The Day After: Framing a Community Strategy

Immediately following the Hamas’ attack on civilians in southern Israel, groups across the anti-Israel spectrum were defending these actions.
October 20, 2023
Demonstrators rally in support of Palestinians in Gaza along Steinway Street on October 18, 2023 in the Astoria neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The anti-Israel campaign is alive and well. Immediately following the Hamas attack on civilians in southern Israel, groups across the anti-Israel spectrum were defending these actions. In their minds this is a war of liberation. As a colonialist occupier, Israel has no standing, and its American (government) supporters are seen as enabling the Jewish State to unlawfully control peoples and lands.

The irony of this case against the Jewish State is that these liberationists are defending a theocratic Islamic regime, as Hamas in its political charter offers no space for liberal democracy while seeking the liquidation of all other religious communities. There is a total disconnect here between the aspirations of political left organizations embracing such an extremist religious enterprise.

Even as we watched the tragic events unfold, our disbelief and our sense of loss, our outrage, does not reflect the mindset or political consciousness of those who seek Israel’s demise.

While their political message is not new, its presence however in the aftermath of such atrocities must be understood as something different. Jewish lives are expendable in the name of liberation politics. We should anticipate that many of these political battles will again take place on college campuses, as a second front is launched: the war over public opinion.

Jewish lives are expendable in the name of liberation politics.

Even as we expect such campus diatribes from Israel’s political opponents, what we find unacceptable are university administrators equivocating on the safety and security of Jewish students, as Israel and its supporters are attacked.

As we focus on student life, we note that many Jewish students across the country awakened on Monday wondering where their “friends” and classmates were as a cone of silence replaced calls or texts of support and connection.

Students are struggling this week as they uncomfortably enter class and are seated next to these individuals whose silence has been felt and heard. How will Jewish students deal as well with faculty members who launch a tirade of invectives against Israel and its colonist, imperialist government?

Beyond the classroom, as they and we turn to social media, there one confronts the messages and images bashing Israel. So how do should we respond? Are we prepared, and especially our kids, to lose friends or alienate a colleague or professor, while dealing with our own sense of loss, as we struggle to give context to what is unfolding?

Who will reach out to our students, many of whom for the first time are feeling the anguish of being “a Jew” in a public setting?  Not only will our young people feel such pain and loss, as all of us are likely to experience similar reactions, as our friends simply go silent in this moment.

For many younger Jews these events represent their first encounter in dealing with hate and in managing a defense on behalf of Israel. Some may feel unprepared to debate the merits of Israel’s case, while others may be uncomfortable in speaking before their professors or even their classmates.

In the days and weeks ahead, as they and we experience the angry rhetoric of Israel’s critics, it will be our collective task to help our kids and grandkids manage the Zionist case, sharing with them the resources and tools to manage this struggle, while sharing with them our support and care.

The contest before us will remind us about the nature of politics and the character of humanity.  We hold a very particular ideological position that the Jewish people have rightfully reclaimed their national homeland. That statement only works if you believe in the idea of nationalism, accept historic reality, are prepared to uphold international law and practice, and support the rights and status of other peoples.

The battle ahead will be four-fold. As in the past, this remains a war over history and facts. This continues to be a conflict over land and rights. Third, this represents a contest over whose human tragedy is more real. And finally, this will be a power struggle over winning the public opinion battle: Who will best make their case?

Jews don’t have the luxury of losing such a battle. The political street may be as challenging as what may lie ahead militarily for the State of Israel as it contends with Gaza and Hamas—like the 1960s and ’70s, when we introduced a coordinated effort on the part of the Jewish community relations field to manage and lead the political campaign to defend Israel. This is not the moment for institutional self-promotion as it demands a collective strategy, targeting key audiences and constituencies both in terms of education and advocacy. Hopefully, this is the time where religious connections, ethnic partnerships, business relationships and political alliances allow for a focused campaign of engagement with our key partners.

Everything we must do over these weeks and months ahead must benefit the case for Israel, while also giving support, guidance and counsel to our next generation of Israel activists.

Steven Windmueller is emeritus professor of Jewish communal studies at HUC-JIR, Los Angeles.  His writings can be found on his website, www.thewindreport.com.

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