Swastika grafitti (illustrative).
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I was asked the question most recently last week in the well-appointed downtown
offices of a major Jewish organization. But I have heard it surprisingly often
since I founded the Louis D. Brandeis Center to combat campus anti-Semitism: “Do
you really think that fighting anti-Semitism is the best approach to Israel
advocacy?” The question is invariably issued as a challenge, sometimes even an
Implicitly, Jewish leaders want to know whether it makes
sense to focus on the “negative,” when the vogue in Israel advocacy is to be
“No,” I always reply, “It is not even the second
I sometimes begin by pointing out that I do not fight
anti-Semitism to advance Israel advocacy.
Rather, I fight anti-Semitism
because anti-Semitism is evil, and it must be defeated. If the 20th century
taught us anything, it is that Jew-hatred cannot be allowed to fester. But this
sometimes feels like belaboring the obvious.
AS FAR as Israel advocacy
goes, the best approach is undoubtedly very different. Those who want to give
Israel a better image, on college campuses or elsewhere, really should focus on
the positive. In this respect, the American Jewish establishment is not wrong.
Israel’s positive attributes are quite compelling, whether one focuses on the
country’s extraordinary history, cultural offerings, or scientific advances.
When people think of Israel, they should think first of the country’s gifts to
the world. Israel advocates increasingly understand this.
anti-Semitism should not come second for Israel advocates either. After painting
a positive portrait of Israel’s assets, Israel advocates must focus next on
addressing Israel’s legitimate critics. For many reasons, Israel is continually
subjected to heaps of abuse in the international community. Israel’s defenders
are wise to anticipate criticisms and respond to them.
present facts which rebut the fictions that are told about the Jewish state.
When combined with positive pro-active messaging, a fact-based educational
campaign can be very persuasive. But it will never succeed. That is to say,
Israel advocates will never prevail if they stop there.
THE PROBLEM is
that key influentials are not convinced by rational arguments, fact-based
approaches, or positive-imaging campaigns. Anti-Semitism it is at the root of
intractable anti-Israel animus. That is the only rational explanation for the
extraordinary double standards Israel always faces in the international
Although there are relatively few hard-core anti- Semites on
Western campuses, these hard-core haters are disproportionally influential,
because university culture gives disproportionate credence to radical,
anti-establishment voices. These opinion leaders are not persuaded by
informational campaigns because their attitudes are more psychological than
There was a time during the mid-20th century when American
Jewish organizations generally believed in educational campaigns to defeat anti-
Semitism. They felt, as one leader put it at the time, that “lack of information
was basically responsible for group hostilities.” Their assumption was that
prejudiced people accepted anti-Jewish stereotypes because they lack accurate
information about or first-hand experience with Jews. Jewish leaders believed at
that point that they could eliminate prejudice by teaching white American
gentiles about the various ethnic, racial and religious groups within the United
That naïve perspective has long since vanished from the Jewish
communal world, except when it comes to Israel advocacy. By the 1950s, it was
well established that anti-Semitism could not be addressed by facts alone.
Psychologists explained that, since anti-Semitism is the product of
psychological factors, it is unlikely to be altered by superficial educational
or propaganda techniques. Educational efforts which concentrate on disseminating
correct information and disproving errors fail to address the psychological and
sociological roots of anti-Jewish prejudice.
For half a century, we have
understood that anti- Semitism can be addressed psychologically, morally and
legally, but that informational campaigns are utterly unhelpful. Nevertheless,
most Israel advocates ignore the root cause of persistent anti-Israelism,
insisting that education alone will suffice.
NEVER MIND that we must
fight anti-Semitism because anti-Semitism is wrong. Israel advocates must also
fight anti-Semitism because, if that fight is not won, they will be forever
doomed to the Sisyphean task of swatting down myths and distortions whose source
they refuse to address.
Israel advocates are wise to stress positive
imaging first and fact-based campaigns second. But the third prong in their
strategy must be an effective plan for combating anti-Semitism. Otherwise, no
amount of positive imaging or educational pamphlets will succeed.
not ask me if combating anti-Semitism is the best way of doing Israel advocacy.
It may be the third-best option, but it is still the sine qua non of any
successful strategy. But we must fight anti-Semitism regardless of its
importance to Israel advocacy, because it is the right thing to
do.Kenneth L. Marcus is founder and president of The Louis D. Brandeis
Center for Human Rights Under Law (www.brandeiscenter.com) and author of Jewish
Identity and Civil Rights in America (Cambridge University Press 2010). He
previously served as staff director of the US Commission on Civil Rights.
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