6 years ago, during my first year at York University, it was the height of the second intifada. Both in Israel and on my campus, tensions flared, screaming matches in public places were common, and a war was waged by both sides to win over the compassion of the media. And on some days in Vari Hall, the central court on campus, if you squinted your eyes just enough, you might have actually thought you were in the West Bank. After all, they had bombed out buses, and we had bombed out buses. They had a separation
fence wall, and we had a separation fence wall. They had checkpoints, and we had checkpoints. They had screaming Jews and Arabs, and we had screaming Jews and Arabs. Really, the only difference between the two locales was the lack of terrorists killing people and an armed response. Aside from that, it was war on all fronts.
As an impressionable freshman, fresh out of high school and youth group, I was only too eager to join in the protests and become an activist. I donned my IDF uniform, draped myself in an Israeli flag, and held up posters of victims of terrorism, shouting my support for Israel and feeling ever so proud. Yes, I was an activist. I didn’t tell people that at that point, I had never been to Israel or the West Bank, because it didn’t matter. I read Israel newspapers, and I watched international news. But not CNN.
This is the story of far too many members of the Jewish community in North America. Switch sides, and it’s the story of far too many members of the Muslim/Arab community in North America. The details really are the same on both sides. People – many of whom have never been to the land they are yelling about – engaged in screaming matches, fueled mostly by pent-up emotions and an unhealthy dose of propaganda from whatever news outlet is telling the story in the way they want to hear it.
Thankfully, I got tired, grew weary, and mellowed out. I saw the bigger picture. I tried to broaden my horizons. I saw through the vitriol and realized that these rallies, protests, and screaming matches really didn’t accomplish anything. For the most part, they were nothing more than a giant way to get to catharsis for each party. Whoever screamed the loudest, pushed the hardest, showed the most gruesome photos, and attracted the largest group of unimpressed observers won. There was nothing activist about these rallies, nothing influential, and nothing lasting. Sure, they made the newspapers the next day, and spawned a screaming match of words in the letters-to-the-editor section. But that was it. These rallies didn’t influence any change in policy, they didn’t win over larger groups of fence-sitters, and they didn’t raise any knowledgeable awareness among the “activists”. They were and always will be a small blip on the time-line of the conflict.
Which is why I surprised myself yesterday, as with trepidation I joined Hanan – one of our shlichim – and walked down to the Israeli consulate in New York yesterday to watch a pro-Israel/anti-Hamas rally. Not to take part. Just to watch. I wanted to see what a rally looked like after the supposed end of the second intifada. I wanted to see what a rally looked like here in New York.
And here, in the centre of the Jewish world outside Israel, I saw more of the same. Yelling and shouting; some of it filled with hatred, some of it filled with passion, but none of it filled with activism. If anybody there thought that their speeches, chanting, and anthem-singing would actually stop Hamas from raining down rockets on Israel, they were sorely misguided. If anybody there thought that their speeches, chanting, and anthem-singing would actually change US policy on Israel, they were sorely misguided. Maybe in a country or city where support for Israel wasn’t natural, a rally such as this could have had a substantive purpose. But this is New York City! The thousands of people crowding Second Avenue weren’t there to accomplish anything other than a giant feat of cheerleading. And unimpressive cheerleading at that – nobody was tossed into the air, there was no marching band, and there were no pompoms.
At the rally, Malcolm Hoenlein, the Chairperson of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations had an interesting statement to share with the crowd:
“We tell the United Nations today: Stay out. Let Israel do what it has to do.”
Mr. Hoenlein sure is a great cheerleader. He pretty much sums up my entire argument. Thanks, Mr. Hoenlein. What these cheerleaders and rallyers want most of all – more than dialogue, more than constructive discussion, more than engaging activism on the part of North American Jews – is for their side to win. They view Mideast politics as a football game, where North American Jews are cheerleaders jumping around wildly on the sidelines. They don’t want anyone else to get involved, they don’t want to hear the commentary from the pundits (people who actually know something about what’s going on), they just want to see their side pummel the other side without any interference. The UN may have many issues, including a woefully poor track record on being balanced when it comes to Israel, but at least it tries to be a representative voice of moderation. Much more than we can say for Mr. Hoenlein – a man who is supposed to represent the major Jewish organizations, and thus supposedly, the majority of organized Jews.
And unfortunately, this isn’t just a Jewish problem. It’s the same on both “sides.” Most of the Western World is content with viewing the conflict in Israel as a football match, because it means they don’t have to get hurt and dirty. They can just dance wildly from the sidelines, cheering and screaming, holding up signs and feeling as though they’re contributing to the welfare of their team.
But cheerleaders don’t get to win the Super Bowl.
Tomorrow — Israel vs. The Rest, Part Two: Those who have the Guts to get Dirty