In The Art of War, 6th century BC, Sun Tzu wrote, “Standing on the defensive indicates insufficient strength; attacking a superabundance of strength.” The famous Chinese military strategist argued that to be successful in war, it is critical “to attack the enemy’s strategy.”
Students supporting the Jewish right to self-determination in their ancestral homeland should consider his advice: Go on the offense rather than the defense, dominate the generation and flow of information and selectively adopt opposition tactics to use against them.
Israel supporters on campus are systematically targeted, harassed and silenced inside and outside the classroom by groups like Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and like-minded faculty.
This is a war — a vicious, coordinated war of words as dangerous to Israel’s survival as mortars and rockets. By poisoning the minds of our future thought leaders, the enemy is attempting to destroy the Jewish state. This psychological warfare is modeled after Herr Goebbels’ “Big Lie” strategy: Say that Israel is a racist and genocidal country often enough and people will ultimately believe it.
Democratic Israel is the only nation universally demonized, delegitimized and held to a double standard on campuses across America — exactly what the U.S. State Department defines as anti-Semitism.
SJP, Muslim Students Association and other campus organizations promote boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) resolutions against Israel, sponsor the annual hate-filled “Israel Apartheid Week,” import speakers to viciously defame the Jewish state, disrupt pro-Israel programs and speakers and label Israel supporters racists and white supremacists.
Every time a BDS resolution is proposed or an apartheid wall is erected, Israel’s student advocates attempt to explain away the lies, thereby giving legitimacy to the propaganda they are trying to debunk. They play defense rather than exposing the opposition as purveyors of hate, false advocates whose real intent is to weaponize the human rights mantra to deny the Jewish people’s inalienable right to self-determination.
For the most part, Israel supporters’ response on campus has remained reactive, studied and overly cerebral. They are rightfully jubilant when BDS resolutions are voted down. But, in reality, whether they pass or fail is irrelevant. This tactic fulfills its objective — exposing the student community to a constant barrage of anti-Israel invective which, over time, will alter public and political consciousness.
But things may be changing. A few pro-Israel groups are starting to take the fight to the haters, using opposition strategies against them.
Founded by two University of Minnesota Israeli undergraduates, Students Supporting Israel (SSI) connects with students by appealing to emotion, believing, as the opposition does, that feelings are more powerful than facts. They have selectively co-opted enemy tactics and use language and symbolism as assertive as that of SJP. Fighting back with verbal krav maga, to quote SSI.
Columbia University’s SSI launched “Hebrew Liberation Week” during Israel Apartheid Week. They wore blue and white kefiyahs symbolizing the indigenous Jewish connection to Israel, designed “liberation-style” graphics and displayed a logo of King David’s Star and Shield.
At UCLA, they hosted a panel, "Indigenous People Unite," to provide a platform for Kurdish, Armenian and Jewish students to share their history, struggles and aspirations.
The group proposed its own resolutions to student governments at six universities, with four passing. One called for increasing Israel study abroad programs and three for adopting the U.S. State Department definition of anti-Semitism.
Determined to swiftly get its message out whenever an Israel-Palestinian issue arises, SSI members rehearse techniques for launching a quick advocacy response. According to co-founder Ilan Sinelnikov, “We need to make sure Israel’s message is the first one on campus…directing the narrative.” He summarized: “If you are constantly defending Israel and being reactive, at some point you won’t be able to make a difference anymore.”
Reservists on Duty, an NGO of Israeli reserve officers combating anti-Israel propaganda on U.S campuses, launched an event called "Palestinian Values Day.” Founder Amit Deri explains that, while it’s fine to talk about Israel’s intellectual and scientific achievements, it’s more important to talk about shared values, contrasting Palestinian behavior with Israel’s democratic institutions and protections for minorities. “Nobody is talking about what the Palestinians are doing to their own people, and the values of that society.” Deri thinks that no American student wants to associate with people who throw gays off rooftops, condone honor killings of women or use their people as human shields. But all they hear is the defamation of Israel.
Israel should be defined on campuses by its supporters, not its detractors. It’s about time Israel campus advocates recognize that they are in a consequential war. Embrace Sun Tzu’s recommendation. Get up from the defensive crouch, get out from behind the lectern, think outside the box and seize the offense on the battlefield of ideas.
Ziva Dahl is a fellow with the Haym Salomon Center. She has a Master of Arts degree in public law and government from Columbia University and an A.B. in political science from Vassar College.