By: Joshua Fattal
On June 11th at the Park Avenue Synagogue, one generation taught and inspired the next as Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel spoke with a panel of seven students and graduates of Write On For Israel, an advocacy through journalism project of The Jewish Week.
Professor Wiesel told the audience that we must always remember that we are all witnesses to history, and must act cautiously in kind. He explained to us that we must all confront Israeli injustices towards Palestinians and lose sleep over them. He spoke forcefully in his simple characterization of the age-old crisis of anti-Semitism, denouncing it as “just stupid.” And he powerfully guided us that in whatever we do, we must always think before we act.
Thinking innovatively and thoughtfully, as the discussion with Wiesel provoked many students and advocates in the audience to do, can’t be done without first knowing our own narrative. Write On For Israel, which has trained over 400 students in pro-Israel advocacy since its inception a decade ago, has masterfully accomplished this first step. Then, its students are armed for one of the most important battles of our time.
This battle is the fight for Israel in the opinion war on American college campuses. But what has for so long been framed as a battle has, to a large degree, become something quite different. Students must—truly, as any warrior of any sort must—adjust to the reality on the ground. And for many students, the reality is surprising.
From my experience at Columbia University, Professor Wiesel’s words were uniquely important in their honesty and thoughtfulness as we as a community plan more effective advocacy techniques. And the need for such honesty and thoughtfulness is great. The traditional “us versus them” narrative of the pro-Israel community—that we are not always right, but they are almost always wrong—is unappealing to intelligent college communities today. Given the duration and loudness of the debate, one side can’t be right and the other wrong; the nature of the thing says that it has to be more complicated.
On many college campuses, the big enemy is not the virulent Students for Justice in Palestine. The big enemy is the apathetic remainder of the student body. I respect SJP because they care; at least they believe in something and are doing something about it. Much of the student body, though, does not care about either side. And in light of this apathy, the fight on campus has become less formal. To make a case that reaches the masses, one must not make the case for Israel at the exclusion of the case for Palestine. It becomes immediately necessary to advocate for the case for peace and intellectual responsibility, which requires creative thinking and community participation.
The June 11th dialogue with Professor Wiesel was a powerful step in this direction. On top of addressing the unfortunately still prevalent problem of anti-Semitism and gross anti-Israel spirit on some college campuses and among some professors, this dialogue, by its very nature, sought to reframe the discussion. After all, it was not Michael Oren or Bibi Netanyahu that was addressing us; it was one of the greatest Jewish leaders and human rights supporters of our generation. The depoliticized nature of Professor Wiesel implies the depoliticized nature of the discussion that needs to happen more often today. The fight can no longer be about left and right; to win, it must be about smart and not smart.
By thinking anew about how to make our own narrative more precise, we have a greater chance of swaying those apathetic to our arguments. When we offer them the full truth and not just the usual rhetoric of our story, they are more likely to be convinced. And the way to inspire the young generation of today in the best approaches for campus dialogue and debate is to learn from our experienced leaders. If we don’t continue thinking things anew, we risk getting bored as a community. And if we get bored, the fight can’t be won.
Joshua Fattal is a sophomore at Columbia University, majoring in history. He is the Director of Academic Affairs on LionPAC, a Senior Editor & Columnist for the Columbia Political Review, and a Contributing Editor for The Current. Joshua is a 2010 graduate of the Yeshiva of Flatbush and of the Write On For Israel program.