Defending Israel

Who, what, where, and how

By: Ilan Preskovsky

“When dealing with antisemites, engaging with any more than a couple of choice words is a complete waste of time.”

Since the horrific massacre of October 7th and the explosion of antisemitism of October 8th, it’s hard to imagine any Jew with even the slightest connection to their Jewish identity not having spent the past four months feeling, quite literally, under attack. As both our homeland and we as Jews have come under fire from far-left academia, far-right white supremacists, Islamists, relatively moderate Muslims, South Africa’s own embarrassment of a ruling party, and seemingly everyone in between, the urge to fight back becomes overpowering. It’s either that or falling into despair.

Obviously, in terms of physically fighting back, however tempting it might be to go and bash in some antisemitic skulls, such things are generally frowned upon in polite society, so we leave that to our heroic brothers and sisters in the IDF. We in chutz l’aretz need to fight for Jews and fight for Israel in different ways. This can be through providing material support to Israel in the forms of donations or even going over there to volunteer; by learning, davening, and doing mitzvot for the sake of Israel and the IDF; or by organising protests and hanging up posters of the hostages in public spaces. For those of us who are able, at whatever level, to put pen to paper and/or have the “gift of the gab”, though, we also have the ability to use our words to directly advocate for Israel and the Jewish people. Obviously, there are those who also have the advantage of some level of fame to really spread the truth, both here and internationally.

But even for those of us without millions of followers on Instagram or Twitter (still not calling it X), there are still plenty of opportunities for us to try and make some difference by contributing to Israel’s sometime shaky hasbara on both social and “legacy” media. And, of course, just through meeting people in your daily life or conversing with non-Jewish friends and colleagues. I, personally, have had some experience in this area as I have responded to letters in various national newspapers and even had an editorial in the Star. Nowhere near as much experience as many, to be sure, and I say this neither to pat myself on my back nor to present myself as any sort of expert, but because I do have at least some small perspective on using words to stand up for my people and spiritual homeland. Enough perspective, at least, to understand how very, very complicated it all is.

For further perspectives, I also chatted with Benji Shulman from the South African Zionist Federation and Charisse Zeifert from the South African Jewish Board of Deputies – both of whom head up media teams for this very purpose; both of whom I’ve worked with in the past on this very matter.

Why It’s So Complicated

There are many reasons why defending Israel and Jews can be quite a challenge, but a large part of it has to do with just how varied the nature of these attacks are. There are, of course, those attacks that are clearly and unambiguously antisemitic. These are easy to identify, but not always too easy to know how to respond to. Certainly, when dealing with antisemites in person or even in the comments of a social media post, engaging with any more than a couple of choice words is a complete waste of time. In a more public space, though, especially when that person is a respected figure and especially when antisemitic conspiracy theories are invoked, it’s absolutely a fine idea to engage. Not to change the antisemite’s mind, of course, but as Shulman stresses, even if you can’t change the minds of these people, you might hopefully be able to change the minds of some of their well-meaning but ill-informed followers. And, speaking of which, criticisms and attacks coming from the latter group of “useful idiots” (to put it uncharitably and not always fairly) require an especially careful touch.

The most obvious and prevalent example of this group is the “ceasefire now” people. No doubt, a number of these are just closeted antisemites, but I would wager that the vast majority of those calling for “ceasefire now” do so with the best of intentions, just with a deeply flawed understanding on what a ceasefire actually means. After all, surely calling for the cessation of war is the right and humane thing to do? That it’s not in this case, obviously requires a careful and considered explanation of what a ceasefire actually means and why such a thing impossible with an organisation like Hamas and why it will provide no lasting peace for either Israelis or Palestinians. And, as an aside, though many in the “ceasefire now” camp deserve harsh criticism for ignoring the hostages, it’s certainly not true that all do. I’ve personally heard and read quite a significant number of this group calling explicitly for the immediate release of hostages as a precondition for a lasting ceasefire. This is actually extremely important. I’ll explain further in the next section, but it’s crucial to understand both the nature of the person you’re debating and what their actual arguments are. This is especially true when dealing with the trickiest of the “anti-Israel” contingent: the “my problem is with Israel, not with Jews” people. I would say that just as the vast majority of the previous group are well-intentioned and anything but antisemitic, the vast majority of this lot are motivated by malicious intentions and/or pure hatred for Jews.

