Ally of Israel

Chloe Valdary grew up in a philo-Semitic environment and doesn’t fit into preconceived notions of 'what a black person should be.'

Chloe Valdary (photo credit: Courtesy)
Chloe Valdary
(photo credit: Courtesy)
CHLOE VALDARY often confounds people. A pro-Israel activist and self-identified Zionist, she grew up in an atypical Christian community that celebrated Jewish holidays, and found herself drawn to the history of the Jewish people through literary and political writings. With an independent spirit, and a strong sense of justice, she became increasingly engrossed in the Jewish experience, to the degree that defending the Jewish right to self-determination has become her central preoccupation.
“It’s a great story,” says Valdary, 23, who has developed her approach in part thanks to a research project she is conducting as a Robert L. Bartley Fellow at The Wall Street Journal. “It’s about a people who were exiled, expelled and returned after 2,000 years. It’s a story of struggle, overcoming obstacles, which is ultimately what human experience is all about. It’s inspirational,” she relates to The Jerusalem Report. Her project at the Journal involves studying the world of pro-Israel advocacy in America – discerning what works, what doesn’t and how to make it better.
Valdary explains that she grew up in a church community of people from all over New Orleans, keeping Shabbat, eating kosher style and commemorating all the holidays. “We were like Seventh Day Adventists on steroids,” she jokes, pointing out that some Christians actually celebrate Sukkot . “Because I grew up observing these customs, it was obviously a philo-Semitic culture.”
For 8th and 9th grades, she went to a predominantly African-American school where she felt her peers didn’t value education. During that time, she watched “Freedom Writers,” a 2007 movie about a teacher who changed the lives of at-risk students who faced the violence of gangs and race wars, finding a way to relate to them through writing. “The turning point of the film was when they read ‘The Diary of Anne Frank,’” re-calls Valdary. “She was hiding from the Germans, and they were hiding because of gang activity. I was very idealistic at the time. I saw that she taught the Shoah and it changed something. So I thought I’ll learn about the Shoah and change my peers.”
But Valdary didn’t have a chance to try out her idealistic theory because her parents moved her to another school – the New Orleans Creative Center for the Arts – where she could study film-making.
“There was a book giveaway at the library,” recalls Valdary, “and I picked up two books by Leon Uris.” These were “Mila 18,” about the Warsaw Uprising, and “QB VII,” a courtroom drama about Nazi medical experiments. These books led her to start studying Jewish literature and Zionist thought, first in high school, and then college. “It’s part of my identity because I grew up in such a philo-Semitic environment,” explains Valdary, who says she also still studies and believes in the New Testament. While studying film-making and screenwriting in high school, she continued her study of Jewish philosophy and literature.
Valdary went to college at the University of New Orleans, entering as a film major during her first year, but also took class- es on geopolitics, studying international communication and politics. It was also then that she read Elie Wiesel’s 1963 book “The Town Beyond the Wall,” which tells the story of a young man who survived the Holocaust and later went to Communist-era Hungary to visit his home town – only to be imprisoned by the secret police. “It’s about the idea that, as human beings, we have to engage in the act of choice,” Valdary explains. “There’s good and evil and we have to choose. To be indifferent is inhuman. Apathy isn’t only wrong – it’s not human.”
This was around 2012, and Valdary saw anti-Semitism growing in the world with the Jewish day school shooting in France and the increasing threat of a nuclear Iran. “The [Wiesel] book was the culmination of everything,” says Valdary. “I was on my way, and the book tipped me over.”
She decided to switch majors to International Studies, and started a student pro-Israel organization (Allies of Israel) that focused on Israel advocacy. The reason she gives for feeling that Israel was so urgent was the combination of seeing anti-Semitism rising globally and feeling that it was peripherally part of her identity.
“We were making the same historical mistakes as before,” she says. “The march of history would prove nightmarish with time. Insofar as I’m alive and can do something to stop this from happening, I will do what I can.”
Since graduating from college in 2014, however, Valdary has focused less on pro-Israel advocacy. “I’m trying to tell the story of Israel in such a way that millennials will become so excited about it they say: I like it, I love it, I need it, I can’t live without it. And, incidental to that, I’ll be combating anti-Semitism.”
“A lot of what we are doing [in pro-Israel advocacy] is, in the short term, necessary but inefficient,” she says of her findings at this point. “In the long term, it’s unsustainable.”
PART OF the problem is the generational gap. She suggests that the organizations working now exist for a different time. Millennials, she continues, tend to be more engaged digitally, while pro-Israel organizations don’t always know what that means – the language of the digital world, the ways young people communicate, the more interconnected world, which functions in a way that finds organizations no longer compatible.
Valdary also suggests that the effect of anti-Israel groups, while real, is limited in scope. “Within the American context,” she says, “it’s often overblown. Millennials, by and large, don’t care about Israel.” She adds that the impact of anti-Israel rhetoric is often overestimated because people conflate noise with majority sentiment. Because of this, she contends, a lot of opportunities are missed.
“It’s a paradox,” Valdary admits. “One would think you could be pro-Israel without needing the anti-Israel camp. But the reality is that most pro-Israel organizations wouldn’t exist without the anti-Israel groups.”
She points out that nearly all pro-Israel organizations share a core mission of combat- ting anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment on campuses. Whereas a program like Birthright, she suggests, exists to develop Jewish identity and can flourish without anti-Israel sentiment. Her own dark skin color has also contributed to misperceptions of her identity. And while some people might not understand her connection to Israel, or need clarification, she’s found that the most racist reactions have come from anti-Zionists – especially Jewish anti-Zionists. “Because I don’t fit into their preconceived notion of what a black person should be.”
The worst manifestation of this kind of racism resulted in death threats that were credible enough to not only file a police re- port, but to also get the FBI involved.
Valdary increasingly finds herself ad- dressing not inciters, but those who are still open to dialogue. “The target audience is people who are indifferent, not anti,” she says. “I’m willing to have a serious conversation, full of depth and meaning, with anyone who is ready to have it.”
She admits that there are serious issues to be discussed in relation to Israeli policy – but insists these are geopolitical issues that deal with territorial, military and security realities of everyday life. “There doesn’t have to be antipathy in such a conversation,” she says. “If people are willing to hear a different opinion, I’m willing to talk about the Israeli-Arab conflict. But I’m not having a conversation with someone who denies Jewish peoplehood and Jewish self-determination.”
For Valdary, Israel is not about the conflict, though she sees some people who try to do good by explaining Israel from this perspective. “Israel is a sister democracy, not a twin democracy,” she explains. “It’s about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – and, in addition, emphasizes people - hood and identity.”
And this is where Valdary’s sense of purpose seems to reside.
“The Jewish story, both historical and contemporary, is emotionally captivating,” she says. “And it inspired others to effect positive change in the world. It inspired Martin Luther King. That’s how compelling this story is.”
She believes this means that Israel has its own questions to ask about its identity and direction. “If Israel is about identity, peoplehood, tradition, how do Jewish people approach these concepts in a state, how will Israel endeavor to live this on a daily basis?” These kinds of questions exist every day in Israeli society – and this may partly inspire Valdary, who grew up in an unconventional home, to be part of this global conversation. “My up- bringing made me interested in history,” she reflects. “I grew up in a Christian home that rebelled against the dogma of Christianity. And because you’re rebelling against it, it creates an insider/outsider paradigm.”
Growing up in a Christian community that observed Jewish customs meant Valdary had an identity that was always in flux.
“It’s nimble enough to find connections between things that weren’t connected be- fore, and fragile enough to create an existential crisis,” she explains.