Beyond advocacy, beyond survival

Remarks at Limmud Conference, 27th December 2011 by Dan Sheldon, UJS Campaigns Director

UJS has been at the centre of the debate about how we should do Israel for many decades. Many consider us to be on the ‘front line’ in the battle for Israel – our campuses have been playing out a shadow conflict for as long as anyone can remember.

More than that, our youth permits us a certain freedom. In the community, we’ve straddled the inside/outside dynamic. We’re part of the establishment, but we have a history of pushing the community in a slightly more forward thinking direction. Mutual recognition, two state solution – where we have gone, the rest have usually followed. We’re firmly inside the community but we’re also sometimes radically outside. And it’s in that spirit that I make my remarks today.

This year, we’ve attracted a deal of controversy – as well as praise - for the approach we’ve articulated.

The experience has been an interesting one. It has shown the community at its thoughtful best, and its mud slinging worst.

This has raised some important issues about how we deal with conflicts within an increasingly divided community.
And – importantly – it has triggered a genuine conversation – within the student community at least – about how we should be doing Israel. At the heart of this is the very topic of the session – should we be pursuing a strategy of hasbara (advocacy) or engagement?

Now I must confess I’m a little wary of the term engagement.

Is this the latest in a long line of buzz words to gain popularity amongst practitioners within our community?

Is it just a new way of packaging up what we have done before? Is it just yet another ‘bright idea’ from the pro-Israel industry, desperate to find something that will work, and will keep the many hundreds of consultants and professionals in work?

But I think ‘engagement’ speaks to something important. It is not necessarily a wholly new concept – more like an evolution of a number of ideas about Israel education and politics that have been kicking around for a while.

The arguments runs as follows.

The Jewish community’s traditional interactions with Israel have been focused on three main activities:
Cheerleading, fundraising, and defending.

It is this defense – or advocacy, hasbara – that has soaked up much energy. For this advocacy to succeed, all that is necessary is for ‘the truth’ to be presented. Once the ‘facts become known’, all will see that Israel is in the right.

Underpinning this are the familiar tones of crisis. Romans, Palestinians, anti-Semites, assimilation, boycotts… whoever, or whatever the enemy, the survivalist mood music has always dominated our communal narrative.

It’s in our mythology. It’s our rallying cry.

And its not just on the right that this crisis talk dominates. Look at the arguments around territorial compromise with the Palestinians. The right of course emphasise the threat of a sovereign Palestinian state on Israel’s border. But the left are just as guilty of crisis talk – they speak of an impending demographic crisis, a major threat to the Jewish character of Israel should a two state solution not be reached soon.

Now the advocates of engagement – no pun intended – believe that we need to move away from this crisis-centred narrative. To move towards defining ourselves in positive terms of what wish Israel to be, rather than in the negative terms of what we fear or what we oppose. Or if you’re a fan of Obama (I reckon we still have a fair few here at Limmud!), it’s the dichotomy between the politics of fear and the politics of hope.

We may now have a state but our state of mind hasn’t really changed.

(Incidentally, this same argument has played out in another context within our community around the time of the Chief Rabbi’s ‘Will we have Jewish grandchildren?’ book. The survivalists championed ‘Jewish continuity’, whilst others preferred ‘Jewish renewal’.)

But even if the whole world is out to get Israel, repeatedly stating it will not:

  1. solve it.
  2. inspire the young to be ‘hasbara foot soldiers’, as some wish.

That’s not to disregard the threats – only a fool would do that – but to not let them define us.

And I broadly agree.

Advocacy simply isn’t cut out for this task. It constrains us to simply justifying the status quo – papering over the cracks rather than asking ourselves how we can truly advance the Jewish state. Israel matters to us not just because it has enemies!

In short, we’re selling ourselves short.

What is this magical enagagement thing, then? Well, it seems to mean different things to different people. It’s one of those wonderful terms that seems to stretch to fit whatever argument one is putting forward.

But broadly, it’s seems to encompass the following ideas:

It’s about broadening the conversation (and note, the emphasis is on conversation, not debate) within the community – to encompass critical Zionist voices.

It’s also about Jews doing Israel-related things beyond traditional advocacy. Volunteering or support social action projects; embracing Israeli culture; supporting political causes within Israel. It could even be just having conversations with Israelis.

Related to that, is an ill-defined re-emphasis on Israel education. Broadly, it seems to be about some genuine independent learning. Promoting inquiry, rather than just learning by rote. And also teaching multiple perspectives rather than idealized narratives, whilst not claiming to be value free. The first time a young Jew learns about the Nakba shouldn’t be in their first year of university! This seems - to me at least - to be a rather more useful thing to learn than the names of every Israeli prime minister. A bit of mythology is fine. It’s foundational for young children. But teens and students are being sold short right now.

And finally, it’s about a shift in how we broach Israel with the outside world. Moving away from the tit-for-tat, combatative politics that have thus far dominated – notably on our campuses - towards a more civil conversation. As the Reut Institute report put it - ‘engage the critics, isolate the delegitimisers’.

But our current obsession with advocacy is a straight jacket. It narrows our scope for action: we are expected to defend Israel as it is, rather than help shape what it could be.

