Israel: A Country at War, Yet Full of Hope
I recently attended a Jewish National Fund (JNF) fundraising breakfast at the Beverly Hilton, along with 1,400 other participants. It was my fourth time at this annual event, and yet I was once again overwhelmed by the incredible enthusiasm of American Jews for Israel — a country many have never even visited, but which they love. After all, only unbridled enthusiasm can explain such great attendance for an event that early in the morning.
The JNF invited Frank Luntz to be the breakfast’s keynote speaker. Luntz, with whom you may be familiar via his regular appearance on various TV news outlets, was an unlikely headliner. Cerebral, acerbic and right-of-center — he might seem to be a divisive choice for the keynote at a charity event aimed at a broad audience.
But contrary to any such preconceptions, his presentation was a breath of fresh air. He offered a condensed seminar on how Israel’s supporters should communicate Israel’s message to the uninformed, and those hostile to the Jewish state. Based on detailed research conducted using test audiences, Luntz’s overall thesis was simple: Passion for Israel will never resonate if it is delivered using terminology most people find combative, or out of line with Western ideas of democracy and freedom.
For example, when arguing against BDS, it is much better to say something like: “Boycotts do not unite, they divide. The path to peace is paved with diplomacy, discussion and cooperation, not isolation or continued conflict.” Saying something such as, “Although I understand why BDS appeals to people who want to end Palestinian suffering, BDS undermines progressive forces in Israel who are working for social justice” is not as helpful.
The first idea casts Israel as a democratic society, based on Western ideals. The second leads people to believe that Israel is a regressive nation that persecutes minorities, but has small pockets of enlightened citizens who sympathize with the Palestinians.
Similarly, when defending Israel’s response to Hamas rockets targeting civilians, it is preferable to say: “No child should have to experience the horror of a bomb shelter. No child should have to run for their life because of missiles and rockets fired on its people,” — rather than: “What do you expect Israel to do? What about Israeli children not going to summer camps, forced to sit in shelters? Hamas aggression is a significant threat to a good portion of Israel.”
The first example expresses universal concern for children and civilian life, including Palestinian lives, while the second response is partial to Israel, promoting an “us vs. them” attitude.
Luntz’s presentation helped me understand a Talmudic interpretation of a verse in this week’s Torah portion. When Jacob met Rachel for the first time, he told her that he was “her father’s brother.”
The Talmud queries this statement — Lavan was Jacob’s uncle, not his brother. The Talmud proposes that Jacob was responding to a concern raised by Rachel, who was worried that her father, a notoriously manipulative swindler, would run circles around the seemingly unworldly Jacob. Reassuring her, Jacob explained that he was “her father’s brother” in subterfuge and strategy, and that he was up to any challenge her father placed before him. The commentaries struggle with the idea that Jacob considered himself a trickster equal to his nefarious uncle. Targum Yonatan offers an additional word of translation indicating that Jacob felt himself to be smart enough to anticipate Lavan’s scheming, enabling him to avert any potential harm.
This explanation still leaves one aspect unanswered: the reference by Jacob to Lavan as his “brother.” Surely the idea that he was unintimidated by Lavan’s reputation as a villain could have better been conveyed by using another word. “Brother” seems an odd choice — it connotes affection and warmth, not equality in crookery and duplicity. The narrative of Jacob’s relationship with Lavan in the ensuing years and their final showdown 20 years later sheds light on what he meant. At no stage did Jacob ever allow himself to be drawn into a “me vs. him” model of conflict. He behaved and acted in a way that epitomized a universal concern for moral and ethical behavior, while at all times remaining mindful of his adversary’s evil intent. The focus of his efforts was not to destroy his enemy; rather, it was a mission to uphold morality and integrity. In that sense he was a “brother” — yearning for the day when Lavan would give up his duplicitous ways and embrace the kind of behavior one expects of a brother.
The message of Israel conveyed by Frank Luntz, and the one which the data proves is most effective, is Jacob’s mission. Israel will never allow its enemies to be victorious, and it can rise to every evil they attempt to perpetrate. Yet at the same time, Israel always remains hopeful that its foes will one day be transformed from enemies to brothers.