For anyone troubled by Israel’s position in global public opinion, there are legitimate reasons to worry. As an Israeli professor with roots in North America, I am often asked what can be done to combat the campaigns in the academy targeting Israel’s reputation and its closeness to liberal communities abroad. A few obvious steps come to mind.
For one, my colleagues and I must be more active in facing anti-Israel campaigns, and we must inhabit the high ground where we accept that decent people on all sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict have deeply felt competing truths and wounds. Embarking from this high ground means that we must not become identified at one of the poles of Israel’s political spectrum. Next, we need to recognize that while anti-Israel voices are often strident and provocative on campuses, they represent only a minority voice, with a small perch mostly in the humanities and social sciences. In the exact sciences, anti-Israel activism barely has a foothold. The vast majority of people I encounter in my travels—scholars or otherwise—want a reason to identify with Israel. The tricky part is that, as with most things in life, people need to grasp something that fits their worldview. For better or worse, that anchor may not necessarily conform to popular pro-Israel narratives such as good versus evil, biblical rights to a “promised land” or an emphasis on victimhood.
Drilling down farther, if Israeli academics really want to help improve Israel’s image in the world, or among non-Orthodox Jews in the diaspora, we must learn to meet people where they are, not in blind, angry reaction to positions we think are wrongheaded. This is equally true when dealing with pro-Palestinian groups or with most diaspora Jews. We must stop thinking like Israelis cemented in our political positions and start thinking like the people with whom we are trying to communicate. Over the years I have witnessed repeatedly how audiences and interlocutors tune out Israelis who display outsized self-assurance in their opinions on the Israeli-Arab conflict. This style is almost always received as arrogance or ideological intransigence.
During a recent visiting fellowship at Columbia University, I met with a scholar who many devout pro-Israel advocates consider an ideological and political foe because of his association with the Palestinian Authority. I know him mostly as a distinguished, innovative historian. In conversation I shared with him the trauma of serving as a young Israeli soldier in the madness that characterized Lebanon in the 1980s, including the hardships endured by the Lebanese people in those years. Empathetic but unruffled, he shared with me his own trauma of living under siege by the Israel Defense Forces while teaching at a university in Beirut at approximately the same time. Among other things, this encounter in New York helped me realize that we must work to be more sensitive to the suffering of all civilians as a result of the near century of violence in and around the land of Israel if we are to reach more minds and hearts among listeners of all backgrounds.
We also must recognize reality. Whatever the intensity of the anti-Israel voices rising from BDS and other anti-Israel advocacy organizations, they do not threaten our country’s national security. Pro-Israel advocates would be well-served by embracing that fact and then reacting with proportionality to the incendiary rhetoric of the BDS movement and its allies.
Thinking from my workplace in Jerusalem, and even more from my home on the border with the Gaza Strip, I firmly believe that Israel’s most acute public relations peril today is not manifest in the BDS movement. Academics and others should remember that today’s anti-Israel movements are merely a new chapter in a long arc. Since the rise of the Palestinian Liberation Movement and the Soviet anti-Zionist campaign in the 1960s, Israel has faced multiple propaganda and ideological challenges emanating from the left. While disturbing, then as now these movements are manageable through diplomatic and public relations mechanisms. This held true even in the darkest days of the mid-1970s when the U.N. General Assembly voted to equate Zionism with racism. With the benefit of hindsight, we know that this appalling resolution never endangered Israel’s existence. Reasonable observers today see that the BDS movement is also not an existential threat.
At the risk of summoning scholarly and public brimstone on myself, let’s take this a step farther. I frequently find that studies of anti-Semitism, particularly those directed toward recent global developments, embody a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Those of us who grew up in mixed communities somewhere in the world probably learned at least once that there are and will always be non-Jews who evince anti-Jewish behavior in moments of personal, institutional or national crisis. As the child of a Holocaust survivor and a refugee from Nazi Germany resettled in the United States, I grew up with high sensitivity to any hint of anti-Semitism. On its own, however, this ancient and persistent prejudice does not constitute an existential threat to Israel, nor to Jews at large. Anti-Semitism—like all violent prejudices—must never be excused and must always be confronted. But inflating its hazards for short-term political gains must never be an option.
This formula, writ large, should be equally true in the Middle East. I live on the border with Gaza, where immediate dangers abound. As difficult as the situation has periodically become here from repeated rounds of violence, this conflict is not a threat to Israel’s existence; we are in the good hands of the IDF. I believe that chronic underfunding of the country’s peripheries (both geographic and socioeconomic) by our own government might be a larger threat than Hamas or BDS to the continued vitality of communities outside of Israel’s coastal cities and Jerusalem. Scholars in particular should avoid the politicians’ bad habit of summoning forth exaggerated (or historically inaccurate) images of anti-Semitic apocalypse for their own narrow needs, among them to deflect attention from severe domestic inequities.
Aside from legitimate concerns about the spread of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, among the most serious threats to Israel today on campuses and throughout the western world is the degree to which Israeli policy and practice have increasingly alienated non-Orthodox Jews. Most worrisome, estrangement is worst among younger generations. Alienation cuts both ways, as illustrated during three random days in November, embodied by very different parts of Israeli society. The first was the most visible. Israel’s deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely reignited a recurrent political storm by publicly jabbing American Jews about their “comfortable” lives compared to the rigors of life and mandatory military service in Israel. During a nationally televised news program a couple of days later, a respected veteran Israeli journalist, Rinah Matzliach, supported the essence of Hotovely’s laden remarks. The next morning over breakfast a well-educated, quite cosmopolitan member of my cooperative kibbutz questioned what right American Jews have to say anything at all about the goings-on in Israel, ending with an incredulous, “What do we need them for?”
When thinking about threats from anti-Semitic or anti-Israel movements, we Israelis need to accept that this is a global struggle, not just a regional or a sectarian fight converging on the shores of the eastern Mediterranean. We must see the situation for what it really is. It’s not just about doing battle against this or that armed group or lethal ideology of the day, whether its source is in Tehran, southern Lebanon or Charlottesville. Dealing with anti-Semitism or anti-Israel campaigns, we should aim to figure out a livable future for the peoples of our region. We Jews, particularly academics, and Israeli academics all the more, too often invest energy trying to prove that some greater historical truth proves our righteousness and, consequently, the other side’s errors. Most concerning to me, this ideological intransigence has infected relations between Israel and non-Orthodox Jews in the diaspora.
As scholars who supposedly think our way to solutions, we need to engage more deeply as citizens of the world. For the sake of our children and grandchildren, we should be seeking a pathway forward, whether with our neighbors (some of them hostile) or with our ideological foes. Only this approach can offer hope for the improved health of world Jewry and a better future for Israel with its neighbors.
Jonathan Dekel-Chen is a professor in the department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry and chair of the Russian Studies Division at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.