Category: Strategy At Work

A Passion for Israel

Growing up in a Reformed, Jewish household, religion never held an important role in my life. I went to ‘Hebrew School’ twice a week growing up, learning the basics of Jewish history, beliefs, culture, and language until I had my Bar Mitzvah at age thirteen. This education consisted very little of information about modern Israel, and consequently my knowledge of the Jewish Homeland was scarce at best. My mother always tells me how incredible and beautiful Israel is and that she hopes for an opportunity to go back for a visit. She particularly favors the feeling that overcame her while she was in Israel, which she described as feeling at peace with the homeland of our religion. I lacked the initiative to learn about Israel on my own due to my disinterest in both religion and politics growing up. What little information I knew came from news clips I saw here and there, often describing continuous fighting and unrest in Israel. I pictured Israel as a barren desert, filled only with Jews, constantly subjected to terrorism and other aggression. I had no idea how far that vision was from reality.

In the spring of 2012, I applied and was accepted to go to Israel for ten days in May with an organization called Taglit Birthright. My first exposure to the land was absolutely incredible. I loved everything about it: the people, weather, architecture, food, and more. I never expected the extravagance of cities like Tel Aviv, Netanya, and Haifa. I saw a great and prospering nation, so I couldn’t understand why my perceptions were so dramatically mistaken. In order to learn more, I began to conduct research, follow Israeli news outlets, and returned to Israel on a sixteen-day trip designed to educate on both sides of the conflict as well as immerse you in the experience. I will be returning to Israel this summer as part of the Global Student Experience program with Ernst & Young as an audit intern in Tel Aviv. I hope to move there on a more permanent basis after finishing school. Due to my deep passion for Israel, it is extremely difficult for me to understand why so many people can feel such intense hate for my beloved, future home and so I work every day to correct these misperceptions and show the world was Israel really is.

Feeling Rejuvenated

I have always known I was Jewish, and culturally that has always been very important to me. My Grandmother and Grandfather are both Holocaust survivors coming out of Auschwitz. Keeping the family heritage is something I always knew I wanted. However growing up and going to Synagogue was very difficult for me. I was not like the rest of kids because I have an Irish Catholic last name, my father converted but to my Temple that didn’t matter, I was an outcast. It’s a terrible thing, Jews against Jews, but that’s how it was. So as soon as my Bat Mitzvah was over I left my Synagogue never to return. I faced many hardships being Jewish growing up and I was very scared to tell people that I was a Jew knowing there was so much prejudice so I didn’t tell many people. It wasn’t until i got to college that I felt truly comfortable opening up about being Jewish. I felt very secure in the small Jewish community on campus, but I was still confused as to what my Jewish identity was, until I went on Birthright, it truly changed my life.

Just being in the land of Zion and breathing in Israels air I felt rejuvenated. I had many profound moments but there was one that embodies my whole experience. We were in the dessert, I had never seen so many stars, and one of our guides Itzik Yarkoni (who will forever be a dear friend) told us to look out at the dessert and see where our ancestors walked, see how far we have all come. I walked a little ways by myself and found a slightly raised bit of land. I stood on it and looked up at the sky and began to cry. I suddenly felt whole again, I knew in my heart that I was brought to this world to pass on the lineage of my family to my kids, and teach them where we came from. I didn’t feel alone anymore. I loved every moment of Israel the people I met, the places we went, the food we ate. Israel is like no other place in the world, it’s almost like we can feel God in every breath we take. Someday I will go back, hopefully with my family (when I’m married with kids) and I hope they will cherish the memories as I will. Thank you for an incredible experience! Everyone should go to Israel!!

Silence your gun before it backfires: Lessons from the Brooklyn College BDS debacle

On Feb. 6, New York’s Brooklyn College found itself entangled in a fiery free speech fiasco that not only brought to arms both sides of the fervent debate on Israeli-Palestinian relations, but a public and somewhat personal statement by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions” (BDS) movement—which advocates an academic and commercial boycott on Israel as a means to brand it a criminal nation—was granted approval and funds by Brooklyn College’s political science department to host a panel delegitimizing the Jewish state, thinly veiled as a discussion of their movement’s mission.

Lectures and panels denouncing Israel as an apartheid state have frequently popped up on university speaker schedules across the country for years, so why did this particular event heat up the campus’s political climate and capture the public’s attention in such an unprecedented way?

