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