We’ve got it the wrong way round. We shouldn’t be trying to find ways to bend and distort our values to match what we see in Israel.

Instead, we should start with our values – Jewish, human, whatever they be – and then ask how can Israel be a beacon for the most noble of our ideals?

Imagine, for a minute, if we spent some just a fraction of the energy we expend on pointless arguments on something more constructive. Literally. How about doing whatever we can to create the conditions – political, financial – for a serious house building programme in the Negev and Galil. It may go some way to solving the housing crisis, to rehousing the thousands still without a permanent home following the Gaza disengagement. And it might even reduce one of the practical barriers to a two state solution: providing somewhere for the thousands of settlers who will be withdrawn from the West Bank.

The UJIA may not make the front page of the JC with its work in developing the North, but it’s amongst the most forward thinking expressions of Zionism in our community.

The truth is that the mainstream of our community leadership is actually quite forward thinking on these issues. Over the last few years, they’ve come to a realization that advocacy can no longer be the primary mobilization device when it comes to Israel.

We realized long ago that advocacy alone turns off young Jews. Anglo Jewry is actually in a pretty advantageous situation – a higher proportion of our youth experience Israel first hand, earlier and more often than our American cousins thanks to our historically vibrant youth movements. Tours and gap years are far from perfect, but they are a successful form of engagement that has been going on long before the term was coined. The research that has been done into programmes such as Birthright indicate that they really do work – they build a strong, long lasting love for Israel, and the participants are more likely to engage with Israel back home.

And there is definitely a sense that the conversation on Israel must be broadened. At least lip service is paid to ‘hugging and wrestling’ with Israel. These ideas are not new.

Dissenting voices are not shunted out in the way they would have been in the past. But nor are they really embraced in the way they should be.

Our leadership still have lapses. The call of the crisis narrative is sometimes too strong, certainly for the fundraisers! Arguments between the left and right pull them this way and that, leading to either inertia or schizophrenia. But on the whole, we are moving in the right direction.

So what then, is the solution – advocacy or engagement?
Is this an academic discussion? Is even countenancing the abandonment of advocacy simply a bourgeois luxury? Can we afford to look beyond survival? Have Jews ever been able to do anything more than this?

Should we do both? Can we do both? Should we follow in the path of Hillel in the States, who have now formally separated their engagement and advocacy activities?

Well, it is clear to me that the crisis narrative is no longer compelling enough for today’s young Jews. It’s a shallow thesis. We have failed to give them the space to think about their own positive case for a Jewish state. One that goes beyond ‘Israel exists’, ‘I love Israel’, or ‘Israel is under threat’.

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again. Young Jews – on the whole – have a deep love for Israel, but too many have no real understanding of why. Some within our community have been reluctant to even start this conversation for fear that it will open the door to those who question Israel’s legitimacy. But this is a recipe for ignorance, not strength. We’ve done a good job in debunking the delegitimisation thesis, but not a great one on legitimization itself.

Now, we need to go beyond survival.

We need to ask ourselves, do we want an Israel that is merely reactive, or one that stands on its own feet? Do we want to fall back on calls to loyalty, or embrace diversity? Should a Jewish state be based on simple pragmatism, or some deeper values.

This aspirational Zionism isn’t new, but it’s lost its way. It lost its way when we decided to present Israel as a state like any other – rather than working to create the homeland we dreamed of for thousands of years. It lost its way when we – in Anglo Jewry – lost touch with the reality of modern day Israelis. We pretty much ignored the recent social justice protests, in favour of peddling the same old familiar stories about Israel under threat.

But engagement alone could create a generation of very depressed Jews. Learning Israel’s flaws is not enough – we need to empower young Jews to fix them.

But the secret is that it’s not an either or. Infact, advocacy and engagement strengthen each other. For the economists in the audience, we’re talking about a paraeto improvement here!

More engagement, more capacity, better advocacy. More Jews, doing more Israel related things. Can’t be a bad thing. Advocacy itself is just one kind of engagement. For the mathematicians in the audience, advocacy is a subset of engagement.

But what about Jews who only choose to engage with Israel in a critical way? Well, it depends. But often this criticism is borne out of love. At the very least criticism builds a certain sort of commitment – one that will ultimately strengthen Israel.

What we’re calling for here is not a wholesale abandonment of everything that has gone before. That’s not practical, nor is it desirable. We are a diverse community, with space for multiple approaches.

But we are calling for a shift in the emphasis given to engagement.

So, what does success look like?

Firstly, a broader conversation, within – and beyond – our community. A return to the culture of civility. We won’t overcome our deep divisions. We’re not looking for consensus, but a conversation would be a nice starter.

Secondly, a renewed confidence about what we’re aiming towards. One that goes beyond survival, and sets out a long term vision for Israel. (surely this would do a better job of deterring our enemies than our never ending crisis narrative).

And finally, a repolitisation of our community. An end to fence sitting, where politics is a dirty word. And for politics to mean more than just an argument about Israel. Building a new activism.

Idealist it may be, but we should aim to be nothing less.
With acknowledgement and thanks to Donniel Hartman, Makom, the Reut Institute, Gil Troy, Tal Becker and Keith Kahn-Harris.