Israel Advocacy: Please Move Forward
Thu, 06/27/2013
Paula Jacobs is a writer, teacher, and consultant in the Boston area.
Paula Jacobs is a writer, teacher, and consultant in the Boston area.

At this time of year our thoughts turn towards Jerusalem as we mark the “Three Weeks,” leading up to the Fast Day of Tisha B’Av when we mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem.

At this time of year, it’s also appropriate to express our love of Israel and hopes for the future. At the afternoon service on Tisha b’Av, we chant the words of the haftarah, “For you shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace” (Isaiah: 55:12).

The State of Israel has always been an important part of my life and I am proud of Israel’s many technological, scientific, and medical contributions to the world. These days, nothing gives me greater pleasure than hearing my three-year-old granddaughter run around her Manhattan apartment singing the Hatikvah. I pray that Israel will always be there for her.

What I just don’t get is this: Why, as a Jewish community, must we still focus on yesterday’s gloom and doom?   

Here’s the issue. In the wake of the Second Intifada, Israel advocacy groups sprouted up across North America to show support for Israel during a period of intense fear and violence. In the decade since, Israel has established a security fence, disengaged from Gaza, experienced social protests, and faced new complexities ranging from Ultra-Orthodox conscription to African refugees. Tel Aviv cafés are bustling and Israeli technology companies are booming.

Yet, if you examine the programming of many Israel advocacy groups, it would appear that nothing has changed. Their singular mission appears to be to protect Israel and guard the Jewish people from attack. Clearly, the security of Israel is critical, and, obviously, we should show zero tolerance when missiles are fired at the Negev or Northern Israel, while also educating about the dangers of Iran and Hezbollah.

Israel advocacy sorely needs a new direction today. There’s more to Israel than security. Creating mass hysteria with sensational programs about Israel under attack, beating the drum about the Arab-Israeli conflict, or expounding about anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses is hardly an inspirational way to engage about Israel. We need to take the politics out of Israel.

If Israel advocacy groups expect to be taken seriously, they must transform their approach for a 21st century audience in a global world. Here‘s my suggested list.

Educate, don’t just advocate. The starting point should be education, as Gary Rosenblatt suggested in a Jewish Week article two years ago (“We’ve Got It Backwards, Israel Education Should Come First, Then Advocacy,” July 19, 2011).

In the past two years, we have seen the emergence of Israel education programs such as “Kesher Hadash” or the “New Connections”: Semester in Israel Program offered by the William Davidson Graduate School of Education of the Jewish Theological Seminary. For adult learners, there’s the Shalom Hartman Institute’s “Engaging Israel” program, which is now available through synagogues, federations, and Jewish community centers throughout North America.

Such programs reach only a small subset of the American-Jewish adult population. It’s also much easier to attend a one-time program about Israel as a passive listener than to grapple with the difficult and complex philosophical issues that “Engaging Israel” presents.

In an ideal world, Israel education begins at an early age. And many excellent programs — from primary to college level — now do exist across North America. 

But it’s also imperative to educate our adult Jewish population — the parents and grandparents whose influence on the next generation is indisputable. Yet, ask the average American Jew to discuss the history of Zionism, explain how the Israeli political system works, or name contemporary Israeli writers or pop singers and you’re likely to get a blank stare. 

If Israel advocacy groups want to move forward, be prepared to teach about Zionism, the history of Israel, as well as Israeli culture, literature, and the arts — and importantly, contemporary social, religious, and political issues, especially those that impact diaspora Jewry such as conversion.

Change the Narrative.  If you want to educate about Israel, don’t be afraid to teach about the many challenges facing Israel today including housing and employment, education, immigration, women’s rights, and religious pluralism. Israel is a complex and diverse society and Israelis debate these issues daily. If you truly love Israel, express your authentic love by sharing the good and the bad. Your message will be far more credible.

Don’t delegitimize those with differing views.  Engage in respectful, civil dialogue with other community members, no matter where they stand on issues. Dialogue provides an important educational opportunity for meaningful discussion. Remember, early Zionist thinkers, such as Ahad Ha-Am, A.D. Gordon, and Y.L. Pinsker, held different perspectives about the Jewish State — an important lesson to be learned.

Forget the labels. Avoid using the meaningless term “pro-Israel,” which implies that only those who support your politics are pro-Israel. If you imply that there is only one authentic way to express love for Israel, those with only a tenuous attachment may totally disengage.

Expand the Tent.  Take the risk of encouraging the participation of those whose opinions are at polar opposites of your own. Invite guest speakers who bring a variety of perspectives, and provide links to Internet resources from different vantage points. This balanced approach will go a long way to fostering good will within the community and greater interest in engaging with Israel.

Tradition teaches that Jerusalem was destroyed because of baseless hatred between fellow Jews. This three-week period of mourning is a perfect time for Israel advocacy groups to reflect on their goals, the story they wish to tell, and how to teach about Israel.

Israel advocacy groups can play an important role in Israel education. It’s time for Israel advocacy to move forward and inspire genuine love for Israel.

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Thank you, Paula, for articulating the larger vision which includes educating ourselves more deeply about Israel. Having taken the Engaging Israel course, I highly recommend it as a way to study thought provoking ancient and modern texts and participate in respectful dialogue. For those of us who love Judsism and Israel, it is a joyful opportunity to take pride in Jewish thinking related to Israel. It is also a very positive way to encourage younger or less committed Jews to support Israel, not out of fear, but through respect for its ideals.

Well articulated, well written, listen up committee chairs. Thanks, Paula

There's nothing here to disagree with except the implication that any of this is different from what advocates are already trying to do. It's mostly a matter of nuance, including how big the already enormous tent can be without collapsing. Does JStreet, which misleadingly calls itself THE pro-Israel, pro-peace lobby when every mainstream Jewish group is strongly pro-peace and which so frequently lobbies against Israel and against consensus positions of the mainstream, belong in the tent? Reasonable arguments can be made either way.

More important, at a time when the Palestinian Arabs continue to negotiate about negotiating (as a way of avoiding both negotiations and peace), we should not spend so much time theorizing on ideal advocacy but simply ... advocate.

Love this! Beautifully articulated.

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