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A paradigm shift in countering antisemitism: Make American values relevant again

This article was co-authored by Eran Shayshon, Atchalta's Founder & CEO, Fern Oppenheim, the founder of Brand Israel Group, and David Bernstein, the founder of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values, and was published in eJewish Philanthropy.

While the Jewish world was reeling from the inhumanity of the Oct. 7 massacre, an immediate aftershock came in the form of the anti-Israel rallies on college campuses and on the streets of major cities. Since that time, the protests have only intensified. Opposing Israel has become fashionable in some circles. Campus activists feel imbued with a se

A girl is wearing a star shaped Kufiyah

nse of historic mission, perceiving themselves as the modern embodiment of the protest movements of the 1960s. Many Jewish professionals and lay leaders remain overwhelmed and unclear as to how to proceed. Years of investment in countering various forms of antisemitism have been proven inadequate. It should be clear by now that we need a new strategic approach and a comprehensive plan to enact it.

The post-Oct. 7 reality dictates a strategy that counters underlying ideological currents, places Jewish concerns in the context of broader American interests and upholds American and Western values. The current focus on antisemitism makes it appear that the strife on and off campus is a Jewish problem rather than an American problem. Antisemitism is low on the relevance scale for most Americans, but the health of American society is central. Based on our assessment of what went wrong, current survey data and key trends, we believe that the Jewish security is inextricably linked to firming up larger support for American values and a renewed commitment to the U.S.’s key geopolitical interests. We further argue that American Jewish organizations should prioritize work with new partners in civil society who share this mission and who should take center stage in effecting a larger cultural shift. In short, we believe the best defense against antisemitism is restoring the commitment of Americans to the nation’s founding principles under which American Jews and other minorities have thrived.

What went wrong?

The anti-Israel narrative — Israel as an apartheid, colonialist enterprise — gained limited support on college campuses over the past few decades. Yet trends in survey data indicate that while the anti-Israel narrative caused a slow erosion of support for Israel, the overwhelming majority of college students remained neutral and attitudes towards Jews were largely unaffected. In fact, the data through 2016 indicates that, even in the face of hostile campus rhetoric, most college students and most Americans cared little about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The issue was just not relevant to them and they remained in the “middle” — neither “core supporters” nor the “unreachable.” Likewise, antisemitism among college students remained low. Research indicated that the large group in the middle represented an opportunity as it could be swayed towards Israel once it was shown the broader face and humanity of the Israeli people.

So if the same anti-Israel narrative has been around for decades, what explains the dramatic increase in its acceptance now? Simply put, anti-Israel forces have found a way to make their cause relevant to a growing swath of Americans by linking it to the significant cultural and ideological shifts over the past ten years.

With the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014 and changes in the social media landscape, a binary ideology that divides society into oppressors and oppressed, skyrocketed in popularity on campuses. Anti-Israel groups successfully aligned themselves with activist groups representing marginalized communities, thereby significantly expanding the cohort of young Americans sympathetic to their cause. For the first time, Jewish students found themselves excluded from student social justice activities due to their sympathies towards Israel.

In the heated aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in 2020, this binary, oppressor-oppressed ideology found new audiences outside campuses. Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts, which frequently enshrined the oppressor-oppressed ideology, gained broad-scale penetration into numerous mainstream institutions including business, government, media, science, medicine, culture, K-12 schools, etc. So while the State of Israel and, now, Jews are seen by many as white, privileged oppressors in a broad swath of institutions, Hamas is increasingly seen as a legitimate resistance movement representing the marginalized.

It is important to note that notwithstanding the titular expression of solidarity with the Palestinian cause, protests against Israel on U.S. campuses are about far more than the Jewish state. Instead, they are often part of a larger agenda that aims to reshape the power structure, dismantle the larger social order, defund the police, undermine the very notion of meritocracy and undo the market economy and concept of private property. Many protesters on campus explicitly cite this larger worldview as a motivation for their campus activism. 

Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that in the wake of Oct. 7, most surveys of young people show high levels of support for Palestinians/Hamas and declining support for Israel. The majority are no longer in the swayable middle. Moreover, for the first time since the Anti-Defamation League began measuring such trends, young Americans are more likely to believe antisemitic tropes than older Americans. In short, by aligning with cultural shifts occurring among the progressive left, anti-Israel forces — many representing extreme Islamist perspectives — have successfully made their narrative relevant to many young Americans.

While the Jewish community was busy maintaining support for Israel in the political arena, ideologues sought to and succeeded in changing the culture. We are now experiencing the downstream effects of our collective failure to counter dangerous cultural trends.

A strategic pivot

If Israel is to retain American support down the road and if Jews are to be safe in this country, then action must be taken to reverse these cultural shifts. For the most part, the Jewish community has responded to the post-Oct. 7th onslaught with well-funded efforts to counter antisemitism and anti-Zionism. It is not doing enough to make its case more relevant to Americans than it was years ago, unlike the anti-Israel camp, which broadened its appeal in the intersectional arena.

Yet there is good news amid the bad. In this highly charged environment, Israel and its allies have lost support among college students, but not among most Americans. Raucous anti-Israel protests on campuses have alarmed many Americans, who are concerned that these anarchists pose a clear and present danger to the U.S. The Jewish communal world needs to take a page from its enemies’ playbook and make its cause more broadly relevant by aligning with the significant percentage of Americans who believe in the American dream, oppose chaos and support the principled use of American power in the world. Jews represent only 2% of the American population; we cannot win this battle on our own.

The Jewish community needs to work with those who are already fighting back on various fronts and to catalyze the energies of those who may be concerned but are not yet taking action. The focus of such coalitional efforts must be on strengthening the American narrative and values, not on antisemitism or Israel. And these efforts need to be led by diverse American voices rather than Jewish groups, as they will be seen as more believable and less likely to have an agenda. In short, the Jewish community needs to lead from behind.

We are currently developing a white paper that lays out in greater detail the needed strategic shift and will be holding sessions in person and online in the coming months.


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