For decades, pro-Israel organizations have been teaching students how to argue on behalf of Israel; they equip students with talking points, facts and figures, data sheets and detailed pamphlets on the conflict, on the innovations of Israel and on the obstacles to peace in the region. In short, they’ve been teaching students how to litigate on behalf of Israel. But this approach fails to cultivate affinity and identification with Israel and Israeli society; by affinity and identification, I mean that warm feeling of relatability and empathy which is the foundation of a healthy relationship and which enables young Jews to construct their own role within Jewish peoplehood. Instead, litigation creates an unhealthy sense that Israel is merely a political abstraction and identifying with it simply means combating BDS resolutions or eating falafel on Yom Haatzmaut. This is a starting point, but it is not enough — and it is not Israel education.
Instead of teaching students how to litigate the conflict, we should be teaching students how to love Israelis and Israeli culture.
I work at Jerusalem U, an Israel educational organization that uses digital media to deliver educational content to young Jews, connecting them to the country and to the people of Israel through films, digital shorts, and the like. I speak at day schools, universities and community events across the country on topics like Jewish culture, Israel affinity and conflict resolution. Through my interactions with students in both high school and college, I have seen firsthand how the old paradigm doesn’t work. For example trying to combat BDS resolutions will not work on a campus that sees the stigmatization of Israelis as a virtue instead of a vice. What is needed then is to attack the act of stigmatizing any community in the first place.
As a result, I recently developed a framework that revolutionizes the way we talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s called the “Theory of Enchantment,” and its mission is to create discussions that promote empathy while ensuring that neither community is ostracized in the process.
The Theory of Enchantment started out as a theory of change that I developed as a Tikvah Fellow at the Wall St. Journal in 2015. I worked with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bret Stephens (now a New York Times columnist) to develop strategies designed to quell U.S. anti-Semitism and build affinity for Israelis among millennials. I quickly discovered that the central question was not how to get people to stop hating, but how to get them to start loving — to love both the tiny country thousands of miles away and to practice love in the interpersonal disputes we have here in our own backyard.
The Theory of Enchantment has three principles. The first is a simple but critical one: Israelis and Palestinians — and, for that matter, all of us — are human beings, not political abstractions or stereotypes, and should be treated and discussed as such. Twitter-happy analysts often dismiss the real trauma, heartache and hellishness of war that consumes communities are not helping to promote reconciliation. To say that Israelis and Palestinians are human beings is not a trivial thing; it reminds students that we are talking about real people who are not so different from us, with real fears and insecurities and who, because of the pain that prolonged conflict causes, are often both in need of healing and are worthy of love and belonging.
In Israel, programs and institutions like The Muslim Leadership Initiative and The Arava Institute are helping to bridge the gap between Jews and Muslims in the conflict and foster mutual understanding and healing across the divide. These kinds of initiatives serve as testaments to our capacity as human beings to lean in toward each other with compassion; they also serve as incredible lessons that can transform our toxic infighting into deeper conversations that actually foster genuine human connection. Those lessons derive from that age-old question we humans have been asking and craving to know the answer to for millennia:
How do we show love?
There are some who have figured it out. Ali Abu Awwad, a Palestinian peace activist, and Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, a Jewish peace activist, both live in Gush Etzion. In 2016, they spoke to The National Observer about reaching across the sectarian divide that separated their communities and how, by co-founding a peace initiative called Roots, they learned to have compassion for each other in the midst of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“An Israeli mother who had lost her son held my mother’s hand and both of them cried wordlessly,” Awwad said. “It was the first time in my life that I saw the other side as human beings. I saw different representatives of the Jewish people of Judaism, and of Israelis. It had a huge impact on me.”
Schlesinger recounted a similar experience. “To meet the other, to bring the other into my soul, to identify with the other…I had to make room in my soul for another truth, the Palestinian truth. That doesn’t make my connection to this land any less strong…but it has to be balanced by an understanding of another truth.”
