In the United States, “The Cognitive Campaign to Co-opt Zionism” is in full force. This is a movement, sometimes intentional, sometimes unintentional, consisting of one simple goal: The complete separation of Judaism and Zionism, which is the belief in the right of the Jewish people to a state in the territory defined as the historic Land of Israel.
But what exactly is a cognitive campaign?
In the information era, war is often not waged in any physical space. Instead, the battlefield lies inside peoples’ hearts and minds — where influence is the weapon of choice. As Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser and David Siman-Tov of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) explain: “The purpose of the cognitive campaign is to cause target audiences to adopt the perception of reality held by the side wielding the effort, so that it can more easily advance the strategic and/or operational objectives that it sees as critical.”
Campaign activists accomplish this via a wide array of tools, ranging from traditional diplomacy, mass media, social media, grassroots efforts, and so forth. Cognitive campaigns have become such powerful weapons in both domestic and international affairs that governments have created entire agencies to operate exclusively in the field of public perception.
However, the cognitive campaign to co-opt Zionism is one that is seldom discussed, likely due to the sensitivity surrounding the subject within the Jewish community. Jewish identity has many different characteristics. Some emphasize the community aspect of Judaism, others the religious aspect, and others the Zionist aspect. And in a society that puts such an emphasis on personal identity, it is galling to see broad swaths of the public, Jews included, disparage Zionists because of their beliefs. Many American Jews simply do not see Zionism as a legitimate component of Jewish identity. Unfortunately, it is often Jews themselves who take prominent roles in the campaign against Zionism.
The cognitive campaign to separate and redefine Zionism from Judaism is longstanding. For decades, Zionism has been compared, in some quarters, to colonialism, imperialism, and white supremacy. In 1975, a shameful resolution was passed at the U.N. declaring that Zionism is racism (it was later reversed in 1991, but by then the damage was done). Today, this cognitive campaign is led by anti-Israel activists, such as Students for Justice in Palestine, Jewish Voices for Peace, and BDS supporters, who relentlessly promote misinformation that Israel is a non-democratic, oppressive, apartheid state.
In the digital age, almost everyone spends time on social media, where cognitive campaigns thrive, and where people live in echo chambers that oftentimes expose them to only one perspective on a given issue. When combining this one-sided social media exposure with the blatant lies constantly told about Israel in the media and academia, people fall victim to the “illusory truth effect,” which causes them to believe misinformation due to repeated exposure. If someone ignorant of the facts were to stumble upon all the terrible things said about Zionism and Israel, it’s no wonder he might distance himself.
This brings us to President Donald Trump’s recent Israel-related moves. Part of the controversy surrounding the president’s actions is that they amplified the already fraught tension inside the Jewish community about the connection between Judaism and Zionism.
Take, for example, the Trump administration’s declaration that Israel’s “settlements” in Judea and Samaria do not necessarily violate international law. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hit the nail on the head when he stated that the declaration “establishes the truth that we are not strangers in our land.”
Then there’s President Trump’s executive order (EO) combatting anti-Semitism on college campuses — an EO that many erroneously claimed would “redefine” Jews as a race or nationality. In fact, the EO merely enshrines that Jews will enjoy the same protections under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act as other racial, ethnic, or national groups. It also implicitly links Zionism with Judaism, by relying on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s Working Definition of Anti-Semitism, which stipulates that “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination” (i.e., Zionism) is inherently anti-Semitic.
Of course, one cannot forget President Trump’s statement regarding the American embassy move to Jerusalem, when he reminded the world that Jerusalem was “the capital the Jewish people established in ancient times” — a fact which he reinforced in his newly unveiled vision for a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
All these actions by President Trump not only reaffirm the connection between Jews and Zionism, but also subvert decades of the cognitive campaign’s attempt to separate the two.
Make no mistake — the cognitive campaign to co-opt Zionism is consequential for the Jewish people. Will large sectors of Jewish society continue to distance themselves from Zionism? Or will they re-embrace it?
The most effective way to combat this campaign is through what can be described as a “Counter-Cognitive Campaign.” Obviously, this campaign must spread some much-needed truth about Zionism as a legitimate national movement. Equally important, the campaign must clarify that although Judaism and Zionism need not always be conflated, they must not be disassociated from each other. Of course, not every Jew needs to consider Zionism a core part of his individual identity. We do, however, need to recognize that every Jew enjoys the right to identify as a proud Zionist — and nobody can demonize him or her for that.