What if I told you that Israel advocacy has very little to do with Israel advocacy? That is, if we map out the past 20 years of pro-Israel organizations’ approaches to Israel advocacy, from presenting myths and facts, to advocating for a more humanistic approach that involves the act of listening and empathizing with our adversaries, to strategies such as reframing the argument, to the one that should have solved it all – instill Jewish pride by showcasing how Israel embodies progressive values by highlighting LGBTQ and women’s rights in Israel or Arab integration, thus showcasing Israel’s pluralism – we find ourselves at a sobering reality: we are failing.
What if I told you that Israel advocacy involves reclaiming the morality narrative? Allow me to expound. I work with Jewish American teens from all walks of Jewish life: from the unaffiliated to the observant, to children of first-generation immigrants, and finally, to Jewish teens whose grandparents are Holocaust survivors.
And while most bring with them their own individual perspectives, I cannot help but notice a chorus, a hushed but prominent choir of a set of beliefs – let us call this morality – that guide their worldviews. This worldview is shaped by viewing the world through the lens of power and powerlessness.
It crystalized in a recent workshop I led with teens on current events in Israel. It didn’t take long for a teen to bring up Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian Christian journalist who was killed during a confrontation between the IDF and Palestinians Arab terrorists in Jenin.
It was the video of Israeli police beating the pallbearers, that had the young man’s throat in knots. “When my friends at school shared that video, I just couldn’t say anything.” I agreed, it was a difficult video to watch.
But there is a concept that I teach: zooming in and zooming out. The video of the beatings was an example of zooming in: it displayed a brief and magnified atrocity.
Let’s zoom out, I told the teens. Hours before the altercation, Abu Akleh’s body lay in a casket at Saint Joseph hospital in Jerusalem awaiting to be laid to rest in the Christian part of the Old City of Jerusalem. Rioters seized the coffin and diverted it to a different location, inciting violence against Jews in Jerusalem. Per the family’s request, Israeli police were asked return the coffin to its planned resting place.
This event is an example of theft and incitement to violence. The teens agreed. But a girl raised her hand: “Yeah, but what happened is shaped by the tensions between the Israelis and the Palestinians, it’s not so simple.”
Let's make it simple
I announced. Forget Jerusalem and the conflict. Let’s do a thought experiment: Imagine you all work for the New York Police Department and a high-profile journalist was killed.
Her family is waiting for the coffin to be taken from Mount Sinai Beth Israel in the Lowest East Side of Manhattan to its final resting place. You get a call from the 7th Precinct of the NYPD that a coffin has been stolen by political extremists on its way to the cemetery and the family is frantic. What do you do?
“You go and get the coffin,” a young man declared. Others nodded their heads in agreement.
“It’s a wrong comparison,” said the girl. She proceeded to explain that because in America the tensions are not the same as those between the Israelis and Palestinian Arabs, it’s not a “fair comparison.”
Why not? Just a few minutes earlier, we had all agreed that this was a clear case of theft. “Do we define criminal acts based on their location? What about murder,” I asked. “Should murder be judged differently based on where it occurs?”
She explained that because the Palestinian Arabs do not have their own military, a robust and stable government, they are forced to “use any means necessary to bring to justice their cause.” They are powerless.
That day, I made a conscious decision not to unpack the history of the conflict, or apply the usual talking points, namely that the Palestinian Arabs could have had a minimum of five chances to create their own state, all of which were rejected by their leadership, thus revealing that the Palestinian Arabs had, by choice, rejected the opportunity to have a military and stable government. I could have surfaced the corrupt Palestinian Arab leadership and how they use their own people as pawns in the conflict.
But that is not the reason why “young American Jews are distancing themselves from Israel,” or, why 48% of American Jews within the 18-29 age-range “feel very or somewhat attached to Israel.” It made me mindful, mindful of ethics and how our youth is comprehending the moral dimensions of events.
It made be mindful of the “Trolley Problem,” an ethical dilemma that presents a scenario in which a runaway trolley is on course to kill five people down the track. But someone can intervene and divert the vehicle to kill just one person who is on another track.
Today the “Trolley Problem,” would look slightly different. There still would still be a runaway trolley and it would still be on course to kill people. The difference: the five people would represent five powerless individuals, the quintessential underdog and the one down a different track would symbolizes a powerful individual, a usurper who resides at the top 1%.
This updated version highlights the binary framework of “oppressor” and “oppressed” that has come to affect and infect how many today view the world and why the young lady in the teen program that day believed that wrong-doing, when done by the powerless, may be validated.
And here is the truth. No one can deny that Israel is a powerful country; no one can deny that the majority of the Jews who built the modern Zionist project came from European centers; no one can deny that Jews did, indeed, negotiate for a Jewish state with the imperial powers, namely Great Britain and the League of Nations in 1920.
The root of the problem
IT SEEMS that the root of the problem is not to be found in better Israel advocacy training. Where, then, is it to be found?
In medicine, the field of interventional radiology has revolutionized ways in which doctors treat illnesses. Oncology therapeutics, broadly, employ chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or surgery. By contrast, interventional radiologists confront cancers via innovative tumor therapy where, by relying on CT scans of the body, they use catheters to carefully navigate the body, thus targeting the tumor with unprecedented precision.
Data conducted by the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and other leading research centers form the necessary CT scan of the Jewish American body today.
We can see the malaise, identify the various tumors: namely that a vast 73% of American Jews view their Jewish identity as an expression of religion, or that despite a plethora of Jewish teen organizations, Jews are less likely to become involved in Jewish life as adults, and more likely to intermarry (42% of all currently married Jewish respondents indicate they have a non-Jewish spouse).
And in regards to Israel, American Jewish teens struggle to support and feel affiliation in the midst of a social media propaganda campaign that paints the Jewish nation state as guilty of apartheid and Zionism as racism. We must use catheters – innovative pedagogies – to reach and confront the root of the problem: a generation that is confused about their identities, a generation that unwittingly deploys moral equivalents, a generation that is triggered by the word “truth.”
We are losing the ideological war not because we do not have better social media posts or better counter-arguments; we are losing the war because our children are marinating in a neo-Marxist framework that primes them to view power as evil, or the concept of truth an assault on narrative.
In the past four years that I have been teaching Zionism, I have noticed how rapidly things have deteriorated. If four years ago I could “sell Zionism” and inspire teens to become Zionists, today things are different. And I dare go one step further: selling Zionism has very little to do with Zionism.
Recently I had the privilege of hearing former ambassador Ron Dermer speak to a group of teens. To the question posed by one teen about how to get people to be more pro-Israel, Dermer announced: “When I gauge whether I am dealing with an ally or foe to Israel, I ask two questions and neither have anything to do with Israel or Zionism. First I ask, do you believe in a right and wrong, and second, is America a force of good for the world?”
Let us aim higher, dare to be better by reclaiming western civilization and its moral fabric by teaching that there are fixed axioms such as right and wrong, truth is objective, language shapes reality and that equality and equity comes at a cost to freedom. Dare I say, the solution is not more Zionism, but a reset button: a reclaiming of the morality narrative deeply rooted in Judeo-Christian values.
The writer is director of education at Club Z, a US-based organization for Jewish teens, promoting Zionism.