The meritless BDS movement, which has been debunked as indefensible under international law, is most definitely not reaching a mainstream audience. Rather, a public relations win for BDS is a direct result of generally flawed tactics employed by the other side. In their continued attempt to combat anti-Israel hate speech, the pro-Israel community shouts when it should strategize.

Highlighting the whole affair was Bloomberg, who said he “couldn’t disagree more violently” with the BDS movement. Even more significantly, the mayor pointed out the ironic publicity BDS enjoyed was the very result of prominent Zionists speaking out.

Highlighting the whole affair was Bloomberg, who said he “couldn’t disagree more violently” with the BDS movement.

“What the protesters have done is given lot of attention to the very idea they keep saying they don’t want to people to talk about,” Bloomberg said. “They just don’t think before they open their mouths.”

Had Israel supporters taken a more subtle approach, the initially low-profile BDS discussion may have attracted fewer anti-Israel sympathizers.

The first pro-Israel response came from Jewish intellectual Alan Dershowitz, who asserted Brooklyn College’s approval was very much a result of internal bias, and not derived from a love of free speech. Then came members of the New York State Assembly and City Council, including mayoral hopeful Christine Quinn, who threatened to cut Brooklyn College’s funding if the event proceeded. Assemblyman Dov Hikind warned of a “second Holocaust”. Within a week of the scheduled event, the media was awash in opinions from both sides, and the modest lecture was transformed into a divisive international issue.

Then came the protestors. While philosopher Judith Butler and Palestinian rights activist Omar Barghouti spoke in the student center, the chanting could still be heard. Dozens of police officers were stationed outside, checking attendees for weapons and monitoring the overflow. Though members of the press weren’t allowed inside, they questioned people on what they thought about the BDS movement. Most never heard even of it—until the vocal attempts to suppress it garnered worldwide attention, that is.

As a former Israel activist at UC Irvine, a campus that suffers from rampant anti-Semitism, I (Itzik Yarkoni) recall a case when pro-Israel leaders effectively responded to a similar event using restraint. “Israeli Apartheid Week”—the annual week demonizing Israel on campus that comes with heated protests and counter-protests—provides plenty of fodder for sympathetic media outlets. But one year, we chose to simply ignore it. No counter-protest, no megaphones, no crowds, and most importantly, no press.

Our muted response was in contrast to years past, when combative pro-Israel groups brought massive attention to UC Irvine, which served not only to increase numbers for the anti-Israel audience, but with the help of a biased media presence, warped the pro-Israel message into something altogether unintended.

After the BDS discussion at Brooklyn College, had campus Israel activists waited patiently to appeal to sympathizers leaving the event, they could have shared the truth about BDS’s origins as a hate-fest and ultimate path towards the destruction of the state of Israel. This would possibly change minds, or at least introduce them to a rational opposition.

This strategy—called “individual appeal”—can be effectively used with “soft-Zionists,” those who identify as supporters of the Jewish state, but lack proper historical context. The BDS website speaks for itself. Their mission statement, if carried out, logically leads to the disenfranchisement of the Jewish people without any clear indication of how it would create a lasting peace.

The other major battlefield in this war of words is online, being waged on social media platforms. Israel supporters need to ask: Who is really controlling the dialogue? Pro-Israel identifiers may be the Jewish state’s most vocal defenders on the Web, but when the message communicated is Israel’s role in the context of the BDS debacle, what that ultimately amounts to is even more PR for the BDS cause, and the tarnishing of Israel’s brand.

During the week of Feb. 6, there were thousands of Facebook messages and tweets concerning the Brooklyn College event and its associated controversies. That same week, plenty of positive news broke about Israel, hardly any of which was shared across social networks with the same intensity. Just a few examples: New York real estate firm Pinnacle Group sold $400 million NIS in Tel Aviv Bonds, the European Union denounced any calls for boycotts against Israel, and Birthright announced skateboarding and hip hop themed trips to Israel.

Even if they aren’t aware of it, Israel supporters are choosing how their country is being presented to the world: either proactively in the context of positive, productive and truthful news, or via defensive, emotionally triggered reactions to the activities of anti-Israel organizations.

It’s critical to understand that the success enjoyed by anti-Israel movements in demonizing the Jewish state is often a direct result of Zionist groups whose impassioned race to the soapbox can serve to pique the curiosity of latent audiences for hate groups. With the implementation of simple ground-level reforms, we can remind Israel haters that without our help, no one is listening.

Ariel Nishli is a journalist living in Los Angeles.
Itzik Yarkoni is a former Israeli fellow for UCI Irvine, and now lives in Jerusalem.