Ernest Owens | Arriving at an 'unshakable' belief
The Ernest Opinion | Good social activists cannot be bred overnight
April 5, 2012, 9:33 pm·
The Ernest Opinion
That was the adjective President Barack Obama, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used to describe the relationship between the United States and Israel. I heard them speak over spring break when I took part in the American Israel Public Affairs Committee Conference in D.C.
I was part of a delegation of over 13,000 people and heard numerous politicians and ordinary citizens show their support for Israel amid recent backlash from movements such as BDS and countries like Iran.
After months of hearing arguments from both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and doing my own research on the topic, I have made up my mind. I have now come out of the closet of political neutrality as a pro-Israel activist. For much too long, I tried to stay impartial when it came to foreign policy, but as Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel said during his acceptance speech, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
My strong support for Israel did not happen overnight. It developed through an informed process. I learned about the issues at hand from scholars, students and experts. I joined Penn Friends of Israel and the Penn Israel Public Affairs Committee where I met students who were passionate about this cause. I participated in their protests and attended their educational sessions — all in an effort to clarify my views.
I also took the time to learn from the opposing side. I observed their demonstrations and decoded their messages. In short, I made myself very aware of the nuanced arguments on each side before I made my decision to fully support the state of Israel.
I knew that if I was going to consider myself a social activist, I had to be trained, informed and mindful of my decision.
But millions of people disagreed with me by jumping onto the message of the KONY video, which came out exactly one month ago. The video had nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it spoke volumes about how quickly people consider themselves to be “activists” in this modern day and age.
The video attempted to make Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army based in Uganda, “famous.” The graphically compelling 30-minute segment succeeded in this mission, for the most part.
But I was annoyed with the video. The facts were oversimplified. The focus on Uganda’s perspective was undermined and it played into the neo-colonial trap of Americans saving Africans from their hardships. If you truly believe that buying a cheap kit of elaborate posters and “covering the night” will change the world, you need to think again.
Social activism should not be a trendy item that one can purchase. What Invisible Children — the organization that produced the video — did was trivialize a cause and make it possible for people to think that the problem could be resolved within a year.
Anyone who has ever protested for human rights and other global issues knows that bureaucracy cannot simply be swayed by the collective cry of misinformed activists. The path to success for most causes is more like a marathon than a sprint.
What upsets me is how many students on campus actually fell for the hype surrounding KONY 2012. Upon watching the video, both of my roommates immediately went on the organization’s website, bought awareness bracelets and clicked attend on the student created “Cover the Night – UPenn” Facebook event scheduled for April 20.
What disappointed me the most, however, was how quickly everyone who signed on to the KONY campaign stopped asking questions, failed to evaluate Invisible Children’s demands and quickly forgot about local causes they could devote their time and energy to.
As the media attention on KONY dwindles, so will support for the cause. Social activism requires real time and dedication. It requires a real understanding of the facts, people and consequences that surround a cause — not just flashy graphics and lofty proposals.
As much as I wholeheartedly supported Israel, I did not consider myself an activist before I made a conscientious effort to explore the matter. We are all capable of making a difference in the world, but first, we have to change the way we go about it.