Creating Light in a Time of Darkness

by Lisa Eisen

Chanukah, known as the Jewish festival of lights, is an apt time to think about the significance of light – both its physical presence during the dark winter solstice and its symbolic representation of knowledge and wisdom.

Today, with anti-Israel activity escalating across the country, Israel facing a litany of challenges both at home and abroad, and the growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, the need for us to bring light, learning, wisdom and understanding to counter the darkness of lies, distortions and obfuscation has taken on even greater urgency.

Our foundation has dedicated significant time and resources to providing a more complete and accurate picture of Israel than the embattled or oppressive images so often portrayed on college campuses, in the media and in international fora today.

What we have learned, through experience and dialogue, is that rather than aiming for a one-size-fits-all solution, our community should be pursuing a three-pronged approach to providing opportunities for people to understand and connect to Israel through a relevant, personally meaningful lens.

The essential pillars of this approach are Israel engagement, Israel education and Israel advocacy. In the spirit of shedding light, let us be clear: these terms and approaches, too often bandied about interchangeably, are not synonymous. While the educated and engaged may one day become advocates, and advocacy should always be rooted in education, each is a distinct strategy, and each can work in harmony with the others.

  • Engagement is about inspiring people to cultivate a personal connection to the land, people and culture of Israel. We can support Israel engagement by creating opportunities for young people to connect with Israel in meaningful ways, be it through arts and culture, Hebrew, business and technology or the environment. Programs like Birthright Israel are doing this exceptionally well, sending back to campuses and communities thousands of young people hungry to channel their new-found excitement into a sustained connection to Jewish life and to Israel.
  • Education is about building the understanding, knowledge, context, familiarity, tools and confidence to synthesize information and form one’s own conclusions. The more knowledge about, experience with and exposure to Israel young people have through education – be it formal study or informal experiential education – the greater their understanding of, and appreciation for, modern Israel. Educational experiences ideally should be ongoing and immersive – in the classroom, through student organizations, in informal learning, on educational trips to Israel – offering multiple viewpoints and dimensions for learners to explore.
  • Advocacy is about actively supporting an idea or perspective and galvanizing people to action. It is geared toward changing attitudes and behavior related to Israel through the exercise of speech and other political action. Be it advancing the U.S.-Israel alliance, upholding Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state or eliminating barriers to Israel study abroad, this activist path involves trainings, relationship building, campaigns and initiatives. Ideal participants are those who have been educated about Israel and believe deeply enough in the conclusions they have drawn to advocate and generate support for them.

We share these definitions – our working definitions – not because we think they are the final answer, but rather because we believe it is critical for our community to illuminate what we mean by Israel education, Israel advocacy and Israel engagement, and to create effective strategies and resources for advancing each.

It is our hope that this illumination will start a dialogue that will ultimately drive us toward clear definitions and more cohesive and complementary approaches that will enable us to address successfully the increasing challenges to Israel’s legitimacy, the growing opportunity presented by thousands of returning Taglit-Birthright alumni and the need to stem the distancing of young Jews from Israel.

And it is our hope that this illumination will bring greater transparency and impact to our work with young people – specifically about the types of conversations and experiences that are available to them and about their ability to choose which ones they want to join. Empowering young people in this way will only deepen the experience and, ultimately, enlighten us all.

Wishing us all a joyous Chanukah filled with light and understanding.

Lisa Eisen is the National Director of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.