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April 10, 2016 6:36 am

Action, Not Apathy, Is Key to Assisting in the Zionist Project

avatar by Leora Eisenberg

Email a copy of "Action, Not Apathy, Is Key to Assisting in the Zionist Project" to a friend
Israel Independence Day. Photo: Wikipedia.

Israel Independence Day. Photo: Wikipedia.

At a recent Israel activism conference I was attending, a friend told me something puzzling: “You know, Leora, Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) is not the problem. Apathy is.”

Curious, I asked if “apathy” ever staged protests or shut down speakers. But my friend continued, “When we focus our energies on defeating BDS, we devote our energies on a small group of people who are exceedingly unlikely to change their minds. And in doing so, we ignore the far larger group — those who are largely indifferent.”

I spent the next few days asking friends involved in activism what the BDS atmosphere was like on their various campuses. I made a concerted effort to ask friends who are not on widely publicized campuses like Oberlin or Columbia. We tend to forget that those campuses are only a fraction of all universities in the United States — and that, while BDS is a problem at Columbia, it’s not the biggest problem elsewhere.

My colleagues’ answer was, more or less, the same across the board: many Jewish students are either clueless about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or just don’t care. But this absence of a genuine interest is what then opens the way for intersectionality — the much-discussed idea that suffering and oppression everywhere are connected and that one liberation leads to another. The power, and the danger, of this idea is that it can transform the otherwise disinterested student into an active one. Those who were previously unaffiliated on Israeli-Palestinian matters — such as student governments, and Black Student Unions — begin to invest in the anti-Israel cause once their own movements are (however dubiously) linked to it. And then Jewish students, who are typically good progressives (which is not in itself a bad thing!), sign on against Israel because, after all, they’re against racism and oppression, aren’t they?

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To get at the deeper root of the campus problem, then, we need to attack the apathy.

Pro-Israel groups often offer their campuses interesting speakers and free food, and that’s fine. But neither free food nor most pro-Israel speakers tend to make anyone who is not already pro-Israel develop a genuine interest in and affection for the Jewish state. Food and speakers bring students to events, but are incapable of making them care about Israel.

People care about something when they are personally invested in it. The way to invest in a cause is, so to speak, “lay a stake” in its development.

To that end, I propose that students invest in — take part in — the building of the Jewish state.

In one sense, of course, the years of state-building are over. My parents’ generation, the one that volunteered on kibbutzim and saved pennies for Israel, is gone. Our definitive wars have been fought, and we are no longer glued to our televisions for daily news of Syrian or Egyptian advancements. My generation has trouble caring about Israel because it has played no part in her creation. Israel is already built, and young students don’t feel the need to continue a finished job. And if they can’t dedicate their time and effort to the cause, they can’t care about it in a particularly deep way.

But, in another sense, state-building is not yet over, as the Zionist project is still a work in progress.

There is so much we can do in order to create a state of Israel that we can love and identify with — and, with that focus, campus activists have the ability and the mandate to turn apathy into action. We can organize a clothing drive for poor children in Jerusalem or send English books to children in schools that don’t get proper funding. We can host a felafel-making evening, sell the results and use the profits to advance the cause of helping the remaining Ethiopian Jews make aliyah, or of French immigrant integration. Our possibilities are endless, and they have the potential to transform the indifferent student’s apathy into a sense of having a stake in the creation of their very own State of Israel.

Once students feel that they are active participants in the Zionist project, they will feel invested. Intersectionality is in fact just a ploy for real engagement; students tell themselves that they’ve helped some distant cause because they’ve signed some campus petition. And that’s the point — they’ve only told themselves that. The friends with whom I chatted after the conference, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, care a great deal about Israel because they have actively engaged in its development and progress, which trumps the intersectionality temptation.

By conference time next year, I will most likely be chatting with the same colleagues about the same problems. But by next year, I hope will tell them how my campus has beaten intersectionality, because we had a state to build instead.

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