An episode of “The Bachelorette” was blaring on the TV in our dorm floor lounge. It was freshman year, and though I had a solid background in pro-Israel advocacy, I was still new to campus and the campus debates over Israel. As “The Bachelorette” tried to make up her mind about her suitors, some of my hallmates brought up the topic of the West Bank — Israel’s occupation and its policies in the area. I tried to make my case patiently and without judgment, to be informed but open-minded: that while I’m not comfortable with the situation in the West Bank, I realize that Israel can’t just unilaterally pull out of the region without exposing it to a serious, possibly existential, security threat.
It seemed to work. One of these hallmates was impressed and asked if we could discuss the subject further, which we did — one-on-one — over coffee that weekend. It’s become a model for my advocacy work.
When you learn about hasbara — Israel advocacy — leaders and instructors rightly stress the importance of the middle. Ten percent of people you encounter, they say, will already agree with you, 10 percent will not be convinced no matter what you say and the rest remain undecided. These people — the hallmate I had coffee with, for instance — must be your main focus.
While great value exists in signs and demonstrations on the main thoroughfares of campus or making waves in student government meetings — both of which I have been a part of — I have found that loud voices tend to alienate that crucial middle. The 10 percent who already agree are drawn to demonstrations to communicate support, and the 10 percent who don’t are drawn to voice their displeasure equally loudly. The average uninvolved student will simply take another route to class.
In my experience, the quieter, one-on-one conversations allow effective advocacy in a less intimidating way.
In my experience, the quieter, one-on-one conversations allow effective advocacy in a less intimidating way. While an uninformed student might not approach a stranger who handed them a pamphlet, they will approach an informed classmate who answered their questions before. Having attended a Solomon Schechter school for both elementary and high school, taken part in numerous advocacy seminars through AIPAC and Stand With Us and completed programs like Write On For Israel, I’ve been privileged to have the exposure to Israeli culture, politics and issues not afforded to others, including meetings with Israeli army and government officials as well as teenage Israeli Arabs on my numerous trips to Israel.
I’ve made an effort in my two-and-a-half years at Columbia to cultivate the reputation as someone knowledgeable about Israel, its culture, its politics and its conflicts with its neighbors, and someone willing to discuss these subjects openly and fairly. At times, such as when a particularly incendiary comment is made on campus or a factually skewed article is posted on Facebook, I find it necessary to assert my knowledge rather than wait for someone to ask for it.
However, I have found the low-key approach a successful and ultimately very gratifying method of hasbara, a method that allows me to acknowledge the value of the other person’s opinion and questions and show an honest, human face in support of Israel.
The coffee meeting with my hallmate wasn’t a one-time event; it has happened several times. In recent days, a friend asked me to meet her for lunch because her final paper for History of the Modern Middle East was on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and she wanted to make sure she had her facts straight. Another friend arrived for lunch during this discussion, and joined with questions of her own. Many of these conversations have gone beyond simply a summary of the Green Line or the Six-Day War and morphed into discussions of Israeli culture, people, food, landscape and my personal experiences. It’s the easiest and most enjoyable hasbara I do.
Israel’s complexity both as a country and in relation to the rest of the world merits nuance and dialogue.
While a personal approach might mean unavoidably slower progress, Israel’s complexity both as a country and in relation to the rest of the world merits nuance and dialogue. Efforts to reach a wide audience through simpler messages are certainly crucial to Israel advocacy — and sometimes are the only methods possible — but I feel better educating a few people more thoroughly than a large number of people less thoroughly.
My classmates ask mostly about history. Most college students who learn about Israel in an academic setting only know about it in relation to the conflict, and not in a lot of detail, although they understand that detail is necessary for even the most basic formation of an opinion. A large part of my hasbara, therefore, is simply telling the story.
A story that in the end is much more compelling than an episode of “The Bachelorette.”
Yaël D. Cohen is a junior at Columbia University. She is a 2015 Write On For Israel graduate.
This piece is part of “The View From Campus” column written by students on campus. To learn more about the column click here, and if you would like to contribute to it, email email@example.com for more info. We are grateful to The Paul E. Singer Foundation for supporting the Write On For Israel Program.