May 21, 2019

When Jews Are Seen as Goliath, Not David

David and Goliath by Guillaime Courtois. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

When the American Jewish community looks in the mirror, we see David carrying his sling. But to everybody else, we look a lot like Goliath. 

The 12 tribes of Israel have thousands of years of underdog status that should give us the hard-earned credibility to stand with other subjugated peoples. Which makes it especially frustrating when those whose travails are of more recent vintage see us as oppressors rather than the oppressed.

It becomes even more aggravating when groups of Palestinian provocateurs set up shop on our children’s college campuses, deliberately baiting us into a series of high-profile confrontations for which there is no clear path to success. If Jews and other pro-Israel voices push back against the lies and hatred directed at our community and our homeland, we provide our antagonists with an even more visible platform. Even more damaging is that a public altercation reinforces that David and Goliath narrative — in precisely the wrong direction — as the presence of well-meaning political and community leaders standing on Israel’s behalf elicits predictable bleating from the conspiracy-minded about the influence of the “Jewish lobby.” 

The alternative is even worse, as failing to push back allows the worst of the anti-Zionists and anti-Semites a free pass to peddle slurs and slanders to a young and impressionable audience.

This brings us to the curiously named faction known as Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). With the possible exception of the two prepositions, there are absolutely no truthful words in the group’s title. Most of their member “students” are very occasional and heavily subsidized attendees of graduate classes. There is no evidence of the organization’s existence in or adjacent to the biblical boundaries of Palestine. (The group was founded in Berkeley, just over the border with Oakland.) And the term “justice” suggests a concern for fairness, respect and peace that is altogether absent from its public pronouncements.

But the SJP-ers are persistent, and they understand that most college campuses are petri dishes in which support for the suppressed is carefully tended, but whose residents have not been on the planet long enough to remember when those terms applied to the children of Israel. So, a familiar scenario played out on the weekend of Nov. 16-18 at UCLA, where the pro-Palestinian antagonists planted their flag for a membership gathering. 

Leading politicians denounced the assemblage, stirring the student government to denounce the collusion of “outside powerful forces.” The pro-Israel and Jewish communities turned out in peaceful but virulent protest, and by the time the conference ended nothing had dramatically changed. The haters had hated. The protesters had protested. But the protracted erosion of pro-Israel sentiment among our nation’s next generation of leaders had incrementally advanced, creating an even greater long-term challenge for our community and our future.

“It’s hard out there for Goliath, especially in a pro-David crowd. And it’s even more challenging when that crowd believes that we are simply Goliath pretending to be David.”

The result is that brave Jewish and pro-Israel students of UCLA and other universities throughout the state will continue to spend their days on campuses where young progressives develop growing levels of antipathy toward Israel and corresponding levels of empathy for its detractors. 

It’s hard out there for Goliath, especially in a pro-David crowd. And it’s even more challenging when that crowd believes that we are simply Goliath pretending to be David. Overcoming this credibility gap won’t be easy. But the first step for a Jewish community that still thinks of ourselves as the underdog is to be willing to see ourselves as our potential progressive allies currently see us.

Dan Schnur is a professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, and at UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies.