Chloe Valdary is a pro-Israel activist, speaker and educator whose work has been published in The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. Valdary is currently the Director of Partnerships & Outreach at Jerusalem U, a nonprofit that produces educational films about Israel. Kenyon Students for Israel hosted her in a talk called “Zionism, Civil Rights, and Intersectionality” on Nov. 7 in Peirce Lounge.
How have your views changed since you first became a pro-Israel advocate six years ago?
I started out much more political. I used more politicized language. My question was, “How do we get people to fight against anti-Semitism? How do we try to fight against the BDS [Boycott Divest Sanction Isreael] movement?” I wanted to answer both of these questions but they are not the essence of the point. Those questions have become, “How do we create empathy and compassion for Israelis, who are hyper-critiqued and over-criticized?” These became the much more pure question of, in general, “How do we foster compassion and empathy? How do we empower, as opposed to tear down? How do we uplift as opposed to denigrate?” [This applies] whether you’re talking about Israeli or Palestinian society. And, as a result, I became more attractive as a speaker to multiple audiences because I think human beings in general actually want to do that. I think human beings want to be compassionate.
During your year as a Tikvah fellow for The Wall Street Journal, you conducted a study about the trends of sentiment about Israel on college campuses. What did you find? What do you think are the important takeaways from your research?
I found that there’s a disconnect between what the heads of the pro-Israel organizations think about millennials and what millennials actually think about Israel. The pro-Israel community believes millennials care about Israel but the reality is, millennials don’t care about Israel. If I’m dealing with a neutral population, so to speak, then my task becomes, “How can I add value to their lives by telling them about Israel? How can I not waste their time when I’m telling them about Israel?” That goes back to the whole idea of relating Israel to what it means to be a human being, relating Israel to the struggles, yearnings and aspirations and hopes of human beings in general. I believe in saying, “See what Israelis can do, you can do that too.” It’s much more compelling than, “I am oppressed and you are oppressed, so therefore let us join forces in our oppression to fight the oppressors.” Millennials tend to be very optimistic and also indifferent. We want to achieve positive change in the world – positive change, not negative change.
What is your definition of intersectionality? Would Zionism fit into this definition? Can intersectionality encompass pro-Palestine and pro-Israel stances?
I think I can encompass both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian stances. I don’t know if intersectionality can. Ironically, intersectionality claims to be all-encompassing when it comes to talking about how oppression is connected, but it doesn’t talk about oppression in South Sudan, and it doesn’t talk about oppression between the Chinese and the Tibetans, and it doesn’t talk about oppression on the Malay population of Indonesia. It talks about very specific types of oppression that reaffirm bias against certain groups of people. Those certain groups of people tend to be in the West or associated in some way with the West. In addition to that, no, because intersectionality — the pitfall of it is that it does not, ironically, foster empathy for the other. It otherizes. It says that, because we have two different skin colors, we have two different experiences and therefore we can never understand what it’s like so we can never connect. It bars connection and bars empathy from being able to occur. If you want to encompass a pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian narrative, you have to have empathy for both peoples. It is a barrier to that.
Last semester, Aja Monet, a poet and Black Lives Matter activist, came to Kenyon. She spoke about her experience in Palestine as an African-American woman. She sees potential for allyship between the Palestinian and African-American communities. What is your response to her stance? Where do your interpretations of African-American history diverge?
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, in no way shape or form, comparable to, or has anything to do with, the question of police reform in America. So there is a conflation going on. We need things like the end to for-profit policing, we need community policing, we need money to be allocated for rehabilitation for both nonviolent and, to a certain extent, violent drug offenders. Police reform is just one of many issues that affects us, to say nothing of education reform. I would put more emphasis on education than police reform, because education opens up a lot of doors. That has nothing to do with the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Nothing. It’s like saying — let’s say there’s a conflict between the Chinese and the Tibetans. Let’s say that the Tibetans used plastic bullets on the Chinese when they were fighting against them. It would be ridiculous for me to say, “Oh, also the police officers in America sometimes use rubber bullets.” These have nothing to do with each other. It’s just the same material, but the causes and the contexts are completely different. There’s this danger in which events that have nothing to do with each other are conflated. That’s what’s going on when it comes to the Black Lives Matter and Students for Justice in Palestine nexus. It’s just a matter of intellectual laziness. A police officer arresting someone in Chicago and an Israeli soldier arresting someone in the West Bank … the only common thing is the arrest. The arrest doesn’t tell you anything about either of the situations, which have different contexts and different histories.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.