Monday, July 16th | 4 Av 5778

December 27, 2015 1:34 pm

To Win the War of Ideas, Israel Must Be the ‘Underdog’ Again

avatar by Leora Eisenberg

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Anti-Semitic stencil used to create signs on the SF State University campus. Photo: AMCHA Initiative.

Antisemitic stencil used to create signs on the SF State University campus. Photo: AMCHA Initiative.

As humans, we instinctively root for the underdog. Movies and books exalt the underfunded, undereducated (and often underage) underdog in his fight against the polished grown-ups with their money, influence, and three-piece suits. From a young age, we imbibe the idea that those with money and power are always bad, leaving the “little guy” to save the day. Large organizations are generally viewed with suspicion, regardless of the actual character of the entity. Likewise, irrespective of the goals of the smaller group, the underdog more easily garners our sympathies.

The painful realization is that we, the campus pro-Israel movement, the ones fighting the “good fight” for democracy, human rights, and tolerance in the Middle East, are seen as the “big dog” — the suspect corporate entity. We have funds, and we use them. We are the distributors of shiny pamphlets, the orderers of beautifully arranged food, and the coaches of groomed speakers. We are the ever-present “Israel advocates.” And yet despite — or more aptly because of our well-funded arsenal of promotional tactics — pro-Israel advocates are more often than not on the losing end when put against the world’s newest underdog: the BDS movement.

Seemingly underfunded and representing an “oppressed” people, the BDS movement rarely, if ever, caters events; it hires somewhat radical (and often uncouth) speakers; and it never hands out glossy pamphlets with long words (other than “apartheid,” of course). And in order to critically appeal to the universalist biases of the poorly informed, BDS does not call its supporters “Palestine advocates” — it calls them “human rights activists.”

This asymmetry extends to how we describe ourselves. “Pro-Israel advocates” vs. “human rights activists.” The word “advocate” has a remarkably businesslike connotation. The word “advocate” calls to mind the image of lawyers in suits. Advocacy hardly seems like a role taken on out of love or dedication to a cause — rather, it seems like a position assumed out of a devotion to money or prestige. By contrast, the word “activist” implies marches on the Mall in Washington, DC, where Dr. King shared his “Dream,” anti-war protests from the 1960s, and the 21st century self-righteous hashtags. Activism is generally thought to be grassroots, whereas advocacy is generally thought to be corporate. (How true these perceptions are is a different matter.) In short, grassroots is cool; advocacy is not. And as long as we are “Israel advocates,” we just aren’t “cool.”

In reality, BDS is just as commercial as we are. It, too, receives thousands, if not millions, of dollars from wealthy donors and organizations such as the American Friends Service Committee and Jewish Voice for Peace, as well as the lobbyists of oil-rich Arab states. For example, a Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a Jewish outlet for the BDS movement, has had contributions surge from $280,000 to $1.5 million in the past eight years. In fact, even the Rockefeller Brothers Fund is financing BDS through a $140,000 two-year grant for “peacebuilding” to JVP. Despite massive funding, however, the BDS movement does not look corporate. It looks grassroots — something which, try as we might, we are not doing very successfully.

In practice, a BDS event seldom needs more than ten dollars to buy tape for a silent protest. Events such as these prey on the students who delude themselves into thinking that their “grand acts of solidarity” actually help their “Palestinian brethren.” Anyone can easily feel attachment to a cause by doing remarkably little, thanks to the BDS– as long as that “remarkably little” is easily accessible; i.e. grassroots.

This “grassroots-ness” is invariably populist — a broad appeal to the people — and, in our case, these people are college students, with their general (and often somewhat socialist or at least universalist) desire to fix the world and be “activists” for a cause that they actually care about.

Are we not also activists for a cause we care about? We are activists indeed — not advocates! — for universal values; democracy and human rights, tolerance and justice, the right of all peoples to self-determination — the very things the BDS claims for itself when it limits free speech on campuses and intimidates Jewish and pro-Israel students. (Case in point: Students for Justice in Palestine.) Yet why are we clinging to our corporate approach — an approach we are watching fail before our very eyes — while our cause has so much at stake?

We have to make our movement broad-based. Rather than advocating like intellectuals, we must act like — well — activists. We must speak to the impulse of the student to work for “the people” by channeling our energies into grassroots events like vigils and “Campus Kippah Days” in response to “Campus Keffiyeh Days” or “Campus Days of Rage.” We must act from our hearts and make our activism simple and accessible with as few long words and businesslike lectures as possible.

Nevertheless, as long as we continue to fight for democracy, human rights, and religious freedom in the Middle East — with our markedly non-grassroots approach of “Israel advocates” and glossy pamphlets — we will never win the hearts and minds of college students who want nothing more than to make the world a better, less corporate place.

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  • jakob wasi

    What a giggle! Israel the underdog? Hardly, unless you turn the clock back to 1948. With all the propaganda tools, the Zionists use, they’re falling down on the job of winning hearts and minds. Or is it, their deleterious deeds have ripped the scales off the eyes of the world, for all to see that the wizard is naked.

