Liberation: the right direction for Israel advocates

By Ilana Kosky, September 20, 2011
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Last week's front-page story on the new UJS "Liberation" campaign has sparked a large amount of controversy via Facebook, Twitter and word of mouth.

Unfortunately, most negative response seems to surround the issue of flag waving, whilst only a few vocal critics have chosen to engage in the politics behind the campaign. A consideration of the latter reveals several positive elements which deserve some attention.

The campaign specifically advocates "two states for two people". The concept of a two state solution is not a new one; the model dates back as far as the 1947 UN partition plan and has formed a part of UJS campaigns since the 1970s, yet it is still unclear what it means or how it will function in practice.

The Liberation campaign boldly makes discussion of the concept a priority, which will in turn aid its progression.

To illustrate this point, look at the Palestinian bid for statehood, which over the past few months has forced the issue onto the agenda. As a result there has been widespread debate over what the implications and practicalities of such an arrangement might be.

Whatever the outcome at the UN, these few months of debate have furthered our understanding of the concept enormously, because we have been forced to think about its parameters and form an opinion.

The UJS Liberation campaign does not force students to buy into one vision of statehood; but like the Palestinian bid, it will force them and their critics to engage with the concept through debate rather than argument, and as an approach has the potential ultimately to create an environment in which a solution for peace might be found.

Traditionally, Jewish students have been encouraged to talk about Israel on campus through "hasbara" (Israel advocacy). This approach has a dual aim, firstly to portray Israel in a positive light and, secondly, to defend Israel against any criticism that comes its way.

It is a staunchly one-sided approach, and, as highlighted in an excellent research paper by former student Micah Smith in January of this year, it has done much to alienate Jewish students who have tried to introduce any sympathy for the Palestinian cause, or open up any kind of forum for debate over the matter.

He wrote: "The effect of current approaches to Israel education has been to couple Jewish identity with a particular understanding of love for Israel. Consequently, Jewish students who openly oppose aspects of Israel or Israeli policies can sometimes find their Jewish identity being questioned."

As an alternative, he proposed what he labelled a "hakshava" approach, from the Hebrew root meaning "to listen".

This shift in emphasis focuses not on promoting a single narrative about Israel, but rather on discussing Middle Eastern politics in depth and considering a spectrum of viewpoints. Through this, students can form opinions based on a working knowledge and considered understanding of the issues.

The Liberation campaign is an embodiment of this new kind of engagement. Although seemingly controversial, Liberation in fact takes a far less hard-line stance than hasbara has done in the past.

Rather, it encourages multi-facetted debate about Israel that will encourage all students to engage in the question of two states, at the same time as fostering a spirit of dialogue with Israel's critics across campus. No longer will Israel advocacy be about "us and them", nor will it be about manufacturing an image of Israel that defends it at any cost.

Instead, students will assess Middle Eastern politics critically, together, and in favour of a solution for all.

Ilana Kosky is an Oxford University graduate. She is currently working on the UJIA's Ayalim Project. Follow her on Twitter here.

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Last updated: 11:57am, September 20 2011