I don’t normally crusade for political causes. In fact, this is the first time I’ve ever been moved to speak out publicly. Granted, I’m only 17 years old, but it’s a milestone nonetheless.
I didn’t think it would come to this when I went to hear a recent lecture by Ali Abunimah, a co-founder of the pro-Palestinian Web site Electronic Intifada. I had nothing more in mind than fulfilling the terms of a Legacy Heritage science scholarship I received to go to Israel, which stipulated that I participate in Israel advocacy-related activities.
Before listening to Abunimah speak, I thought the advocacy requirement was pretty much unnecessary. I’ve heard all the horror stories of antisemitism on college campuses, but none of my Jewish friends in college seem to feel any threat. For the most part, my generation considers this stuff old news.
As a Jewish teen who has traveled to Israel with family and friends, it never really occurred to me that Israel’s right to exist was even open to debate. I of course know that in many parts of the world Israel doesn’t have the greatest image. I also know that Israel’s policies are not above scrutiny.
Still, when I sat down to hear Abunimah speak at the University of Washington, it never occurred to me that otherwise reasonable Americans would blindly accept the fundamentally anti-Israel propaganda he offered up.
Abunimah skillfully painted a one-sided picture that, if taken at face value, closes down all avenues of questioning Palestinian actions. There is, he effectively said, no other side of the story.
As he described it, Israel is an occupational military dictatorship whose ultimate goal is the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian lands. Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, he effectively argued, was tantamount to genocide. Abunimah went on to compare the Israeli government to apartheid rule in South Africa, while also claiming that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is analogous to China’s occupation of Tibet.
Abunimah clearly knew his audience — for many students today, human rights are a hot-button issue. With those in attendance already primed to sympathize with his half-truths, Abunimah’s demonization of Israel was met with cheers and exclamations of solidarity with the Palestinians.
There’s a lesson to be learned here: Today, America’s youth are motivated far more by social action than by political action.
If I could pick a name for my generation, it would be “Generation Save the [Insert Cause Here].” We line up behind causes when we see victims being subjugated by a perpetrator.
A classic example of this is Darfur; saving Darfur is very much in these days. But of the hundreds of thousands of young people wearing T-shirts demanding peace in Darfur — myself included — how many can really say exactly what is happening there, and who is doing what to whom? Far fewer than you’d think.
This isn’t to say that standing up for something is wrong unless you are a bona-fide expert, but a clear line needs to be drawn between concerned, educated citizens and those mindlessly buying into group-think because it’s somehow for a cool cause. My generation is far too quick to blindly follow a cause because it’s got an emotional draw. That’s what happened in April at the University of Washington, when Abunimah marched a willing and unquestioning audience right over the ideological edge.
The Jewish community, though, is not entirely blameless. Our response to anti-Israel rhetoric may be well intentioned, but the reality is that such efforts are increasingly ineffective when it comes my generation. Our defensive method of countering every factual error in the battle of “he said/she said” simply doesn’t resonate with people my age.
Americans listening to patently emotional arguments aren’t committing the details to memory. Instead, when offered the imagery of a Palestinian cancer patient struggling to pass checkpoints for a chance at treatment, people come away feeling the powerlessness of the Palestinians against the might of the Israeli army.
We Jews need to strategically decide to go on the emotional offensive. Let’s not only engage the minds of our audiences, but their hearts as well.
Tell them about the Israeli couple getting married in a bomb shelter in Sderot last summer, when more than 300 Qassam rockets were fired from Gaza at the Israeli border town and the surrounding area. Tell them about the moral battle an Israeli soldier faces when his unit discovers that innocent Palestinians have been forced to harbor suicide bombers in their homes.
In order to reclaim the hearts of my generation, Israel must establish emotional legitimacy. But it will take far more than that. We must also effectively preempt Abunimah and those like him before they twist Israel’s legitimate actions into those of a calculating, terrible monolith. Our goal must be to humanize Israel as a democracy of individual citizens with the same hopes and fears as their Palestinian neighbors.
Then, and only then, will “Generation Save the [Insert Cause Here]” consider Israelis as being on comparable moral footing with the Palestinians.
Hannah Niebulski is a senior at Newport High School in Bellevue, Wash.