The phone call came at dinner time in Israel; a distraught former student was calling from his college campus in Texas. “Rabbi! There are 20 students from my school holding a rally against Israel. They have Palestinian flags and large posters accusing Israel of war crimes, apartheid and racism against Palestinians. I want to shut them down, what do I do? What do I say?” I could hear the pain and frustration in his voice. I calmly reminded him that he shouldn’t try to debate or prove them wrong. I advised that he get a large piece of oak tag and in big letters make a list of his five favorite parts of Israel and stand near the rally. When they go negative, I told him, we should go positive and talk about our values and achievements. People walking by will be more attracted to positive messaging about Israel than negative attacks against Israel. He got his oak tag, made his list and proudly reported back to me that many of the students walking by the rally approached him to talk to him about Israel and Zionism.
The Pro-Israel community in Israel and the Diaspora has taken a defensive approach to talking about Israel. Activists’ talking points largely center around the antisemitic and ineffectual nature of the BDS movement and other boycotts of Israel. On line activity is spent disproving Palestinian accusations against Israeli control of the land and answering the Squad’s charges against Israeli policies. While there’s nothing wrong with defending one’s self, and effectively disproving Palestinian charges against Israel is important, it’s become almost the entirety of Pro-Israel messaging.
If we rewind 150 years we see much different Zionist messaging than today. The Zionist Congresses were about planning a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael. They were full of hope and optimism and the sky was the limit to their dreams. From 1900 until the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Zionists were getting down to brass tactics. They were bringing people from Europe to Israel and creating institutions like the Jewish Agency and Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael. After the establishment of the State Zionists focused on transitioning from a movement to building a Jewish State. After Israel’s stunning victory in the 1967 Six Day War, euphoria turned to complacency as Palestinians began organizing as a people, and took to the offense against Israel.
A surprising dichotomy between Israelis and their opponents’ talking points is that it’s only Israelis that are on the defensive. When our enemies are accused of using terrorism, being intransigent and violating human rights, they don’t try to defend themselves – they ignore the charge and go on to their next point. They don’t seem to mind the accusations. Jewish values don’t allow us to be immoral, cruel or insensitive to suffering. Jews value morality, generosity and helping the downtrodden. Jews become defensive when accused of actions that take away from the values we hold dear. We also can’t discount the defensiveness that the exile in foreign lands, under constant attack, ingrained into our national DNA.
Zionism is one of the foundational points of Judaism. That statement might sound shocking considering how much of the Jewish world rejected Zionism in its early years. The idea that Jews should live freely, determining their own future and in their own land, is a consensus point Jews from across different communities all maintain to be authentic Jewish values. Asa foundational point of Judaism, Zionism should be taught, boasted about and promoted across the world. Most Jewish anti-Zionists don’t disagree with these fundamental points. Their opposition stemmed from timing, tactics and consequences.
Zionism has been largely replaced by supporting Israel in various different ways. Instead of expressing Zionist values, the message is to lobby for Israel, support Israel on social media, and recruit people to be supportive of Israel. This support of Israel is commendable and necessary, but it doesn’t focus on Zionist, Israeli and Jewish values. Outside of vigorously defending our rights, we’ve stopped talking about being a free nation, determining our future in our own homeland and how that transforms our nation.
We can’t allow being Pro-Israel to cannibalize our Zionism. If we don’t focus enough on Zionism and its values we’re going to become a people who can easily forget the values that make us unique. The student mentioned at the start of this essay thought the best way to support Israel would be to confront and shut down Israel’s opponents. He quickly learned the best thing to do is discuss Israel’s values. Zionists have a great deal to be proud of; it’s time we focused on our values and achievements.