Be proud of who you are, says leading spokesperson 

Dana White, formerly Chief Pentagon Spokesperson for the Department of Defense, recently reflected on her first visit to the Holy Land and her support for the land and people of Israel.

 Dana White (photo credit: JNF-USA)
Dana White
(photo credit: JNF-USA)

Dana White speaks with a refreshing sense of authenticity and purpose. Formerly Chief Communications Officer of Hyundai Motor North America and Chief Pentagon Spokesperson for the Department of Defense, she has carved out an impressive career leveraging substance over spin in her interactions with the press and public. As she embarks on her next chapter as Senior Managing Director at Ankura Consulting leading its Global Strategic Advisory Practice, Dana recently reflected on her first visit to the Holy Land and her support for the land and people of Israel.

When did you first visit Israel?

"I visited Israel for the first time with my mother in late January 2019. It was at the invitation of my friend and rabbi, Shmuley Boteach. There, we joined the Boteach family as they celebrated their son David's Bar Mitzvah. My mom, like me, had always wanted to visit Israel, but Rabbi Boteach's invitation came at a particularly difficult time for me.  When Secretary Mattis announced his resignation, I decided to leave the Pentagon without a Plan B, and Rabbi Boteach was the first person to reach out to me. That trip proved to be a pivotal moment in my life and continues to be a blessing to me today."

What were your impressions of visiting Israel?

"Well, Israel just felt like 'the little nation that could.' It's such a dynamic place. I felt a sense of admiration and awe, because it's a land that has faced so much adversity and conflict and yet continues to thrive in extraordinary ways.  One of the first things I discovered was just how diverse Israel's population is and how it has become a global hub of innovation. I love how it beautifully preserves its ancient history while simultaneously driving the future. I love how Israel weds the past and the future seamlessly together. I also like how all are welcome to celebrate and embrace both in this ancient land.

"It's remarkable! And I even planted a tree [with JNF] during our visit!"

You recently attended Jewish National Fund-USA's National Conference in Boston this past November. I believe one of the speakers that stood out to you was Olga Meshoe Washington, CEO of DEISI International and a board member of the Institute for Black Solidarity with Israel (IBSI), right?

"That's correct! Even though Olga is South African [and her experience is different from mine as a Black American], I enjoyed hearing how she explored her relationship [as a Christian] to Israel and Jewish people. It reminded me of my own journey and curiosity about Judaism and Israel. When I was living in Paris, I started a Bible study, and the Books of Moses and Exodus fascinated me. I actually met Rabbi Boteach by cornering him at a Bat Mitzvah and peppering him with questions on Exodus.

"As a Christian, I have learned the teachings of Jesus, but it wasn't until I studied the Books of Moses that I discovered the character of God. I grew more curious about my spiritual roots, and the Hebrew Scriptures resonated with me spiritually and culturally. I think about how many gospel songs laud Moses and Exodus and reference Israel as the Promised Land.  

"Listening to Olga, I gained a greater appreciation of the universality of Judaism and Israel. Not only has Israel as a nation served as an inspiration for African nations, Israel, Jerusalem and Exodus in particular have served as Black Americans' spiritual inspiration and blueprint for freedom since slavery."

During Jewish National Fund-USA's National Conference, anti-Israel activists protested outside, calling for another "intifada" (wave of terrorist attacks) against Israel. How did that make you feel? 

"I was ashamed and embarrassed. When I was in Israel, I traveled to Bethlehem. I was struck by the signs that read that Israeli citizens were prohibited from entering that zone at the risk of death. I found it horrifying not only for what it meant for Israelis (Jews) but that the sign literally sanctions and/or compels people living under the Palestinian Authority to kill Jews for simply entering the area.   

"The fact is that Israel has a diverse population that includes Muslims, Christians, Druze and others. It's a proverbial cultural and religious salad bowl. I am a supporter of Jewish National Fund-USA, but I did not know until the conference about all of the programs it sponsors to support non-Jews living in Israel, such as the Bedouin women in the Negev Desert or how philanthropic investments have delivered clean water to the people of Gaza.

"It is shocking how so many fallacies, lies and myths about Israel go unchecked. JNF-USA has a great opportunity to educate not only the Jewish-American community but also arm Christians and others with the knowledge and the facts to confront this pervasive ignorance and contempt for Israel. People just don't know how many communities Jewish National Fund-USA supports there!"

What was one of your biggest takeaways from the National Conference? 

"During the JNFutures seminar, I appreciated one speaker who said Israel is not a perfect nation (which, by the way, makes it like every other nation on the planet). He noted that the Jewish community cannot see itself as perpetual victims or exclusively through the lens of struggle. He noted that there are challenges, but there are also opportunities. There are tragedies, but there are also triumphs. And if we fail to recognize this, then we fail to share the full story of Israel and its people. His words resonated with me, because the Jewish and Black American communities share a propensity to define their experience through the lens of oppression and alienation rather than resilience. Our communities have achieved so much and so much of it together. I hope we learn to celebrate how far we've come more than lament how far we have to go.

"As a communications professional, I find it sadly fascinating the laundry list of falsehoods, myths, misconceptions and hypocrisies around all things Israel that go wholly unchallenged. But to confront the naysayers, we must be credible. We have to bring the full story to the table, which includes telling the good and the bad honestly.  

Deflection breeds distrust, which can make people more willing to accept lies and half-truths and more sympathetic to hate-latent ideologies.  If we are going to confront ignorance, it's imperative to bring all the facts to the public discourse. We need to talk about perception, reality and their intersections. Gentiles must be educated and empowered to ask the tough questions of their Jewish friends and neighbors. Then, we must be armed with the facts and information to confront Anti-Israel and antisemitism in our own communities and families. If we are ever going to have a JNF conference without those protesters, non-Jews must engage in a meaningful way and shame them with the truth."  

Over 600 high school and college students also attended the National Conference. Many shared that their peers were apprehensive about celebrating Israel and their Jewish heritage on campus. As a leading communications professional, what would be your advice for them? 

"First, be proud of who you are. Be proud of your history, be proud of the miracle that is Israel.   And most of all, be proud that Israel is the only nation on the planet that God ordained. Second, do not be afraid to be the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Israel). I often think because God chose you, the rest of us can choose Him.

"With respect to pride and Jewish identity, I know it's complicated. In high school, I had a close friend named Mary. Her mother was Jewish, and her dad was Christian. She wasn't religious, and I think she even went to church on occasion, but she identified as Jewish.  During a summer vacation in Cape Cod,  she met a boy she really liked who was a White Anglo-Saxon. She spent about a month or more dating him and gallivanting with his friends.  Then, one day, he and his friends started making antisemitic jokes. She was shocked at the boy and ashamed of herself for not confronting him. When she asked me what I would've done, I told her I would have told him that my mother's name was Levine!

"I felt righteous in my response, but I was 17, and it was a simplistic reaction to a complex dilemma of which I had no experience.

"As a Black woman, I show up black everywhere I go. I don't know what people say behind my back. I may suspect, presume and even assume, but I'll never really know. Most of the time, people don't share their prejudices [against Black people] in front of me. But Mary 'passed' as a non-Jew…and heard exactly what this boy thought of her.  While I don't have any answers about how best to navigate Jewish identity, I hope young people will be encouraged by God's promise in Isaiah 54:17:

"No weapon formed against you shall prosper, and you will refute every tongue that accuses you. This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD, and their vindication is from Me," declares the LORD.

"Be proud of who you are, and remember who always has your back."