By Charles R. Chakkalo, Hunter College
Opening Session: What is Relational Advocacy?
The David Project’s Executive Director, Phil Brodsky, commenced the Relationship Building Institute (RBI) by addressing a group of undergraduate students on what the main trends are on college campuses, regarding the Israel conversation. He also introduced The David Project’s core idea of Relational Advocacy. I particularly appreciated how (in a Socratic sort of fashion) Phil asked the audience what the elements of a relationship are. From that base he defined important areas of relationships, especially to us, as relational advocates for Israel.
The Israel conversation is an important one for almost anyone to have. In having the Israel conversation, Phil introduced two areas the audience should focus on. The main idea behind relationship building advocacy is mainly to bring the Israel conversation up in a social setting and context, as opposed to the hostile and “us versus them” alternative.
Phil first brought up the point that I, as a current undergraduate student, know too well. In November of 2014, a “million student march” was held on my campus. In this rally, Zionism was somehow blamed for increased CUNY tuition. At this rally anti-semitism was rampant and I was already organizing a counter-rally. Until Debra, from the Hunter College Hillel convinced me not to act on my impulsive counter-rally measure, I never thought there was an alternative. At The David Project I found the perfect alternative.
Like I saw at this rally, Phil painted the picture of students seeing Palestinian flags on one side of the street and Israeli flags on the other, vehement student voices filling the streets, and freshly printed “propaganda” being distributed. Students (or really almost anyone for that matter) do not want or feel the need to engage with the demonstrations, especially in this context. Many students will associate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with what they see and stray away from engaging with it.
Phil talked about the dangers and misconception the “us versus them” mentality and narrative has. He also pointed out that many people are fooled into believing that when the politically heated conversation comes up, there is a right side and a wrong side. Obviously, the sides referred to are the Israeli and Palestinian “sides.” But Phil proceeded to point out that the Israel conversation does not have to be so. No “sides” have to be taken. The important thing is that Israel is talked about.
The solution and approach The David Project offers simply calls for building relationships with fellow undergrads, belonging to other student groups, and presiding over other influential organizations on campus. When a relationship is built, the Israel advocate should bring up the Israel conversation with the other student(s) in order to engage them with the truth and rich situation the conflict contains. Dissidents to this method might say that The David Project is advocating for students to build “fake” relationships, or non-genuine ones. But, the secret sauce of these relationships is to reach across the (in)visible aisle, have a discussion and most importantly, to sincerely learn about the other person. The David Project believes that everyone has a story, all of which others can learn from.
Identity and Values
After Phil’s opening session we broke out into classrooms with our Campus Coordinators. The coordinators ran through an exercise that attempted to get the Israel advocates to determine their values and identity. The reason for this exercise being that before people can have a conversation with others about their values and identity, people must know what their own values and identity are. Another reason for finding our identity and values is for finding common ground between ourselves and potential friends, as similarities between ourselves lays the foundation for true and meaningful relationships.
A large amount of people had a very difficult time mapping out their identity and values. This inevitably made many feel uncomfortable, but aware. I had felt like I knew myself, my identity, and what I stood for very well. But it was not so.
When I was asked to write down and prioritize my values, I knew I had values, that seemed apparent, but I had never thought deeply about prioritizing them and what they would mean in certain situations. After a moment of confusion, I put down a “rough draft” of what my values might be. I kept this with me throughout the conference. I repeatedly asked myself questions like, “What are my values based on? What if my values conflict with each other? Which value takes the backseat?”
Bringing Israel Back to Campus
The David Project runs a free trip to Israel called “Israel Uncovered.” What this trip attempts to do is show college undergraduates the many dimensions of Israel in its actuality. Rather than learn about Israel via text, video and testimonials, Israel Uncovered brings students face-to-face with the rich and diverse Israeli culture and society.
A student panel discussed their experience on the Israel Uncovered trip and how they brought their experience back to campus and incorporated their experience into their advocacy for Israel.
Given all we had learned over the past four days, the conference concluded with breakout sessions with our campus coordinators where students discussed what their campus-specific plans are for this upcoming academic year/semester.
Personally, I came into the conference as an ambitious fierce and aggressive advocate in favor of Israel’s fair representation, on campuses especially. I left the conference completely enlightened. Another option, as opposed to heated and intense altercations all too common when discussing Israel-Palestine, did not seem existent. I was exposed to a totally new form of advocacy that I never even came close to thinking of. The idea of building a relationship with your student contemporaries then advocating Israel’s fair case seemed like a “eureka-like idea.” Nobody feels intimidated, regretful, or victimized.
I am sure I am not the only one who would feel like this after learning about this method of advocacy. Using Relational Advocacy, maybe we can change the chants of the million student march from “Zionists out of CUNY” to “Peace in the middle east.”