If everything is predetermined, do we really have free choice in our lives? If something is set in stone, should we even bother trying to change it?  So goes the age-old deterministic paradox.

It’s a paradox I often encounter in the multifaceted world of Israel education.

  • When student governments call for academic boycotts of Israeli universities
  • When the international media singles out Israel
  • When the UN Human Rights Council’s count of Israel’s condemnations surpasses the combined total of the rest of the world
  • When year after year, the BBC’s world public opinion poll shows Israel as one of the countries with the most negative impact on the world, alongside North Korea and Iran…

When these are the sentiments, the responses among Israelis and Jews range from timid resignation (there’s nothing we can do about it) to detached narcissism (there’s nothing we can’t change).

 Let us analyze these responses through a continuum psychologists refer to as “locus of control” – the extent to which individuals believe they have control over their lives.

  1. On one side of the continuum, people with an external locus of control believe that only outside forces, such as other people, chance or fate, determine events and their outcomes. This type of mindset, when taken to the extreme, may lead to feelings of resignation, even depression.
  2. On the other side of the continuum, people with an internal locus of control believe they themselves have the power to influence events and outcomes in their lives. Taken to the extreme, this type of mindset may lead to a grandiose sense of self and a distorted belief of omnipotence.

When it comes to Israel’s (bad) reputation, people with a high external locus of control might blame it all on anti-Semitism. In their eyes, there is little to no human agency in the matter. Time and again, they will recite: “the world will always hate Israel and the Jews – and there’s nothing we can do about it!”

People with a high internal locus of control might claim that Israel bears full responsibility for its bad press. Any media bias, boycott initiatives, UN sanctions – you name it – it’s all Israel’s fault. It’s all because of the blockade of Gaza, the military occupation of the West Bank, the mistreatment of Palestinians…if only Israel would dismantle those settlements or remove the checkpoints – they honestly believe – we would finally be accepted into the family of nations.

Needless to say, there is a middle ground.

Take for example BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) – a vehemently anti-Israel campaign intended to demonize the State of Israel, and headed by activists who call for the end of the Jewish State. We cannot control the intentions and actions of leaders behind this hate-filled movement. But it is important to realize that we are not dealing with a lost cause. Not all activists jumping on the BDS bandwagon are hopeless anti-Semites or “self-hating Jews”. They simply lack education.

And providing people with nuanced, research-based education is actually within our control.

Indeed, when BDS supporters are pushed a little, when they discover the movement’s underlying agenda (to deny Israel’s very existence) they might open up to dialogue, perhaps even come around to the other side.

It misses the mark to think Israel can take full ownership of the problem, make another concession and rid itself of the BDS leech. The BDS campaign was launched in July 2005, one month before Israel uprooted some 8,000 Jews from their homes and disengaged from Gaza and Northern Samaria. Did that change the BDS diatribe? Not at all. Because BDS is not about justice, facts or even a two-state solution. It is about the end of Israel as a Jewish State. In the words of Omar Barghouti, BDS founder, “definitely, most definitely we oppose a Jewish state in any part of Palestine. No Palestinian… will ever accept a Jewish state in Palestine.”

So no, we cannot expect to change organizations like BDS or other virulently anti-Israel bodies.

But we can change ourselves and control how we respond.

On the “locus of control” continuum there is a balance point. A healthy fusion of internal and external loci. We are responsible for our lives and yet there are things beyond our control.

This approach can be very liberating. We are not helpless, nor are we omnipotent. We have free choice of action even in a G-d-directed world. We can be agents in determining our destiny in the Jewish homeland and we can influence and educate Jews and others about Israel and what it really stands for.

In the words of Edmund Burke, “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.

And as we reclaim control – however limited – over the destiny of our people, then perhaps not everyone in the world will like us, but they will certainly respect us. More importantly – in the process – we may even learn to respect ourselves.