OpinionSchools & Higher Education

Building a movement for Jews and Israel in a war of feelings

We must reframe our messaging to emphasize reason and sanity, presenting ourselves as the good guys—the grown-ups in the room.

University campus. Credit: Islandworks/Pixabay.
University campus. Credit: Islandworks/Pixabay.
Robin Lemberg. Credit: Courtesy.
Robin Lemberg
Robin Lemberg is co-founder of The Heart Monitors, a strategy and insight consultancy focused on the idea that feelings are the new currency that drives sharing, identification and adhesion to social messages.
Jon Bond. Credit: Courtesy.
Jon Bond
Jon Bond is co-founder of The Heart Monitors, a strategy and insight consultancy focused on the idea that feelings are the new currency that drives sharing, identification and adhesion to social messages.

Since Oct. 7, we have become acutely aware that winning a battle of narratives is less about the facts and more about the emotions they evoke, and that over eight months, Israel is losing that battle. Since November, we have shown through our work that this is much more than “propaganda” and a PR problem. The “free Palestine” movement was a concerted effort built patiently and brilliantly over 20 years, seeded on our college campuses as a movement.

Today, the world has seen it swell to such a point that we ask: What now? Clearly, we need a profound shift in our approach, moving away from traditional marketing strategies and reactive, disparate messaging and towards our own compelling, grassroots movement built on a higher societal purpose that unites Jews and non-Jews alike.

The slogan “Free Palestine” has become a rallying cry that inspires action and engagement. As many as 50% of Gen Z reported that #FreePalestine inspired them to act and engage in the cause. This movement has tapped into the emotional and motivational values of the younger generation, resonating deeply with their sense of justice and activism, as well as the idea of “oppressor” and “oppressed.” In mid-April, when the campus encampments first took root, we found that for 60% of Gen Z, the “Free Palestine” movement was as important as the civil-rights movement or Black Lives Matter.

A well-oiled machine vs. our fragmented mess 

In contrast, our efforts have been fragmented and often lack the emotional appeal necessary to galvanize widespread support. Our reliance on short-term, paid media campaigns does not foster the deep, lasting connections that a grassroots movement can achieve. Plus, we are 14 million people (about twice the population of the state of Arizona) worldwide) vs. 1BB—one of their shares can garner 2MM likes, and the most we have seen for ours is perhaps 80,000 in our Gen Z-focused Instagram analyses.

We must pivot towards a collective approach and strategy that emphasizes long-term, organic growth. This means working together, not at odds with each other to build our own countermovement.

What does this entail?

• Embracing a bottom-up rather than a top-down approach.

• Fostering grassroots efforts instead of relying on PR-driven tactics.

• Leveraging word-of-mouth over mass marketing.

• Engaging influencers more than targeting broad audiences.

• Building deep commitments rather than just top-of-mind awareness.

Our challenge is compounded by the fact that the other side has mastered movement-building by the book. Their grassroots organization and consistent go-to-market activations are remarkably effective. We now realize that the encampments did not come out of nowhere. Neither did one initiative following the planned Oct. 7 terrorist attacks, we would argue. This was the launch date for the other side.

Israel is polarizing. While 72% of Jewish respondents say Israel makes them proud to be Jewish, nearly two-thirds find it hard to support the Israeli government’s actions (The Times of Israel, March 2024). This internal conflict is mirrored in broader American society, where Gen Z is particularly critical of Israel’s actions.

The pro-Palestinian narrative is simple and emotionally charged. The go-to-market continued activations, funded and flawless in execution. In contrast, our story is complex and often requires a classroom environment to explain. Our fact-obsessed approach fails to resonate emotionally, leaving us fragmented and unconvincing. Yes, we need to address the educational imperative and coursework throughout the U.S. educational system, but that’s not the only remedy.

Attack their Achilles’ heel

To turn the tide, we must expose extremism on campuses that otherwise masquerades as a fight for peace and freedom. Highlighting instances where ceasefire protesters act like terrorists can reveal the underlying hate and venom that contradicts their message of peace. The public is getting frustrated. Still, the effectiveness of any messaging strategy is null if we cannot capture and hold people’s attention. We must reframe our messaging to emphasize reason and sanity, presenting ourselves as the good guys—the grown-ups in the room.

What if we focused on starting a movement rooted based on the insight that the root of democracy is the freedom to disagree, but we need to be civil to make progress? In 2010, an Allegany college study found that 95% of Americans believe that civility in politics is important for a healthy democracy and 87% suggest that people can disagree about politics respectfully; yet today, nearly 60% of American workers find our society uncivil, according to 2022 Civility Index.

Civil discourse and critical dialogue, which are intrinsic to Jewish culture, can appeal to a broader audience. The other side co-opted the civil-rights movement, but peaceful protests are not at the root of their cause. Anger is. Think Malcolm X vs. Martin Luther King. Judaism’s history of debate and discussion has sustained us for 3,500 years. By framing our movement as one based on reason and dialogue, we can stand out as rational and principled in a landscape often dominated by emotional rhetoric. Bizarrely, being reasonable and grounded is its own powerful feeling.

Standing for reason reframes the messaging. For example:

• Survival and Israel’s reactions seem reasonable if people have been trying to wipe you out for 3,000 years. We repeat “Never again is now” as our battle cry. We found in our research that it is in an echo chamber, with 25% of the American public understanding that it means “never another holocaust.” But 25% also find it means “no more Palestinian genocide” and 25% no more war in the Middle East. It’s more than this.

• It’s reasonable for a two-state solution to have a government head other than Hamas.

• Jews, as a minority group, should have reasonable protections on campuses and elsewhere.

• Universities should accept equal donation amounts from the Middle East and the West.

These points can resonate with those who value fairness and rational discourse.

Winning the hearts and minds in this emotional war requires us to adapt and evolve. We need to move away from fragmented, fact-heavy narratives and embrace a strategy that builds grassroots, emotionally resonant movement. We tested the ideas and messages of many, and are working with some of the foundations, groups and nonprofits that have begun to spring up and take action. Let’s identify who is doing what well and work together, not apart. Let’s pool our resources with Gen Z-specific actions before the beginning of the next academic year. By doing so, we can begin to shift the narrative and inspire a new generation to support Israel and be proud to be Jewish.

The battle is not just about information; it’s about inspiration. Let’s come together to build a movement that speaks to hearts as well as minds, building a future where reason, fairness, and a deep, lasting commitment prevail.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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