  • steven L

    This is plainly idiotic. Israel has been, is and always will be the UNDER dog!
    For 2,000+ years Jews had the Ethics on their side and no power and that resulted in abuses for > 2,000 years. Now Jews (of Israel) have power and ethics but have a major problem with shortsighted Liberal Jews!

  • Naftoli Pickard

    This is an outstanding article. Leora definitely has her finger on the pulse of campus life in the U.S. In addition to what Leora proposes, I would suggest we go on the offensive. We need to say things like, “The political Left supports people who chop the heads of gay people,” or “The political Left defend those who blame women for their own rape,” or, “The Left supports a backwards 7th century ideology that kills off gays, subjugates women, and kills Christians just because they are Christian.” My wording is not that great because I’m 51 and out of the campus loop but the point I am making is that we need to fight back with the same rhetoric they use, we are too polite. Politeness is not winning the day, we need to be in their face like they are with us. David Horowitz wrote an entire book about this topic. Good job Leora !!

  • Mahdi satri

    Well said Leora

  • camera

    Leora, please check our FB page. We have shared this article.

    Thank you.

  • Dina Grossman

    Not necessarily the underdog – but as a nation entitled to self-determination and fighting for justice for itself – and not just for all of the others who Israel and Jews also support.

    Are you familiar with Yehuda HaKohen? If not, here are a few starters:

    Is Israel Advocacy on Campus Getting It Wrong? 14 April 2015 also with Mottle Wolfe 27 MAY 2015 4 aug 2015

    INDIGENOUS RIGHTS? Three Awesome Jewish Leaders Speak
    November 6, 2015 HaKohen starts 21 minutes in.

    (PS – If you don’t already have this book as a resource I recommend the following treasure-trove of contemporary history: Making David into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel Hardcover – July 8, 2014
    by Joshua Muravchik

  • naomi

    We are viewed as the ‘corporate’ and also as the ‘occupier’. It has been useless to try to make them see where we are coming from. Perhaps we should resort to challenging by throwing questions at them. These questions need to be well prepared and well thought-out. Questions make people think whereas explanations coming from the ‘bad dog’ fall on deaf ears.

  • Judith

    She raises a good point. I’ve been to many events and they’ve all been quite corporate, though at my age, it doesn’t really matter.

    I hope she writes about how to attract adults as well.

  • Zach

    Very well said, Leora.

  • Paul Winter

    The notion that Jews need to portray themselves as underdogs to win over idealists is wrong. Jews representing less that 0.1% of humanity are by definition underdogs. As well, many like to go with the strong as bin Laden proclaimed, follow the strong horse; those addicted to PC perceive themselves following strong horses and are thus “on the right side of history”, (illogical as that may be).

    No, what we need to do is to be more forthright – attack instead of trying to appease our enemies – and teach those who side with our enemies, the difference between an underdog and a dirty rabid one.

    • Dina Grossman

      Your point is excellent, Paul. But besides becoming clearer and stronger, it is also important to tell the story of a nation fighting for self-determination and justice. And this kind of story can appeal to idealists. I am waiting for my own comment about this to be approved – we need more sympathy, not because of underdog-hood, but because we are on the side of justice.

  • Rhonda Travis

    I couldn’t agree more. We must change our mantra and allow the world to see the truth. The plight of the Jewish people always was and still is tied into the plight of humanity and if we wish ‘our’ cause to resonate with ‘their’ cause we must unify our message as ‘one singular cause’. It is a case for activism beyond pro-Israel advocacy, it can be considered human awareness advocacy!! Time for re-branding this into a globally coherent campaign…

  • Geoff Mizel

    Unlike the Left, the Right does not tell good stories. The Left has come to understand that it is the emotional appeal that tugs at the heart of those they wish to reach. The message MUST impact feelings within the listener, thus, making a real connection for the listener.

    Even though the Right has right on their side, their story falls flat. There are no catches, no words that ignite witihin the listener a desire to hear more. The Right, the Preacher in a rural town speaks to a few and those few are already believers.

  • marta mikey frid

    Very intelligent proposition. However, we are seen as the ‘Upper dogs’, i.e., as the victmizers of the victimized ‘underdogs’. We are seen as the oppressor.

  • Israel is the “underdog” in the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict. To win the war of ideas, Jewish activists must go on the offensive, and not just respond to Jew-haters. The PLO terrorist entity occupying large sections of Judea and Samaria must be delegitimized.

  • Elaina Hemmingway

    Very good article, well perceived valid angle

  • Nanush Glaser

    The Rockefeller Foundation is also the largest donor to and its Hebrew clone – the primary organs of the radical anti-Zionist and anarchist left in Israel.
    This is all the more surprising, considering from where tthe Foundation got its fortune, and that they are STILL suckling funds from Exxon Mobil.