Cherry Tomato Advocacy is a No-Go
by McKenna Bates
In the spring of 2021, Pew put out a study on American Jewish identity that found, amongst other things, that younger generations of American Jews are less emotionally attached to Israel than older generations of American Jews. 63% of American Jews ages 50 and up feel very attached to Israel, compared with 48% of American Jews ages 18-29, and only 35% of Jews ages 18-29 say that caring about Israel is essential (compared to 51% of those aged 50 and up). So what’s changed? Is it that millennials and Gen Z simply don’t remember what it was like for Israel during the 70s and 80s, how bloody the intifadas were, and have only experienced Israel as generally having the upper hand? I’d wager a guess as to yes, but I also think it has to do with something bigger, something that the American Jewish community itself is culpable in- Israel education and advocacy.
As trauma-informed people, it would make sense that we teach about Israel in the way that we do. We don’t want others to hyperfocus on the negative aspects of our people and our struggle for statehood and international legitimacy, so we omit talking about them, even amongst each other. We don’t want others to seek out ways to utilize legal structures against us, so we arm ourselves with the legal loopholes and verbiage to cite “well actually” any time a legal claim arises. I distinctly remember being told once at an Israel advocacy conference for campus activists, “don’t worry, because you have the facts on your side,” in response to asking a question about how to respond to criticisms of the segregation codified by the Oslo Accords.
This is the crux of where Israel advocacy and education gets it wrong. The focus on some facts with the omission of others leads to feelings of betrayal amongst millennial and Gen Z Jews when they realize that they only ever learned half the story. At Israel advocacy training programs and conferences, student activists receive fact booklets filled with snippets like, “did you know Israel invented the cherry tomato?” “Did you know that Israel banned underweight models?” and “Did you know that Israel invented the USB stick?” These facts, while true, paint an image of Israel through rose-tinted glasses, failing to address any of the claims or complaints student activists are most commonly bombarded with on campus and online. As a student activist, I attended various trainings with various Israel advocacy organizations on how to talk about Israel, how to respond to antisemitism, even how to get otherwise non-involved students to become pro-Israel, but none of those trainings discussed with me what the Nakba was or did any justice to genuinely explain the Palestinian narrative. I had no idea what Palestinian activists meant when they used the word “occupation,” and I’ve found that neither do most of my peers still involved in Israel advocacy. Unfamiliarity with the Palestinian perspective may seem like a win to some, but in reality this often leaves people passionate about Israel activism ill-prepared, out of their depth, and ultimately disenchanted, and makes it seem to observers like Israel advocates are unfeeling robots who don’t care about Palestinian suffering. And in today’s day and age, the focus is usually on how something makes one feel and how those feelings impact experiences, rather than how right or legally justified it actually may be.
What’s most important is that those who are involved with Israel activism and discourse feel a genuine, meaningful connection to the Land of Israel, one that only strengthens when faced with uncomfortable truths and a dissolution of the “Israel is an oasis” narrative. Equipping Israel activists with the ability to talk about where and how Israel can do better, without shying away in insecurity or ill-preparedness, is the path forward. We should be able to laud Yitzhak Rabin’s legendary efforts towards peace while also confronting and recognizing his Bonecrusher nickname and reputation amongst Palestinian communities. We should be able to talk about equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel while also recognizing how performative diversity tokenism in Israel advocacy spaces can be, and how far Israeli society still has to go to be truly equal for all its citizens. Controlling the conversation and only teaching half of it is not a recipe for success, it’s reminiscent of a trauma-informed people attempting to force specific stances in efforts to gain security. Millennial and Gen Z Jews can be trusted to form their own thoughts and opinions about Israel not being perfect while still maintaining a strong relationship with the land and the people, and Israel education and advocacy need to shift to reflect that.