Contributed by CAMERA intern Aaron Hunt
Three years ago, two college freshmen, Maor Shapira, an Israeli Jew and former lone soldier in the IDF, and Chloé Simone Valdary, a Christian African-American who grew up in New Orleans, met at a pro-Israel lecture at Tulane University. They talked after the lecture and soon bonded over their shared Zionism and strong interest in Israel advocacy. Thus began their adventure in Israel advocacy, culminating this year in the hugely successful Declare Your Freedom 3.0, a Zionist concert and extravaganza held at Tulane University together with The University of New Orleans. CAMERA was a major sponsor of the event, organized by EMET for Israel groups at both campuses. Hundreds of students attended, many of whom were not Jewish.
As sophomores, Valdary, a student at The University of New Orleans, and Shapira, who attended Tulane, organized a pro-Israel rally at The University of New Orleans. Though the event, the inaugural Declare Your Freedom (DYF), met with limited success, Valdary and Shapira were undeterred. For the second iteration of DYF, the unlikely pair decided that in order to reach college students, they had to create an event that not only defended Israel but also promoted it—the state and the Zionist ideal—in a fun, emotionally engaging way. DYF thus became a unique celebration of Zionism and the Jewish State, featuring music, poetry, and more.
By visibly displaying pride in Zionism and the State of Israel, Valdary and Shapira hope to show college students Israel in a positive light. Shapira says that DYF engages in the “promotion of Zionism… [rather than] the promotion of a ‘pro-Israel’ sentiment.” He explains, “The concept of being ‘pro-Israel’ allows people to be passive supporters and at the same time also legitimizes an ‘anti-Israel’ sentiment. Through DYF we ‘legitimize the de-legitimized’ by displaying public pride in Zionism, and inviting others to share and celebrate that cause with us.” Shapira hopes that the effect of DYF will be that “the slander of Zionism, and, in essence, Israel, will not be accepted as easily by people who would be otherwise be uneducated on the topic.”
Rather than lecturing their fellow students on Israel and making detailed evidence-based arguments as to why Israel deserves to be celebrated rather than denigrated, Valdary and Shapira seek to tell an emotional, compelling story of Israel. Says Valdary, “Instead of the typical advocating that often takes the form of lecturing and pamphlet-giving, we believe that Israel is fundamentally a story which must be told to all ages and which should be celebrated.”
In recent years, pro-Israel groups have been losing in the fight against SJP and other extreme anti-Israel (and often anti-Semitic) groups on college campuses across America. However misguided and biased they are, anti-Israel ideologues have managed to spread their message with “Israel Apartheid Week” and other events that demonize Israel. Groups opposed to Israel’s existence have convinced a large portion of the student body in many colleges of the morality of their cause by telling a simple and compelling (but wholly inaccurate) story of Israeli oppression, brutality, and aggression.
DYF, says Shapira, “does something that the Jewish pro-Israel community has failed to do for the past couple of decades—set a narrative.” DYF advocates for Israel by simply ignoring Israel’s opponents and instead legitimizing the Jewish State by humanizing Israelis—a seemingly straightforward task that has proven shockingly difficult. He adds, “We are not reactionary, we are not apologetic, and we are not defending ourselves. We set the tone. And by doing so, [we] inspire others to do the same.”
Hopefully, DYF will continue to spread to more American college campuses in the coming years and extend the reach of its powerful message of love of Israel. Though Valdary and Shapira are now both seniors at their respective colleges, they hope to continue their work on Declare Your Freedom and set it up for success for years to come. In this time of crisis for Israel advocates on campuses across the country, an era of BDS and SJP, of Israel Apartheid Week and harassment of Jewish students, reasoned arguments and impassioned pleas are no longer enough to make college safe for Zionism. DYF stands out as a potentially transformative movement that could change the way Israel advocacy is conducted at colleges—and as a result, improve Israel’s reputation among college students.
What started as the brainchild of an unlikely pairing of Zionists is fast becoming the new face of college Israel advocacy.