In the past two weeks, the pro-Israel community has been in an uproar.
Not because the centrifuges are still spinning in Iran. Not because a cadre of anti-Semites are trying to delegitimize the State of Israel through their craven BDS efforts. Not because a Jew was viciously attacked in France and a swastika inscribed on his chest. And not because a naïve double standard is applied by many critics of Israel who systematically ignore the violence, homophobia and trampling on the rights of women and minorities which is on exhibit daily and egregiously in so many Middle Eastern countries.
No. The community of pro-Israel activists is incensed because Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP), Boston’s Jewish federation, funded a group of Harvard College students to go to Israel, and while they were there, they had the poor judgment to be photographed at the grave of Yasser Arafat.
“Self-haters,” say the blogs. “BDSers,” say the editorials. “Naïve narcissists” say the pundits.
These attacks are absurd.
We believe that a visit to Ramallah or Arafat’s grave will not change the net effect on the hearts and minds of the trek participants. But we know that hiding the issue will cost us our credibility with these students.
CJP and its Israel Advocacy Committee (which we created and proudly co-chair) was a willing and enthusiastic sponsor of the Harvard Student Israel Trek. We fund missions that bring students to Israel regularly, believing that there is no more effective way to make the case for Israel than to take people to Israel. As we all know, the country speaks for itself. We also know that non-Jews, especially students, like to see all sides of the story. Thus, most of these trips include visits to Ramallah. We believe that a visit to Ramallah or Arafat’s grave will not change the net effect on the hearts and minds of the trek participants. But we know that hiding the issue will cost us our credibility with these students.
Were we happy that the trip leaders allowed a photo to be taken at Arafat’s grave? We were not. We think that the photo reflects poorly on the “in the moment” judgment of the student trip leaders. That said, they were certainly not paying tribute to the memory of Yasser Arafat. The organizers of this trip are terrific, well-intentioned, ardent Zionists, several of whom have risked their lives in defense of Israel and all of whom undertook this mission to enhance their classmates’ understanding of and connection with the State of Israel.
Missions or “Treks” that take college students to Israel are often transformative, which is why we fund them. However, CJP doesn’t control the itineraries for these trips. They are student run, organized and led, giving them greater authenticity in the eyes of their fellow students.
While these kids are in Israel, they experience its wonder, beauty and complexity. They connect with Israelis. They learn the history and contextualize the news. They also learn about the complexity of the neighborhood in which Israelis live, so that when they come home, they can speak articulately about the challenges and the potential solutions. We believe that these are wonderful investments, and we will keep on funding and running them as long as we are informing the steadfast and effective pro-Israel agenda at CJP – something we do with intense passion and pride and as ardent supporters of Israel.
To this point, CJP’s standing as a leader in the pro-Israel arena is unassailable. We are a foundational supporter of Birthright. We have created myriad break-through programs to engage young adults and “millennials” in pro-Israel activities. We have built new and novel channels to communicate compelling messages about Israel. We have created and executed countless missions to Israel for students and business leaders, and have been lauded for our expertise in doing so. Assailing CJP may feel good in the moment, but it does nothing to advance the case for Israel. We find it tragically ironic that this story has legs solely by virtue of Jews attacking Jews. We are truly playing into the hands of Israel’s enemies, who in their wildest dreams could not have achieved this kind of coverage on their own.
We may well disagree on strategies. We can certainly debate tactics. But why engage in self-immolation with these sorts of attacks? We all share the same objective, a strong, vibrant State of Israel. Now more than ever we should act as “Am Echad” — One People.
Gideon Argov, Co-Chair, CJP Israel Advocacy Executive Committee
Jeffrey Robbins, CJP Israel Advocacy Executive Committee member and immediate past Co-Chair
Jonathan Sandler, Co-Chair, CJP Israel Advocacy Executive Committee