December 5, 2023

I am a Jewish activist.  But it was not always thus. How did I become one and how can you?  Here is my story.

In June of 2021 (after a war between Israel and Hamas), I was happily hiking with my family in the mountains of Colorado. At some point, I made the mistake of looking at my phone. The Yale College Council (undergraduate student government) had just released a vile statement declaring Israel to be an “Apartheid State” and other dreck. My day of simple exercise turned into a biathlon. Equal parts hiking and grinding my teeth. (READ MORE from Evan Morris: Treatment for the Cancel Culture Virus? A Fantastic Voyage)

Later, my phone buzzed again and I received a call(ing).  Actually, it was an email from Miriam, the director of an organization that supports Jewish faculty at American universities to fight antisemitism.  Miriam, who is possessed of almost biblical powers of persuasion, demanded, “will no one at Yale refute the YCC?”  How did she find me?  She had my address because technically I was already a member of her organization. But to that point, I was totally inactive. Like someone who sends money to the firefighter’s fund and gets a membership card. It doesn’t make you a fireman.

People will be attracted to you when you “put yourself out there.” They are looking for a tiny bit of help to overcome their own inertia.

When I descended from the mountain, I couldn’t sleep. I was consumed by the ahistorical, antisemitic YCC statement. So, I composed a letter that, with help, became the op-ed, “Yale Prof to  College Council: Attack on Israel is not Supported by Fact, Nor Becoming of Yale Students.” 

The reaction to the op-ed was immediate, surprising, but energizing.

“Thank you for writing it.” (I was surprised anyone would email me.)

“That was brave.” (Nothing particularly ‘brave’ about it.)

“Speak to our group in Israel” (Appearance by Zoom, alas, no free trip.) 

“Speak on a panel about antisemitism.”  (A fellow panelist became a friend  and mentor.)

“Join our board.”  (Some heavy hitters on the board. I was honored.)

“Write blurb for my new book” (Just plain fun.)

But the question for yet-to-be-activists is: how did I know what to write in my op-ed?  

First, I drew on my experiences. “In Israel, Jews and Arabs sit together in the waiting room of Hadassah Hospital waiting to receive the same care. I have worked there.” This was my opener.  But it is worth noting that it was not the opening line until a good friend and natural editor plucked it from within my text and elevated it. (READ MORE: ‘Exhilarated’ by Terrorism: How to Make Sense of the Far Left’s Support of Hamas)

Second, I drew on my lifelong reading of nonfiction books and articles. My piece concluded with recommendations for seven books that everyone should read to educate themselves about Israel and Jewish history. 

There were many facts and arguments that I did not know when I wrote that op-ed. But knowing everything is not the threshold for acting. Knowing something that can contribute to the discussion is.

My activism accelerated after that first op-ed.

Some of it was intentional, some not. Students and colleagues asked me to meet or speak. I was invited to apply for a grant. Then, my inviters gave me the grant (quelle surprise!) With it, I organized a group of faculty with similar concerns about antisemitism and education. Our members are Jews and non-Jews (one need not be a Jew to be a “Jewish activist.”)  We have defended Israeli postdocs, hosted an acclaimed Jewish author, and most recently, spoken out to demand greater moral clarity from our leaders on the pogrom that was visited on our brethren in Israel.

Lesson 1.  People will be attracted to you when you “put yourself out there.” They are looking for a tiny bit of help to overcome their own inertia. You can be their activation energy. They will do their own great things and remain your loyal allies.

Lesson 2. No one is ever fully prepared, but the best way to prepare for the next opportunity is to do your best and not avoid the current one. Once you engage on a topic, you will become connected to more people.  You can learn something from each one of them. (READ MORE: Kamala Harris Tackles … Islamophobia)

What to do in the interim?  Read, read, and read more. Write, write, and write more.  Reading may come easily to most of us, but writing doesn’t. I like to write letters and op-eds. (My daughters suspect there’s a giant dumpster outside the NYT with my name on it.)  I have a morning routine. I try to write a letter in the time it takes to drink one cup of coffee. Op-eds, maybe two.  Know how to get to Carnegie Hall? “Practice, Practice, Practice.” Speak, discuss, and yes, argue. Try out your arguments on friends and partners. If they don’t go running for the exits, they will help you refine your delivery. When they tire, remind them, “But honey, I’m just practicing my arguments. And you’re really helping me.”

None of us can know when we will “get the call.” All we can do is prepare so that when we do, we will come down off the mountain and have something substantive to offer.

Evan D. Morris, Ph.D., is a Professor of Radiology and Biomedical Imaging at Yale University. He is known for his work using PET imaging to study the brain in addiction. In 2022, in response to growing antisemitism on campus, he founded ‘Yale Forum for Jewish Faculty and Friends.’