But first, obviously, a distinction must be made between those who are merely criticising Israel and those who hate Israel. For this we can turn to Natan Sharansky and what he deems the “three Ds” of anti-Zionist antisemitism (or what Jake Wallis Simons calls “Israelophobia”): delegitimisation, demonisation, and double standards. And, in the wake of October 7th, we can also add denial to that list. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with calling out, even in harsh terms, particular policies of the Israeli government (is there a Jew alive who hasn’t done this, let alone an Israeli?) but if someone is calling into question Israel’s right to exist, holds it to impossible standards that they would not hold other countries to, denies the atrocities of October 7th, or simply vilifies Israel and Jews, such a person is either a rabid antisemite or someone with unconscious antisemitic biases. And, of course, if someone blames an individual Jew, especially in the diaspora, for the actions of the Israeli government, there’s really no need at all to question their beliefs: they may as well be walking around with “I hate Jews” tattooed to their forehead.

These are all generalities, though, and each case should be approached accordingly. Take the ANC and its vendetta against Israel. While I have zero doubt certain ministers are card-carrying Jew-haters, the primary driving force behind the party’s deplorable actions is clearly mostly political and (presumably?) financial, rather than being based on actual animosity towards Jews.

Like I say, it’s all rather complicated.

How to Respond

For these reasons and more, even if Israel is easy to defend, it can be tricky to actually do so with any efficacy. Based on my experiences, then, as well as on the more expert viewpoints of Zeifert and Shulman, and from what I’ve observed of some of the most high-profile defenders of Israel on social media, here are a few key points to keep in mind, whether when responding to a letter in a paper or chatting with someone on the street about Israel.

Point 1: Know your stuff. Obviously, if you want to defend Israel, you have to know what you’re talking about. It’s very often the case that Israelophobes attack Israel not just with conviction, but with confidence in what they’re saying, so you absolutely need the facts at your fingertips if you are to refute even some of their wilder claims. As Shulman notes, though, you certainly do not want to be spreading false information and “fake news”, because even employing such things unintentionally can undermine everything else you have to say. He therefore points those who want to defend Israel towards reputable news sites like the Times of Israel or Jerusalem Post or to visit the Zionist Fed website ( where you can find a carefully curated selection of the latest updates of what’s happening in Israel and the Jewish world.

Point 2: Know your audience. Different attacks on Israel require very different responses. So, while somewhat harsh, acerbic, even sarcastic responses are appropriate for those who are clear antisemites, those who are well-meaning but under-informed peaceniks should be – and deserve to be – answered with respect, sympathy, and plain logic. Needless to say, never, ever, ever rejoice in the death of Palestinian civilians, glorify war, or minimise the suffering of innocents. This should be morally obvious, but strategically too, coming across as bloodthirsty or racist does Israel and Jews no favours. Desecrating G-d’s name is not how you defend Israel.

Point 3: Self-criticism has its place. There’s no two ways about it, there are those in the Israeli public sphere that seem intent on making defending Israel as difficult as possible. It’s very hard, for example, to try and argue that Israel has no intention of ethnically cleansing the land of Palestinians when religious-Zionist extremists in Netanyahu’s far-right coalition talk proudly of deporting five million Palestinians after the war. Whether you agree with such sentiments or not – I, to say the least, don’t – they are extremely damaging to Israel’s PR war and should absolutely be called out.

Point 4: Be proactive. Zeifert acknowledges that the sheer volume of antisemitism and Israelophobia “can be overwhelming, but we should still try, as a well-placed letter by us can counteract three hundred letters against us. Thank G-d we also have many non-Jews who are just as fierce in their defences of Israel, but we need as many voices as possible to be out there.” Shulman concurs, noting that even those who feel intimidated can do their part simply by sharing pro-Israel posts or writing simple, concise messages in support of Israel. Both also stress that though social media is understandably most of our focus, we shouldn’t neglect “old” or “legacy” media either, be it radio, television, or, most simply, newspapers.

Point 5: Know what to emphasise. Brevity is often expected, even required, in your responses (ironic coming from me, I know) so it can be difficult to know which of the lies, smears, misinformation, and personal attacks to respond to in any given anti-Israel post or letter. Respond to each letter directly, of course, but you usually should at least mention the October 7th massacre, the hostages, who started this war, Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, the radical Islamist nature of Hamas, and the IDF’s commitment to saving civilians.

Not that any of this can be boiled down to just five points, but hopefully this will give you at least some idea of how to advocate for Israel, especially if you’ve wanted to but haven’t quite figured out how. As Benji Shulman and Charisse Zeifert would no doubt agree, every bit helps.

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