IAW: A view from Birmingham

Sam Seitler

“3, 5, 7, 9 free free Palestine”
“2, 4, 6, 8 Israel is an apartheid state”
“Stop the killing, stop the war, end the siege on Gazaaaaaaaaa”

Over the past week these admittedly catchy chants have been resonating throughout campuses across the UK as the local branch of SJP (or whatever the regional alternative is) make their dislike of Israel and its ‘apartheid’ policies known. In response to this, JSoc and UJS have been working with Stand With Us and various other hasbara organisations to help equip Jewish students with the necessary tools to combat this anti-Israel slander with propaganda of our own. It’s an eagerly anticipated event each year with a great turnout from both sides.

So the question arises, for your average Bnei Akiva Boger: how do I feel about Israel Apartheid Week? How should I respond to these claims concerning a country that I feel strongly about, and one where I may one day want to live (B”EH)? Where does criticism of Israel fit into Israel education?

IAW can make different people feel a variety of contrasting emotions. I remember when I was in yeshiva seeing some of the anti-Israel activity from around campuses and feeling like I was about to enter the proverbial lion’s den, as if UK campuses were a hotbed of anti-Zionism. For anyone reading this from Israel I can assure you that isn’t the case. The overarching feeling from IAW is apathy. The majority of the student population just don’t care. You can hand out thousands of leaflets portraying Israel as a terror state or as the best thing since sliced pitta but unless there’s a free drink on offer, the average student doesn’t care. I don’t mean this as a slur on UK students, or as an insult to their intelligence; the majority simply don’t care about a conflict in a far off land that has been raging for over a century. Sure, the tragic images showing the destruction in Gaza might pull on a few heart strings but the remaining attitude is still, in the wise words of Andy Tate, ‘don’t care’. While on Degel we were taught an important principle, the 5-90-5 rule (shout out to Michelle Rojas Tal). 5% of people are pro, 5% are against and 90% don’t have an opinion. IAW events are more like a JSoc social than an Israel bashing session.

Which is why, in my opinion, we get it wrong every year. The fuss created around Israel apartheid week by JSOC and reactionary protest is unnecessary. It’s important to know what’s happening but we don’t need to be there shouting them down each time. Sometimes it can be counterproductive when instead of actually talking to people about a very sensitive issue, we’re waving flags and singing am yisrael chai at them. If anything, that just serves to alienate the other side more when we should be seeing if we can talk to them. Dialogue, rather than aggressive action, is the only way to solve this conflict both individually and nationally (Bibi take note).

However there are some benefits to IAW, particularly educational. It’s important for anyone engaging in the art of Israel advocacy to know the claims lobbied against Israel and to know how to respond to them. We have to know how to counter the arguments in a cohesive manner rather than saying that it’s legitimate for Israel to build a ten foot wall because Miss Israel was an Arab. Continuous self-education is critical to anyone claiming to be a Zionist. I believe it’s equally important for Bnei Akiva to encourage chanichim to educate themselves about what’s going on in Israel and to know the facts on the key issues (security, the recent conflicts, the refugees, the wall).   Someone waving a keffiyeh in your face while shouting about Israel’s latest war crime may be a blessing in disguise if  you’re inspired to go and research the allegation.

I think it’s Bnei Akiva’s role to ensure its madrichim can stand up and defend Israel when necessary, and to make sure that chanichim know the basic facts about Israel before defending it. I don’t think we should be openly teaching all of the criticisms of Israel in a way that twists chanichims’ image of Israel. Israel isn’t perfect and it is important to recognise that but we should focus more on nurturing a love for Israel before laying into it. Teach the facts then teach the criticisms. Then let them learn for themselves how to defend.

Tehillim 34 says לְכוּ-בָנִים, שִׁמְעוּ-לִי;    יִרְאַת ה, אֲלַמֶּדְכֶם- “Go, ye children, hearken unto me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD”, and the classic question is on the word לְכוּ. Surely it should be “Come ye children and I will teach you”? One answer is that theory and study will only get you so far – real Judaism exists outside the walls of the Bet hamedrash. The same is true of Israel advocacy. Learning the facts is vitally important but true hasbara also must involve defending Israel vocally and engaging with the other side through productive dialogue to find common ground.

Happy Purim.

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