Linda Scherzer described herself as “a Hebrew school dropout.” Yet when she became a journalist and CNN posted her in Israel, something inside her transformed.
After five years, CNN officials wanted to give her a new posting, but as she explained on Oct. 20 to students, community members and staff members at Hillel Milwaukee, “I had become so connected to Israel that I decided I couldn’t leave.”
So, instead, she left CNN, joined Israel Television, learned Hebrew and became a reporter on the Arab side of the conflict.
Being in Israel and doing that work “became a life-changing experience for me,” Scherzer said. “It brought me back to my community” and “articulated for the first time for me my sense of identity as a Jew.”
It also made her aware of the need to defend Israel against both news media bias or inadequacy and the anti-Israel agitation taking place on college and university campuses.
Scherzer said that today only 20 percent of war is fought on the battlefield; the other 80 percent is fought “over the airwaves and in social media;” and that leaders of Hamas and other “Israel rejectionist” groups know they can’t defeat Israel on the battlefield, but can “in the court of public opinion.”
Scherzer said the intense anti-Israel activity on campuses in the United States began in the early years of the second intifada during which Arab suicide bombers targeted all Israeli public spaces.
When Israel would retaliate to the violence, “college campuses became places of toxic anti-Israel activity and sentiment.”
In response, she said, many Jewish students on American college campuses became “deeply conflicted” about Israel and many did not defend and advocate for Israel because they felt it was difficult.
Because of this, Scherzer teamed with the editor of a Jewish weekly newspaper in New York to create a program called Write On Israel. This trains New York high school students on how to learn and advocate for Israel and provides them with the contacts they will need before they arrive at their respective colleges and universities.
Today, Scherzer works as a public relations and media consultant. Her clients include the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, where she advises the Jewish community on how to combat negative media images from Israel.
Scherzer cautioned the UWM audience that “The enemy is not the Muslim students on campus.” Israel advocates should try to “reach out across the political divide” and “explore the issues that are divisive.”
“The best form of advocacy is relationship-building,” she said.
The alternative to this is the angry demonstrations and “Israel apartheid walls,” the last of which she described as “intellectual dishonesty.”
Scherzer acknowledged that it is “possible to be objectively critical of Israel and not be considered an anti-Semite.” She also said okay to oppose Israeli settlements in the administered territories and acknowledge that Israel does impose some inequalities on Arab Israelis; but it is imperative to be responsible on how one frames these, she said.
To talk about what is most important to the student would be the most effective and the best way to be an advocate, but it must come “from a place of knowledge and confidence” in order to influence positively.
“The majority of students here [in the Unites States] have no position on Israel” and that they have the “potential and the ability to influence” them if they have the desire to do so, she said.
“I am not going to tell you what to think about how Israel is waging war and waging peace,” she said. “That is a personal position that each one of you needs to take.”
But “I’m challenging everyone here to discover for themselves why Israel is important to them,” she said.
Scherzer also spoke on Oct. 21 at the Lion of Judah and Pomegranate Society event of Women’s Philanthropy of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, held at the Lynden Sculpture Garden on Oct. 21.
Zabrina K. Tamarkin, administrative coordinator of the Israel Center and Jewish Community Relations Council of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, contributed to this report.