This radical approach to conflict transformation — reaching out across the aisle and learning to see one’s alleged enemy first and foremost as a human being — is a profound principle that is essential to helping heal political strife. And this requires being armed with facts just as much as the traditional paradigm required just as much. But these are facts of a different nature. This approach prioritizes literature over polemics so that students become familiar with a language that is less political, more human and thus more conducive to creating mutual understanding in otherwise polarized groups.
In the workshops I’ve built, students discuss not only books that cover the historical and geopolitical factors of Israel’s existence — like Daniel Gordis’s “Israel: A Concise History” and Efraim Karsh’s “Palestine Betrayed” — but also selections from books that have nothing to do with Israel, like Cheryl Strayed’s “Tiny Beautiful Things,” Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” and John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden.” As important as it is to teach the hard facts of the conflict, it is equally important to teach what empathy and compassion — the conditions of love — actually look like.
This is especially needed in our politically toxic era where shouting matches have become more commonplace than a desire to find common ground. On campus especially and in certain progressive movements, a different framework known as intersectionality has been used to shape conversations on social justice. Originally, intersectionalist theory was simply a way of showing how people could experience intersecting forms of discrimination. However, it’s now become a catch-all term that is used to crudely subdivide the sum of all human experience. As a result, some students have come to believe that white people are predisposed to take certain actions, have certain privileges and therefore have lesser value based upon the immutable facts of their birth — like gender and skin color. This creates a climate where women tell men they cannot contribute to conversations on feminism, lest they be guilty of #mansplaining, people of color tell white people they cannot contribute to conversations on race relations and progressive groups tell Jews that being pro-Israel is unacceptable because Israelis are white colonialists whereas Palestinians are brown and downtrodden. This impulse has led to leaders in the Women’s March excusing the anti-Semitism of Louis Farrakhan while denouncing the Anti-Defamation League’s racial bias training. All of these are frivolous, ego-driven and disastrous actions that create animosity between communities.
The Theory of Enchantment, in contrast, focuses on the need to ground all of our conversations in empathy and compassion. Feuds of all kinds, both interpersonal and sectarian, are often fueled by the dehumanization and demonization of the “other,” and it isn’t enough to teach that fear and prejudice toward another community is bad; the antidote to bigotry must also be taught: Love.
To remind students of this is to is to prepare them for the practice of empathy.
The second principle of The Theory of Enchantment has to do with constructive dialogue: When you criticize, criticize in order to empower the person or community you’re criticizing — never to tear down, and never to destroy. This principle helps us ground our intentions and remember that our ultimate objective, even as we give difficult feedback on the harmful ways certain individuals behave. As Dr. Maya Angelou once said, “If any human being is told often enough, ‘you are nothing, you count for nothing, [and] you are less than a human being,’ the person will finally begin to believe it, and not only will they believe it, they will say, ‘you think I’m nothing? I will show you where nothing is.’ And they will become even lower than what they are accused of being.”
Even when we find fault with each other, we should do so in a way that ultimately is uplifting and constructive, grounded in the desire to see each other do better and be better. This approach is an attempt to reject the us-vs-them binary of conflicts that pits people against each other; instead we can have conversations where the humanity of both communities are elevated.
The third principle of The Theory of Enchantment is that everything we do must be rooted in love and compassion. From a practical perspective, this provides students with a code of conduct that empowers them to break the cycle of discord often fostered in intersectionalist circles in which leaders of feminist marches take doting pictures with Louis Farrakhan and tell the majority of Jews they have no place in their progressive movement. When a student is accosted on campus by another person who says to them, “Oh, you’re white, so you must be an oppressor,” or, “You’re a woman, so you must be sensitive,” or, “Oh, you’re Jewish, so you must be privileged,” they’ll be able to acknowledge, condemn, and engage:
“Look I don’t know you and you don’t know me, but you’re making assumptions about me. You’re prejudging me and that’s messed up. But even though you have prejudged me, I will not prejudge you, because that’s the definition of prejudice. And you know what, instead of doing that, I’m gonna invite you to hang out so we can get to know each other better.”
This is the hardest part to put into practice. It is difficult to respond to aggression with compassion. But by confronting hatred with civility, we can begin to rehumanize the hyper-political spaces that we have boxed ourselves into and cease objectifying and stereotyping one another.