Who Is Afraid of Israel Advocacy?

Screen capture: CIJA

By Mitchell G. Bard, PhD.

In his article “Israel Education: Is Your School Ready?” Tal Grinfas-David presents a troubling outline for what schools should be teaching. While much of what he describes is necessary, it is not enough, and the deficiency is so serious it will perpetuate the problems students now face on college campuses that parents expect Israel education to address.

While Grinfas-David portrays the curriculum as new and innovative, it largely consists of elements that have been recognized as necessary at least since I began writing about the lack of Israel education in 2003. Moreover, the curriculum lacks the most basic tool for the classroom, a textbook like the one I was commissioned to write for the Jewish Federation in Los Angeles. Israel Matters covers the aleph-bet of Israeli history and provides answers to many of the questions students will face when they get to college.

That too is insufficient.

Parents continue to read about the hostile atmosphere Jewish students face on many college campuses and their children, especially those sheltered in day schools, frequently feel caught in a whirlwind as they face a barrage of anti-Israel propaganda from their peers and some of their professors.

If we are not preparing students for the onslaught, why are parents surprised that their kids are unequipped to respond to the myths they are being told?

Schools are failing because of their aversion to teach students how to be advocates. Grinfas-David says research indicates the “‘use of unbiased and neutral materials’ are important, and one initiative participant praised the program for ‘focusing on content, not advocacy.’” By deliberately avoiding instruction in Israel advocacy – which is based on accurate information – students are being short-changed and sent off to the campus battleground unarmed.

I understand that schools are petrified of being seen as taking a political position. It is not necessary, however, to choose a political position – beyond acknowledging the Jewish people have the right to self-determination in their homeland (any school that does not believe this should be shuttered) – to teach students how to stand up for Israel and rebut lies they will be told.

I was no different than most college students today when I arrived at UC Santa Barbara as an undergraduate. I would hear criticism of Israel inside and outside the classroom that was disturbing. I did not have the background to know the veracity of the criticism let alone rebut it. Then, one day I got a book in the mail published by AIPAC (and now AICE) called Myths and Facts. Suddenly, the answers to my questions were at my fingertips and I was armed with facts to counter the specious information I heard on campus. I never imagined that one day I would be writing the new editions of Myths and Facts. One of the major changes I made was to provide citations for all the information to ensure students can do their own fact checking and have confidence the material was carefully researched.

This book should be given to every high school student before they go to college (it is also available online). As I wrote in the Preface:

We do not pretend that Israel is perfect. Myths and Facts pulls no punches when it comes to addressing Israel’s responsibility for events and policies that tarnish its image. We have no desire to whitewash the truth, but context is needed to understand complex policies and events…. This book should be treated as an introduction to the issues. We encourage you to study different perspectives to reach your own conclusions.

Another essential resource is the Jewish Virtual Library. The JVL has roughly 25,000 entries, including primary documents, articles, and photographs covering everything from anti-Semitism to Zionism from credible sources that provide students with a one-stop shop for answers to virtually any question they may have.

What would an advocacy course look like?

First, it assumes students have already spent time studying the history of Israel. Once they have the basic knowledge, they need to learn how to put it to use. Here are some of the key elements to becoming an advocate:

Understanding Context. If you work for the Israeli government, your job is the defend Israel. That is not a student’s responsibility. Israel is not perfect; it sometimes makes mistakes or pursues policies you disagree with, or is led by a government that makes you uncomfortable. As Americans, your responsibility is to put issues into context. Your “client” is the State of Israel and its people, not a particular government, though you can certainly support leaders with whom you agree.

Grappling with Israel. I don’t know a person who does not have some criticism of Israel whether it’s policy toward the Palestinians or El Al’s airfares. You can read criticism of Israel everyday in Haaretz, so students should be encouraged to express their concerns and seek answers to their questions. Some may not be satisfactory, but sometimes there are no good answers.

Knowing your audience. This is particularly important when grappling with Israel. There are proper times and places to express your personal views. Students should be comfortable venting among peers who share a love of Israel and desire to see it become a better place. In a general audience, however, students do not have the same background, knowledge or love of Israel, so any criticism you express is likely to be the only thing they will know about Israel, or it will reinforce their preexisting opinions. As Jews, anything you say will be magnified and may be misconstrued or used against Israel (as is the case when BDS advocates point to Jewish supporters as an indication that “the Jews” support boycotting Israel).

Respecting Differences. Students are not all going to agree, and it is important to maintain civility and respect differences of opinion. This also includes respecting the views of Israelis. American Jews live 6,000 miles away, don’t serve in the IDF, or live with the anxiety that comes with being in the Middle East rather than the Middle West. Israelis must live with the consequences of policies Americans advocate. Remember that Israel is a democracy and its leaders are elected to represent the citizens of Israel not the United States.

Building Coalitions. Today, Israel’s detractors have built coalitions with a diverse group of student organizations as a result of intersectionality. Jewish students need to learn how to take back the human rights agenda, for example, and recognize what they must give to get support from fellow students. We are only strong if we have allies.

Making Israel Relatable. Identify common interests and relate them to Israel. For example, have programs on the environment in Israel for environmentalists, LBGT rights in Israel for gay students, and Israeli music for just about everyone.

Debating/Public Speaking. These are valuable skills beyond their use in Israel advocacy. Not everyone is comfortable debating, especially when it’s more of a screaming match on the quad than the Oxford Union, but even if a student never says a word, they should know the rebuttal. Similarly, it is difficult for most people to stand in front of an audience to give a speech, but everyone should get some experience in speaking in a friendly atmosphere.

Thinking Strategically. Campus organizations often have a knee-jerk response to anti-Israel events. Students, however, should learn to calibrate their response to the threat. If Students for Justice in Palestine is having an event that few people will attend, is it worth protesting? What is the appropriate level of protest to a provocation? Leafletting, shouting down a speaker, writing an op-ed, bringing the issue to the attention of the administration or the media? The answer will be different depending on the campus and the situation. Consider whether a response will make the situation better or worse. Students should also learn how to handle protests by Israel’s detractors such as “apartheid walls,” die-ins, and disruptions during events.

Dealing with Faculty. Students will sometimes encounter faculty who misuse their classrooms to advance their political agendas, have one-sided syllabi, or refuse to write a recommendation to study in Israel. What recourse do students have? Who can they talk to?

Analyzing Content. How do you sort out the facts from the fake news on the internet? How do you analyze a newspaper article for bias? Where do you find credible information?

Writing and Social Media. How do you write an op-ed or position paper? What is the most effective way to use social media to make your case? How do you respond to the torrent of anti-Israel tweets and posts?

We must teach Israel advocacy if we are serious about preparing students for college and giving them the confidence they need so we will stop hearing how they feel scared and unsafe because they are intimidated by Israel’s detractors on the quad and in the classroom.

Mitchell G. Bard, PhD. is Executive Director at American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE).