate on the
middle and “find a way to be relevant to them, and the key word is relevant. If
you are not relevant, forget about it.”
And where does this relevance
come from? Not from harping endlessly on the conflict, but of targeting areas
that are important in the eyes of the students. This means bringing in niche
speakers who can talk in a controlled environment – not necessarily in large,
campus-wide events – about Israel in the arts, Israel in the sciences, Israel in
business, Israel in hi-tech.
Explaining this paradigm, Aharoni says the
consulate has “targeted MBA programs.” The idea, he explains, is to “get them to
feature Israel as part of their curriculum, get them to go to Israel as part of
their curriculum. We want to trigger their professional curiosity regarding
“While most Americans, particularly American Jews, are highly
supportive of Israeli polices, many of them find it difficult to relate to
Israel’s persona. One of our researchers summed it up: Americans support your
policies overwhelmingly, but are not interested in having a beer with you after
work,” he says.
If you want students to connect to Israel, he explains,
you have to talk to them about things they are interested in, and not all – or
even most – American students are interested in Mideast
“They care about human rights and the environment,” he
“They care about the good life, lifestyle and leisure, music,
fashion, food product design: these are the things we need to
“We’ve got the goods, not the other side. But we are not
“And I say stop defending, and start selling.”