(February 15, 2019 / JNS) Tremayne Smith, 31, is a rising pro-Israel activist who went viral in 2017 for addressing George Washington’s student association against a resolution calling on the school to separate its interests in Israel.
The BDS resolution failed by one vote.
During his time at and after graduating GW, Smith worked on Capitol Hill for Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) until last month, when he accepted an offer to be special assistant to the president and CEO of the JPMorgan Chase Institute.
JNS sat down with Smith following a recent talk at a Jewish National Fund event in Washington, D.C. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: Why do you think progressive groups on North American college campuses support BDS?
A: That’s a good question. I think just from a fundamental approach. Our generation is an activist generation. We don’t like something, we’re going to march, we’re going to speak up, we’re going to protest. A lot of folks from this generation see “the Palestinian plight,” and they see that as Israel beating up on the little kids. But they’re not focusing on the broader perspective that Israel has had since its existence had to defend itself, had to be stronger. Israel is not the bully. You have to see the person you picked on fighting back. So I think they’re looking at a context that’s not completely whole. If those groups took time to see the entire scope, and their ideology is to protest human-rights abuses, then they would probably have a change of heart.
For the ones who are able to be moved, the ones who are able to be persuaded, I speak to them.
Q: What is the best way for the pro-Israel community to appeal to those groups?
A: I’m from the South, and we say “It’s much better with honey than vinegar.” We can’t go in with an argumentative approach. We’ve got to have an honest conversation. I want to know their perspective. I want to know why they think what they think. G-d bless us with two ears and one mouth. I want to hear them. So we’ve got to go and listen and be confident to respectfully disagree and be articulate with why we disagree. When that happens, I think true change can happen.
Q: Is it just through dialogue? How do we appeal to those groups that may be beyond repair?
A: With any kind of movement, you’re going to have a far spectrum of folks on the fringes. We also say, “The squeaky wheel gets the oil.” The one that’s the loudest and most rambunctious, they’re going to get the most attention. I think dialogue is a good, first because it breaks down the barrier; you get some familiarity. You might decide, “We’ve got a lot more in common than we thought. Our differences aren’t so great.” But at the end of the day, too, there is just a difference of perspective, and one is just going to have to win out. Persistence beats resistance, so we’re going to have to be persistent in that. But I think the approach would have to be one that’s not bombastic. The tactic would be more of a conversation, more dialogue, to begin with.
Q: How do you think the pro-Israel community can appeal to the non-Jewish world?
A: I have a very unique approach to this because I kind of grew up with an undercurrent of Judeo-Christian familiarity. But I think that they should reach out to colleges, to student leadership organizations, student government associations, Black Student Unions, to offer a perspective. If you’re only used to hearing one thing, you’re probably going to go with that one thing. If you have an option, some choices, I think you’re more willing to have your perspective expanded. Reach out; start with student government organizations. That’s what frankly solidified it for me.
Q: Should student groups such as GW for Israel reach out to student governments? Or should outside groups go into the campus and the student government?
A: It has to be a concerted effort because the battles that we fight—for the lack of a better analogy—are not just on campus. It’s with outside forces, outside influences. So it has to be a two-tier effort, where we do have to have a concerted effort on campus with GW for Israel, but also with outside campus groups and peripheral organizations.
Q: Do you worry that the Democratic Party is shifting in an anti-Israel direction? You talked about reaching out to student government members, who may be our future leaders?
A: Frankly, I think it’s a generational thing. We’re just more apt to be movement-oriented and march-oriented. We’re looking for the next variolous carriage of justice to hang a hashtag on. Before it gets to that point—because it’s going to get there—let’s reach out to folks. Let’s offer another perspective. Let’s offer another way of thinking, another side, and let students decide from there. I don’t think as a party it’s getting dangerous, or is either more or less. I just think it’s how the millennial generation sees things, and we’ve got to reach out to them in that regard.
Q: When you were an undergraduate at East Carolina University, were you involved in pro-Israel activism?
A: I was. I was a delegate for AIPAC for two years. I was a member of Hillel, and we kept it kosher.
Q: What was it like being an AIPAC delegate? Do you mind going through briefly your pro-Israel advocacy history and the groups you’ve been part of besides AIPAC and JNF?
A: AIPAC, I went to their Policy Conference in the spring. It wasn’t an indoctrination or brainwashing. Neither was Caravan for Democracy. It was an offering of different ideas—an offering of a perspective and offering of different viewpoints that I was able to take and decide for myself based on my upbringing and my experiences. It aligned with what I thought. It aligned with my view of the world. I was able to get good at articulating certain points. Not at the expense of putting down other points, but by raising my own. If you have to beat someone down to bring yourself up, you’re not doing a good job. I didn’t have to beat down pro-Palestinian perspectives. I could simply state my perspective and, with a good and well-intentioned heart, listen to another perspective and say, “Oh, well, honestly I never thought of it that way. OK, well let’s keep this going.” And it’s turned into some meaningful friendships and, like at GW, turned into the resolution failing by one vote.
Let’s offer another way of thinking, another side, and let students decide from there.
Q: What would you say to those who say you won’t change someone’s mind?
A: If you go into any kind of issue with a defeatist mindset, you’re probably going to be defeated. I’m a realistic optimist. I think some people have just intrigued values. But for the ones who are able to be moved, the ones who are able to be persuaded, I speak to them. I’m a pretty active alum at East Carolina. I try to be active at GW as I can. I do speak to student organizations and offer another perspective to frankly have someone say, “I look like you! I probably was raised like you. Where do we differ on this issue? Where are we the same on this issue?” The act of sitting and listening paves so much more road, being able to offer a perspective makes so much more headway.
Q: Have you faced setbacks along the way such as losing friends?
A: Sure. I’ve lost friends in this journey. You can say it’s the maturation of life. But also, specifically with the BDS resolution at GW, I lost a very close friend—apparently, not as close of a friend as I thought.
So, yes, there are setbacks. The spring after that, the GW senate surreptitiously passed a BDS resolution, but the university—because the year prior, because of the fight and the concerted effort that we laid the groundwork for—immediately came out with a statement rejecting it. It was literally nullified right away. Much ado about nothing, and nothing was made of it. So, yeah, you’re going to have setbacks, but that can’t stop you from fighting. You got to fight.
Q: Anything you wish to add for our readers?
A: I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to speak on these issues. I’m very blessed to have had the life that I’ve lived, and I’m grateful for the confidence to be able to speak about it.
(Disclaimer: The author of this article is a GW alum and reported on the 2017 student government debate on the BDS resolution.)