In almost 40 years of introducing thousands of students to Judaism and Israel I’ve learned a few things along the way. Jewish students face new and different challenges than they did in 1982, but some of the same challenges, especially ones dealing with Israel, haven’t changed. Jewish students are attacked and harassed for their support of Israel and many want to equip themselves with the knowledge to fend off their attackers. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned along the way is that playing defense isn’t a winning strategy in Israel advocacy.
Our students face three almost insurmountable levels of Israel demonization. The first are while her moral victories are never remembered, her mistakes are never forgotten. Second, Israel’s judged by a double standard; what is excused for all other nations is used as a weapon to slander Israel. Third, Israel is never given the benefit of the doubt; its critics reflexively accuse Israel of war crimes. Trying to defend against these three obstacles is a recipe for failure.
I’m a firm believer in Israel education along with advocacy. Our students need a solid foundation in Jewish and Israeli history to gain confidence in the Jewish state. If students are only playing defense by being taught answers to the accusations made against them, they can not succeed in advocating Israel’s case. To triumph against Israel’s detractors, students need to understand three foundational points about Israel. First, Zionism isn’t a dirty word. Zionism is the movement to secure Jewish self-determination on the Jewish homeland. It isn’t exclusionary, over 20% of Israel’s citizens are Arabs. Second, Jews aren’t colonizers from Europe; According to the United Nation’s definition of indigeneity, Jews are indigenous to the land of Israel. In addition, over half of Jews in Israel aren’t of European descent, they come from the Middle East. Third, just as any other country, Israel has responsibility to protect its citizens. This gives Israel the right to defend itself against attack and take precautions against threat. All Jewish students must be taught and understand these three points.
No country is perfect, and Israel is among the world’s nations that has, is and will make mistakes. The errors of a country don’t delegitimize it. The sign of a healthy democracy is a nation always trying to improve itself. Israel is a very healthy democracy. Israel’s start was messy. It wasn’t given the luxury of starting in peace and building slowly. As soon as Israel declared its independence, every surrounding country attacked and sent it to war. Israel mishandled some situations, but overall did well for a new country.
Israel is faced with an enemy that hides among civilians, it can’t indulge in mass and indiscriminate bombings as other nations do to their enemies. Israel uses precision guided munitions to eliminate its enemies, but as precise as precision guided munitions are, they’re not perfect. Mistakes happen, and Israel regrets each one. Life for many Palestinians isn’t perfect but its undeniable that they enjoy freedoms and quality of life that Palestinians elsewhere couldn’t dream of enjoying. For all its imperfections, Israel deserves a great deal of praise.
Giving students a strong foundation in their Israel advocacy is essential to their success on campus and in life. Students aren’t helped when given a series of preselected sound bites to answer Israel’s detractors and haters. Students need to be given the information to have the confidence to hold their heads high in the face of those who slander Israel. With the proper education Jewish students can play offense and be proud of Israel.