Advocacy must go beyond the bumper-sticker slogans

By Alan Johnson, December 27, 2012
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In 1926, Haim Nahman Bialik, who would become Israel's national poet, was about to set sail to America to undertake a fundraising tour for the Zionist project in Palestine. Addressing a farewell gathering in Tel Aviv, he spoke about the style of advocacy he thought would work best in the diaspora. "We must present them with a model of full Hebrew life," he said. "If they do not feel that our values here are unwavering, we will not find a path to their hearts and funds."

What was true in Bialik's day for the Jewish diaspora is true in our day for global public opinion, both Jewish and non-Jewish.

And that's why it is a catastrophe that - as the novelist Amos Oz jokes - many opinion-formers in Europe often seem to think that 85 per cent of Israelis are extremist settlers, 14 per cent are IDF soldiers stationed at checkpoints, and the other one per cent are intellectuals like Amos Oz. The path to people's hearts is being lost sight of as Israel is reduced to a caricature.

Bialik's solution - let's call it aspirational advocacy, with an approving nod to the concept of "aspirational Zionism" being developed by the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem - invites us to start a new kind of conversation about Israel.

Israel is being reduced to a caricature

First, aspirational advocacy is positive. Comfortable with dialogue, zealous in seeking out relationships and disciplined enough to adopt a style that sustains them, aspirational advocacy knows how to present Israel in HD.

It can celebrate Israel's astonishing cultural renaissance in the arts as well as map the alarming security threats; see the potential in its dazzling hi-tech sector to spark growth not just here in the UK but in the future Palestinian state, as well as analyse the causes of the stasis in the peace talks. And it can open up a conversation about the country's inspiring humanitarian outreach projects as an expression of Jewish values, without closing down the anguished debate about settlement-building.

Second, aspirational advocacy must be comfortable with complexity. We have to start thinking less like admen looking for the killer bumper-sticker slogan, and more like a social movement slowly accumulating solid footholds in the culture, steadily widening our influence, uninterested in talking only to ourselves.

Third, it will be values-based. It shares the dream of Benny Begin, MK and son of the former Israeli Prime Minister, that every Israeli will have the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But it also shares the conviction of the former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni that "Israel is a confident and strong democracy and [so] is able to withstand and contain criticism" when it is offered "from within the family… out of love". Yes, distance can distort, so criticism must be acutely sensitive to Israel's excruciating security dilemmas and refuse to fall victim to double standards.

Aspirational advocacy should never embrace what the American intellectual historian Richard Hofstadter famously called the "paranoid style" in politics. Exhibit number one: the web campaign against President Obama for, allegedly, "throwing Israel under a bus". As the Israeli negotiator and analyst Tal Becker puts it, it is more important to be reasonable than to be right when advocating for Israel. The country needs character witnesses far more than it needs "talking points".

Fathom: for a deeper understanding of Israel and the region is a new quarterly journal and iPad app published by Bicom. In it, we seek to embody this aspirational style of advocacy. The wager is that, if we can combine the intellectual rigour of the old school journal, the limitless reach of social networks and state-of-the-art publishing technologies, then we will be able to draw a global network of readers and writers to a more expert, more nuanced and more interesting conversation about the Hebrew republic.

In July 1926, his US tour almost finished, an exhausted Bialik addressed a gathering of the Histadrut in Ivrit. "Do not build the land of Israel out of anxiety," he advised, because people "must be educated with joy and bliss".

Certainly, we can't always educate in that way. The threats facing Israel are real and impervious to joy. But there is a profound truth in Bialik's notion: it is vital to promote a values-based, positive vision of Israel and a purely crisis-driven advocacy can't get the job done.

Professor Alan Johnson is editor of 'Fathom' and senior research fellow at Bicom. He writes here in a personal capacity

Last updated: 2:02pm, December 27 2012