I was asked the question most recently last week in the well-appointed downtown offices of a major Jewish organization. But I have heard it surprisingly often since I founded the Louis D. Brandeis Center to combat campus anti-Semitism: “Do you really think that fighting anti-Semitism is the best approach to Israel advocacy?” The question is invariably issued as a challenge, sometimes even an admonition.
Implicitly, Jewish leaders want to know whether it makes sense to focus on the “negative,” when the vogue in Israel advocacy is to be relentlessly positive.
“No,” I always reply, “It is not even the second best approach.”
I sometimes begin by pointing out that I do not fight anti-Semitism to advance Israel advocacy.
Rather, I fight anti-Semitism because anti-Semitism is evil, and it must be defeated. If the 20th century taught us anything, it is that Jew-hatred cannot be allowed to fester. But this sometimes feels like belaboring the obvious.
AS FAR as Israel advocacy goes, the best approach is undoubtedly very different. Those who want to give Israel a better image, on college campuses or elsewhere, really should focus on the positive. In this respect, the American Jewish establishment is not wrong. Israel’s positive attributes are quite compelling, whether one focuses on the country’s extraordinary history, cultural offerings, or scientific advances. When people think of Israel, they should think first of the country’s gifts to the world. Israel advocates increasingly understand this.
Fighting anti-Semitism should not come second for Israel advocates either. After painting a positive portrait of Israel’s assets, Israel advocates must focus next on addressing Israel’s legitimate critics. For many reasons, Israel is continually subjected to heaps of abuse in the international community. Israel’s defenders are wise to anticipate criticisms and respond to them.
Advocates should present facts which rebut the fictions that are told about the Jewish state. When combined with positive pro-active messaging, a fact-based educational campaign can be very persuasive. But it will never succeed. That is to say, Israel advocates will never prevail if they stop there.
THE PROBLEM is that key influentials are not convinced by rational arguments, fact-based approaches, or positive-imaging campaigns. Anti-Semitism it is at the root of intractable anti-Israel animus. That is the only rational explanation for the extraordinary double standards Israel always faces in the international community.
Although there are relatively few hard-core anti- Semites on Western campuses, these hard-core haters are disproportionally influential, because university culture gives disproportionate credence to radical, anti-establishment voices. These opinion leaders are not persuaded by informational campaigns because their attitudes are more psychological than intellectual.
There was a time during the mid-20th century when American Jewish organizations generally believed in educational campaigns to defeat anti- Semitism. They felt, as one leader put it at the time, that “lack of information was basically responsible for group hostilities.” Their assumption was that prejudiced people accepted anti-Jewish stereotypes because they lack accurate information about or first-hand experience with Jews. Jewish leaders believed at that point that they could eliminate prejudice by teaching white American gentiles about the various ethnic, racial and religious groups within the United States.
That naïve perspective has long since vanished from the Jewish communal world, except when it comes to Israel advocacy. By the 1950s, it was well established that anti-Semitism could not be addressed by facts alone. Psychologists explained that, since anti-Semitism is the product of psychological factors, it is unlikely to be altered by superficial educational or propaganda techniques. Educational efforts which concentrate on disseminating correct information and disproving errors fail to address the psychological and sociological roots of anti-Jewish prejudice.
For half a century, we have understood that anti- Semitism can be addressed psychologically, morally and legally, but that informational campaigns are utterly unhelpful. Nevertheless, most Israel advocates ignore the root cause of persistent anti-Israelism, insisting that education alone will suffice.
NEVER MIND that we must fight anti-Semitism because anti-Semitism is wrong. Israel advocates must also fight anti-Semitism because, if that fight is not won, they will be forever doomed to the Sisyphean task of swatting down myths and distortions whose source they refuse to address.
Israel advocates are wise to stress positive imaging first and fact-based campaigns second. But the third prong in their strategy must be an effective plan for combating anti-Semitism. Otherwise, no amount of positive imaging or educational pamphlets will succeed.
So do not ask me if combating anti-Semitism is the best way of doing Israel advocacy. It may be the third-best option, but it is still the sine qua non of any successful strategy. But we must fight anti-Semitism regardless of its importance to Israel advocacy, because it is the right thing to do.
Kenneth L. Marcus is founder and president of The Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law (www.brandeiscenter.com) and author of Jewish Identity and Civil Rights in America (Cambridge University Press 2010). He previously served as staff director of the US Commission on Civil Rights.