Changing minds about Israel, one person at a time

Space needle

© 2014 Meryl Alcabes Photography

 By Randy Kessler, Special to the Jewish Sound

As children, we were taught to not talk to strangers. But for those of us who care about educating our fellow citizens about Israel, talking with strangers is exactly what’s needed.

I was recently invited by a friend to go see Alison Weir, founder of an anti-Israel site organization called If Americans Knew, speak at a local church. I was wearing my kippah, so most people assumed (correctly) that I was a Zionist. I listened to Alison give a 90-minute presentation on the many alleged evils of Zionism, trying to make the case that American support for Israel is dangerous and must be stopped. She ended with a plea to share this (mis)information with as many people as possible, as well as with our Congressional representatives. The audience enthusiastically supported her call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions of Israel — except for one person, a woman I will call Rachel.

As I stepped out, Rachel followed me, introduced herself as a Christian from Snohomish County, and said she wanted to hear my side of the story. We talked for a few minutes, then traded cell phone numbers, and started having conversations via text message.

She asked if there were similar events put on by the Jewish community. While there is a wealth of information online, there really aren’t educational events open to the public that explain what Zionism is, so I offered to meet her for coffee and discuss her questions.

Before we had a chance to do so, I got the news: A broad coalition of Jewish organizations was putting on a community rally in solidarity with Israel. I invited Rachel to come to Seattle Center and hear from the Jewish community firsthand. To my delight, she drove down and listened as a Congressman, community leaders, and an Israeli consular official told the crowd how much Israel wants peace with its neighbors, how much Israel regrets the loss of innocent life, and how difficult it is to fight an enemy like Hamas, which is committed to Israel’s destruction.

The event had a profound impact on Rachel. She said the event helped expose the narrow-mindedness of her friend, and she expressed an interest in learning more about Judaism and the history of Zionism. She also saw how the pro-Israel community was well-behaved, that our messages were positive, and that we mourned the loss of innocent Palestinian lives as well as Israeli lives.

While my conversation with Rachel is only a few weeks in the making, I was able to help show the true face of the pro-Israel community to someone who had been exposed to a horribly inaccurate portrayal of Zionism.

More importantly, it got me thinking about what our community could do to make the case even more broadly. While rallies are wonderful, they are generally a way of strengthening our own community. How do we get the message out to people who have been led to believe that Zionism is a destructive ideology? How do we present the facts to people who hear messages from both sides and are confused?

This question is particularly pressing now, as anti-Israel organizations are succeeding in making many Jews question Zionism, and turning others into outright enemies of Israel. The worst part is that many of them are using lies and propaganda to make their case.

At a time when anti-Semitism is rearing its ugly head all over the world, and Israel is under constant pressure to compromise the security of its citizens, we are all compelled to do what we can.

My experience shows that one person can make a difference. Just think what we could do if our community rallied around the idea of reinvigorating Zionist pride, and making the case to the Seattle-area community that Israel truly is a light unto the nations.