(JTA) — Growing up in New Orleans, Chloe Valdary kept kosher, studied the Jewish Bible and celebrated Jewish holidays with festive meals. In recent years she has become an outspoken pro-Israel campus activist, contributing regularly to the Jewish press, and speaking and posting widely about the merits of the Jewish state on social media.
But the senior at the University of New Orleans is not Jewish. She is Christian — a member of the Intercontinental Church of God, whose adherents revere the Hebrew Bible and follow the Jewish calendar — and she is black.
In July, Valdary, 21, garnered widespread attention for a Tablet piece in which she accused pro-Palestinian activists of misappropriating the rhetoric of the black civil rights movement. In the piece, titled “To the Students for Justice in Palestine, a Letter From an Angry Black Woman,” Valdary addressed the campus group.
“You do not have the right to invoke my people’s struggle for your shoddy purposes, and you do not get to feign victimhood in our name,” she wrote.
Valdary also listed prominent black civil rights-era Zionists, telling Israel’s college-age critics, “You do not get to pretend as though you and Rosa Parks would have been great buddies in the 1960s. Rosa Parks was a real Freedom Fighter. Rosa Parks was a Zionist.” (Parks signed a 1975 letter by the Black Americans to Support Israel Committee, backing Israel’s right to exist.)
Her outspoken support for Israel in the name of civil rights not only cuts against the arguments of Students for Justice in Palestine and other critics of Israel, but also against the drift of much black civil rights rhetoric over the past few decades.
While a number of early civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., were supportive of Israel, subsequent black leaders — particularly starting with the black power movement in the late 1960s — often have been sharply critical of the Jewish state. Black power leader Stokely Carmichael described Israel as a “settler colony,” while more recently, professor and activist Cornel West endorsed the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “war criminal.”
Against that backdrop, Valdary’s stance and identity make her a uniquely compelling voice in the world of Israel advocacy.
“Because so many prominent black leaders are hostile to Israel, it makes it even more powerful to have someone who’s black supporting Israel,” said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, a hardline Israel advocacy group.
Indeed, a number of pro-Israel organizations, including AIPAC and Christians United for Israel, have made concerted efforts in recent years to develop ties with African-American supporters.
According to recent public opinion surveys by Pew Research Center focused on the conflict in Gaza, black Americans have tended to be somewhat less sympathetic toward Israel (64 percent expressing “a lot” or “some” sympathy for Israel, versus 70 percent for whites), and somewhat more critical of its response to Hamas, with 36 percent saying Israel’s response had gone too far, compared to 22 percent of white Americans.
Valdary, who grew up attending grade school with a number of Jewish friends, said that despite their common religious practices, she didn’t feel a particular sense of personal connection to Jews. That changed in her freshman year of high school, when Valdary saw the 2007 film “Freedom Writers,” in which a high school teacher uses the Holocaust to teach her minority students about facing discrimination in their own lives.
Inspired by the movie, Valdary began to read voraciously about the Holocaust and Jewish history, as well as novels such as “Exodus” by Leon Uris and “The Town Beyond the Wall” by Elie Wiesel.
The themes raised in her reading, combined with hearing news about anti-Semitic incidents around the world, sparked Valdary’s passion for Zionism. “Exodus,” a fictional and highly sympathetic account of the founding of the State of Israel, was particularly influential.
“The importance of Jewish pride as a theme throughout the book really inspired me to take action and do something about the rising anti-Semitism,” Valdary told JTA.
Once she arrived at the University of New Orleans, Valdary threw herself into campus activity, both at her school and nearby Tulane University, which unlike UNO has a substantial Jewish population. Her work caught the attention of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, or Camera, which has funded Valdary’s own campus organization, Allies of Israel, at UNO.
One of her pro-Israel rallies at UNO also was noted by a coordinator for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which then sponsored her to come to an AIPAC policy conference and subsequently paid for her to take a 10-day trip to Israel — a trip Valdary described as “life changing.”
Since then, Valdary has worked with and spoken to a number of pro-Israel groups. She spent this summer in Boston employed as a paid consultant for Camera, which is still funding Allies for Israel, and will resume working for the group later this month.
Her mentor, Dumisani Washington, is a black minister who serves as the Diversity Outreach Coordinator for Christians United for Israel, an evangelical pro-Israel group led by Pastor John Hagee. Valdary also was a featured speaker at the ZOA’s national convention in March, and she has recorded videos for Americans for Peace and Tolerance, which was founded by conservative pro-Israel advocate Charles Jacobs.
But Valdary also has found a receptive audience beyond the more hardline groups. In August, she spoke at an event organized by The Alumni Community, a New York-area alumni group for Birthright Israel, which is less ideologically oriented. And not all of her fans consider themselves conservative.
“She’s a champion on campus of a Zionism that doesn’t apologize and also comes from a deep place of humanism,” said Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, Calif., who describes himself as a “progressive Zionist.” “Her rejection of the demonization of Israel is not based on being a talking head on the right or the left. It’s based on being a very articulate and thoughtful leader on campus.”
Although her views on Israel tend to be aligned with more right-leaning pro-Israel groups, Valdary maintains that her opinions are based on liberal ideals. She argues that Israel’s sovereignty over Arab citizens “speaks to the concept of indigenous people” — the Jewish people, according to Valdary — thus is a liberal value. This places her at odds with a number of Israel critics, as well as black leaders such as Carmichael and Angela Davis, who have argued that the Palestinians are indigenous while Jewish-Israelis are colonizing interlopers.
Valdary says that “Israeli society, like any other society, has issues with discrimination, but in terms of systematic discrimination, like apartheid in Africa or Jim Crow, that does not exist in Israeli society.” She says that she opposes a two-state solution, favoring a “Jewish one-state solution” in which all citizens in Israel and its territories can vote, but “the culture, the personality” of Israel is Jewish.
Valdary’s political views, and her invocation of civil rights history and rhetoric in the cause of Zionism, has made her a controversial figure and a lightning rod for criticism. Some of the criticism has been racially derogatory, as when blogger Richard Silverstein posted an article of Valdary’s on Facebook with the note, “They finally did it: found a Negro Zionist: Uncle Tom is dancin’ for joy!”
Other criticism has focused more on her aggressive attacks on critics of Israel. In a speech at Brandeis University, writer and filmmaker Max Blumenthal, a harsh critic of Israel, after describing a pair of Valdary critiques of Israel critics Judith Butler and Maya Wind, said, “This is a perfect example of where the Israel lobby is heading, of where Zionism itself is heading, is that a right-wing evangelical has been recruited to attack Jewish intellectuals and to tell them that they are bad Jews.” (Valdary does not consider herself an evangelical or right wing.)
Blumenethal added, “I find it peculiar that someone with no credentials is so outspoken, so heavily promoted on this issue.”
In a response to Blumenthal, Valdary herself invoked race, when she and co-author Daniel Mael accused Blumenthal of classifying critics like Valdary as “black people who obviously have no capability to think for themselves.” Blumenthal did not mention Valdary’s race in his comments at Brandeis.
After she graduates from the University of New Orleans, Valdary hopes to intern at The Wall Street Journal, on the opinion side, and to study at the Tikvah Advanced Institutes, a right-leaning series of political and economic seminars. She also wants to spend a year in Israel. Upon her return, Valdary hopes to start a “Zionist movement,” though her plans on that front are still hazy.
Whatever it turns out to be, though, Valdary will have fans eagerly awaiting her moves.
“Her heart is beautiful, her mind is beautiful, her words are powerful,” the ZOA’s Klein said. “She’s really the whole package.”