Moving from confrontation to conversation

At the precise time when Israel appears most vulnerable, our most trusted advocacy strategy may be inappropriate to the task.

Israel Flag March 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel Flag March 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Researchers’ messages have been consistent for several years: traditional Israel advocacy is losing its effectiveness.
The ways in which we have become used to defending Israel in the non-Jewish world – through talking points, politico-legal defenses, and black/white answers – are applicable to far fewer situations than ever before.
The latest research commissioned by the Brand Israel Group and the Council of Presidents shows that non-Jewish liberals – who constitute a huge majority of the population – are most “at-risk” of falling prey to arguments eliminating Israel’s right to exist. These non-Jewish liberals “don’t like black-and-white answers... are not as motivated by religion and are mistrustful of governments.” A population with fundamental assumptions such as these must be addressed differently.
At the same time, the Reut Institute tells us that Israel is under increasing attack in communities and campuses around the world. Not only are “delegitimization coalitions” active and growing, but the bid to declare a Palestinian state looms large on everyone’s agenda. At the precise time when Israel appears most vulnerable, our most trusted advocacy strategy may be inappropriate to the task.
Thankfully, the news is good, though perhaps unexpected. The Brand Israel report, together with the “Israel in the Age of Eminem” survey before it, tell us that when talking to the younger generation of non-Jews, it is best to hold a conversation, not a debate. We need to accentuate nuance, avoid group-talk and acknowledge doubt. In this way, we may succeed in driving a wedge between the “swayable” non-Jewish majority in the Western world, and the true enemies of Israel who wish to co-opt others in their assault on Israel’s right to exist.
Thankfully the Jewish world is full of professionals dedicated to nurturing young Jews who are capable of conducting this form of “conversational defense” of Israel. They are called educators.
Effective educators recognize that not only do Israel’s defenders need to deal with a different kind of interlocutor, but that our young Jews themselves often are this kind of interlocutor. The days when we could generalize about Jews in contrast to non-Jews have long passed. The Jew lives in the non-Jewish world more than ever before, and shares most of its political, social and national assumptions. Just like the non-Jew, significant numbers of Diaspora Jews see Israel as another foreign country that may or may not deserve their attention. Makom among others recognizes that as well as teaching our youth how to engage with others about Israel, we ourselves need to engage with them in this way, too.
A vibrant, thoughtful and authentic conversation about Israel is now exactly the kind of “training” a defender of Israel will need. An ongoing relationship with a multi-faceted Israel that is cultural, tangible, political and spiritual will empower our young people to converse about Israel with passion and nuance.
This shift from the ”confrontation” model to the “conversation” model relates to more than tactics. While training our young in the techniques of hasbara was crucial for Israel, it did little for the integration of Israel into their Jewish life. As Israel’s “lawyers” and not Israel’s “lovers,” young Jews were in danger of seeing Israel as their client, rather than as a dynamic part of their Jewish identity.
With the High Holidays approaching and the possible declaration of a Palestinian state at hand, a unique opportunity falls our way. The media coverage of the UN decision will allow us to galvanize young Jews through conversation. Not only will this approach cultivate more non-Jewish friends and isolate our enemies, but it will enable us Jews to develop a healthier, more sustainable relationship with Israel.

Yonatan Ariel is the executive director of the Jewish Agency's Makom, and Robbie Gringras is Makom’s artist-inresidence.