What is the difference between being pro-Israel and a Zionist?
Growing up in Israel in the 1950s, my father recalls what Israelis called “the black road” in Tel Aviv, once the only asphalt paved road in Israel. It’s hard to believe, but just a handful of decades ago when one traveled to the post office in our country, it was on dirt roads.
Fast-forward to the present and Israel has attracted the highest venture capital investment per capita in the world, 30 times more than Europe. From dirt road beginnings, Israel has more NASDAQ-listed companies than any country outside the US and China – more than all of Europe, India, and Japan combined. Impressive, no? On the other hand, in a recent BBC survey measuring public opinion, Israel placed in the company of North Korea, ahead of only Iran and Pakistan. How could a country accomplish so much yet fail so miserably in its public relations? Recently, Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin complained publicly that the ministry’s budget for public relations was only NIS 9 million, while the Palestinian Authority’s budget for public relations was $200 million. He compared Israel’s PR war to David and Goliath.
This is clearly a part of the problem.
However, even if Israel’s leadership were to sober up, recognize their failure and invest tens of millions of dollars in PR, I fear it wouldn’t bridge the gap. The root of the failure lies in us, the Jewish people, and our fundamental approach. When training student ambassadors or addressing the world, we explain Israel’s case as advocates and not as Zionists – and there is a world of difference.
Allow me to explain. Hasbara (public diplomacy), and “advocacy” are the words usually used to describe Israel’s PR efforts.
Encrypted in those words lies the answers to Israel’s PR conundrum.
Hasbara in Hebrew suggests an effort “to explain” (lehasbir). From the outset, the goal of hasbara is to explain, defend and excuse Israel for its faults. It’s a defensive, apologetic approach with no positive message or consistent strategy. Instead, our PR efforts are relegated to crisis management and shoot-from-the-hip responses to current events.
“Israel Advocacy” adds another problematic term and faulty approach to the mix. There are hundreds of courses in schools, yeshivas, seminaries and college campuses around the world teaching Israel advocacy. Here too, developing an advocate, literally like a lawyer, aims at teaching students effective talking points giving them diplomatic ammunition to handle anti-Israel activists or teachers on campus. Israel advocacy is important and every lover of Israel needs to know how to defend our rights, but when trying to win public opinion, exercising our Talmudic skills of arguing may not be the best approach.
Last weekend I hosted a four-day retreat for Jewish college students, and one of the participants shared the most significant challenge she has encountered on campus.
She was well-trained in Israel advocacy but when challenged to defend Israel’s stance on human rights, her noting the free gay nightlife in Tel Aviv or Israel’s environmental advancements did not address the core issues of the conflict.
She recognized that, with people suffering, no number of Israeli innovations justify the pain some live with, and the rehearsed talking points felt shallow.
Although she may have walked away with the upper hand in some arguments on campus, she also walked away unsure about her true feelings about Israel. And here, we failed.
We cannot focus exclusively on winning arguments. We need to win hearts. For winning the heart, advocacy and hasbara will always fall short.
We need to shift the focus of our message and our education. Instead of training pro-Israel advocates, we need to inspire Zionists.
WHAT THEN, is the difference between being pro-Israel and a Zionist? At a lecture I attended by Yehuda Hakohen, an alternative peace activist, he suggested that it’s the difference between being a fan and being a player.
Someone who is “pro-Israel” loves Israel the way that I like the Atlanta Falcons. I love my team, I follow their latest news and developments and I don’t want anyone ridiculing them. If they do, I’ll stand up for my team, for their honor and mine.
Moreover, I’ll visit my team on vacation and pay good money for sideline seats to watch the game up close.
In contrast, a Zionist isn’t on the sidelines rooting for his team to win – he’s running the ball down the field. A Zionist sees himself as a player in the game. A Zionist sees himself as an active character in the story of the Jewish people.
In my years of speaking on behalf of Israel, filmmaking and teaching, I’ve found that the most profound message that resonates is recognizing our lives in Israel as another chapter in the 4,000-yearold story of our people.
We must continuously draw the lines from Abraham to Moses and Joshua to King David in biblical times to the Maccabees and Bar- Kochba and now, in post-biblical times, to the IDF. We are simply the next chapter in the greatest human story ever told.
Our goal must not only be to advocate for Israel, but to tell the story of our people. The story of our kingdom destroyed, our bitter exile and our ultimate liberation. It is the story of the undying hope of a people for 2,000 years; a dream to live as a free people and return to our homeland. That is the story the world must hear again and again.
Relating international law and the wonders of Israel’s modern society are a great educational tool but when educating the next generation, we must help them rediscover their Jewish identity – not only as a religion but as member of a nation with a glorious history and majestic destiny.
We must shift from Israel advocacy to empowering every Jew to see themselves as characters in the story of the Jewish people.
With that in frame of mind, students are no longer just advocating for Israel or explaining her case. Every lover of Israel must ask himself: What is my place in Jewish history? How can I play the most significant role possible in this magnificent story? The sages of Israel said, “Words spoken from the heart, enter the heart.” When our spokesmen and ambassadors stop apologetically explaining and advocating, and instead speak with clarity of cause and sincerity of purpose as representatives of the Jewish people throughout the ages, I believe world opinion will be changed and unabashed Jewish pride reclaimed. ?
The author is the Deputy Director of the World Mizrachi Movement.