By Michael Jacobs
Neil Lazarus is considered one of the world’s leading Israel advocates. But even though his awesomeseminars.com website promotes the “Mr. Israel Advocacy” label placed on him by The Times of Israel, and even though his new book is “The 5 Rules of Effective Israel Advocacy,” he said, “I don’t like the term Israel advocacy.”
That’s because his purpose when he speaks to 30,000 people a year is not to convince them that Israel is always right, but to convey that Israel is a real country with real leaders facing difficult decisions amid the complexity of the Middle East.
“If you come out with more questions, I think I’ve done my job,” Lazarus said in a phone interview.
Lazarus, who has spoken in Atlanta before, made three appearances here in two days: Feb. 22 at the Standard Club and Feb. 23 at the Marcus Jewish Community Center and the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta.
His events target anyone who is looking for insight about Israel and wants to know how to answer critics of the country, Lazarus said. He led discussions about the current situation in Israel and the Middle East, including the March elections in Israel, and addressed the rules of Israel advocacy from his book.
Lazarus said he tries to help people learn how to talk about Israel, “a nice country in a hard position.”
The difficulties include continual threats from Hezbollah to the north and Hamas in Gaza, the efforts of Iran to arm Palestinians in the West Bank, and the rampage of the Islamic State, “one of the most fanatical organizations we’ve seen.”
His efforts to talk about Israel and answer questions about it go back to his days as a political science student in Wales in the mid-1980s, even before he had visited Israel, let alone made aliyah.
Now, whether he is speaking in the United States, South Africa, the United Kingdom or elsewhere, his bottom line is to deepen his audience’s understanding of Israel and its legitimacy as a nation.
That legitimacy is under attack with the spread of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic words and actions, such as the painting of swastikas on the AEPi house at Emory last fall. Lazarus said, “Alarm bells need to be rung.”
Jewish college students are facing the boycott, divest, sanction movement, which Lazarus called “an insidious organization” trying to delegitimize Israel under the guise of criticism.
BDS is an international movement, but Lazarus said the Federation framework and other organizations in the United States are helping to show that BDS is not an expression of liberal values but of hatred.
He said he is inspired during his travels to speak to Jewish, Christian and Muslim students who want to have a dialogue on campus and understand one another. “Relationships are based on a bed of understanding.”
To engage in that dialogue and to be prepared for the verbal attacks on Israel, Jewish students need to visit Israel before they go to college or within their first year on campus, Lazarus said, which is why Birthright Israel and trips through high school youth groups are so valuable.
“Part of the program of talking about Israel on campus is requiring young Jewish students to try to find their own identity,” Lazarus said. “A trip to Israel provides a unique understanding of the country.”