Last week a Brooklyn middle school principal sent an email to her teachers in which she accused Israel of “crimes against humanity” and urged them to “take action” in support of “Palestinian liberation.” One of the teachers, who is Jewish, was outraged by the email. She claimed it was propaganda and then found herself in the position of having to repeatedly explain and defend Israel to her friends and colleagues.
It is not an unfamiliar role for many Jews. We are barraged with news about Israel and much (most?) of it unfavorable. We have to endure an endless stream of anti-Israel articles, posts, memes and just plain social media blathering from anyone with a cell phone. We are invariably called upon to explain Israel’s actions and even justify its existence. Like that teacher in Brooklyn, we must suddenly respond, explain or defend all-things-Israel — hopefully in an intelligent and informed way.
That’s always been the case, but this time it feels different. This time the spotlight on us seems brighter, the issues more perplexing, the disinformation more widespread, the stakes much higher and more urgent.
It’s a daunting challenge, to be sure. But I suspect that Israelis — who just came off a non-stop pelting of over 4,000 rockets in 11 days — would have little sympathy for us. I suspect they would expect American Jews, at a minimum, to know basic history about Israel, how it came about, how often it has been attacked, how many peace offers it has made and how fervently its enemies seek its destruction.
American Jews will always disagree with each other about Israel. That’s what we do. But we must be able to discern fact from fiction, between fair critiques and garbage, even if that garbage is presented by a seemingly credible source, like an established journalist, a celebrity, a professor or even a late-night talk show host.
Spotting the Code Words
Today’s Israel haters often repeat a series of hot-button words to make their case. It’s a nomenclature with which we must become familiar. These code words seem innocuous — and to the uninformed they may seem powerful — but the language is inflaming virulent anti-Israel sentiment around the world. So we need to be able to spot these words and pounce on what they really mean.
I’ve made a list of some of the most popular ones of the past few weeks:
Equal rights in a single state. This catchy phrase is the new slogan du jour. Ostensibly it sounds pretty fair; who’s opposed to equal rights? But in this context, the “single state” means a majority Palestinian country, and thus the disappearance of Israel as a Jewish homeland, which of course doesn’t trouble the Israel haters one bit.
Free Palestine. This one’s everywhere now, from t-shirts to bumper stickers to hashtags. Never mind the fact that there never was a country named Palestine — not when the region was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, the British or the Jordanians. The slogan today is simple shorthand for the same message as above: the end of Israel.
From the River to the Sea. An oldie, this one provides a helpful geographical visual aid on which part of Israel must be destroyed (hint: all of it). Hmm … I’m starting to see a pattern here.
Israeli Colonialism. This fairly new code phrase borrows a pejorative historical term to cast Jews as foreign invaders in the land of Israel. I suspect Moses would disagree.
Ethnic Cleansing. The accusation — perhaps the ugliest one can lodge against a country — demonizes Israel by comparing it to history’s most notorious regimes, including Hitler’s genocide of the Jews.
Anti-Zionism. Even the worst Israel haters know not to admit to their antisemitism, but claiming to be “anti-Zionism” merely means that they’re opposed to Israeli policies. Of course they don’t hate Jews. Some of their best friends are Jewish!
Disproportionate. The anti-Israel crowd’s newest battle cry. The violence, they say, was not a “fair fight” since Israel has more weapons than Hamas and thus the death toll and damage was “disproportionate”. Also known as the Trevor Noah Rule, the premise here is that in any military conflict the parties need to start out on equal ground, as if war were a licensed WBA boxing title. Presumably, they would suggest that if Israel had only not deployed all those pesky Iron Domes, then there’d be thousands of dead Israelis and then it would have been a fair fight.
American Jews have a lot of work to do. There are many ways to support Israel, monetarily and otherwise. But we can all commit to at least having an informed understanding of what Israel is truly up against.
Yes, that requires homework. It means digesting content from diverse news sources in America and beyond, including from Israel (the Times of Israel is a must); it means fine-tuning our ability to discern what we read, see and hear; it means fact-checking the subtle biases of organizations, news outlets, op-ed pieces and reporters.
It means going back to school on the subject of Israel so that we can defend her sensibly and effectively.
That’s a heck of a challenge for American Jews, but in light of the existential struggle in which Israel finds itself, it’s a critical assignment that we should eagerly embrace.