It is high time that my government reentered the fray.More and more Jewish leaders are becoming aware of the challenges facing Jewish students of college today. A recent poll showed that 28% of students were ‘sympathetic’ to Israel compared to 22% who were sympathetic to the Palestinians.
Some may not be alarmed by those figures. After all, Israel is still in the lead. But given that most polls show that the general American population sides with Israel by more than three to one, and that this poll comes at a time when Israel is defending itself against the most unprecedented campaign of terror in history, these numbers should concern all of us. Israel cannot afford to lose the struggle for the hearts and minds of the next generation of American leaders.
When I assumed the office of Minister for Diaspora Affairs, I planned to make the deteriorating situation on the campuses a central part of my agenda. But I myself did not understand the magnitude of the problem until I went on a tour of colleges last September. The article I wrote following that visit, in which I argued that the passion, sophistication and intimidation tactics of the forces of anti-Zionism were winning the day against a largely silent and unprepared Jewish student community, spurred much discussion and debate.
This subject is one that is high on the agenda of many organizations that have been arguing for years about the growing hostility toward Israel on campuses. And whether it be Hillel dispatching Israeli advocacy interns across the country, AIPAC mounting a voter drive to register pro-Israel voters, or Caravan for Democracy bringing prominent Israeli politicians to colleges across America, these organizations are clearly fighting back. Equally important, the work of the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC), a partnership between Hillel and the Shusterman family foundation that includes nearly thirty national organizations, shows that efforts to coordinate the work of a number of heretofore separate bodies are well underway. Other organizations, including the Jewish Agency’s student-oriented programs, Israel’s foreign ministry, and private initiatives like the Hasbara Fellowships, the David Project, and
the Israel Project are making an impact as well.
Individuals have shown that they too can make a difference. For example, Joey Low is sponsoring college tours for young, articulate Israelis who show their American peers a different side of Israel than the one they see on CNN, and Rachel Fish, almost single-handedly, successfully compelled Harvard’s divinity school to reject a donation of millions of dollars from an Arab Sheik who supports antisemitic and terrorist organizations.
But there is one body that for the last few years has been conspicuously absent from this struggle: The State of Israel. In the early 1990s, the Israeli government stopped most of its programming on college campuses, as well as many of its auxiliary public relations efforts because it was convinced that good policies (i.e. the peace process) needed no explaining. At the same time, our enemies were redoubling their efforts to turn America’s future leadership against Israel. By the time the Palestinians launched their campaign of terror, our enemies on campus faced little resistance in their attempt to delegitimize the Jewish State.
It is high time that my government reentered the fray and stood shoulder to shoulder with those organizations that have worked so hard on campuses to defend Israel against this unprecedented onslaught. Today, I am proud to say that Israel’s government has finally joined this battle. Last month, I reported on my recent trip to campuses at our cabinet meeting, and after a lengthy discussion, Prime Minister Sharon called on my fellow ministers to get more involved, asking them among other things to include college campuses on their itineraries when they travel abroad.
Last week, the fight to take back the campuses shifted into even higher gear. In Jerusalem, the capital of the Jewish State and the spiritual center of the Jewish people, 1,000 Jewish students from around the world gathered to address the critical issues facing them and to chart a course of action. I am proud to have hosted this first ever ‘Summit’, which was made possible by a partnership of my office and the Jewish Agency, in cooperation with Hillel, the ICC and the World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS), and with involvement from Israel’s foreign ministry and a number of other student organizations.
Rest assured, the student summit in Jerusalem is only one of many projects in which Israel is lending its support. My office is currently coordinating a project aimed at providing information and training to the approximately 2,000 students who are studying in Israel on long-term programs. We are also working with leading educators and organizations in America to strengthen Israel studies in Jewish high schools in order to prepare young students to meet the challenges they will confront on campus. With every initiative, my office will work to encourage existing organizations to pool their resources, energies, and talents, and to ensure that Israel’s government gives its full support to these efforts.
For my part, I plan to continue to pay special attention to the issue of human rights.
In recent years, the principles of human rights have been twisted beyond recognition and are used as a bludgeon against Israel. Ideas that were once used in the struggle to protect basic individual freedoms are now used to defend regimes that deny freedom to their own subjects and attack states such as Israel that uphold them.
On college campuses, these warped arguments have a special resonance, and their false premises must be continuously exposed. Those who would defend Israel must not shy away from the human rights debate.
On the contrary, it is precisely in the context of human rights where Israel’s record, as a democracy defending itself against terrorism, is most impressive.
The battle ahead will surely not be an easy one. For too long, many Israelis felt that the problems of the Diaspora were not their concern. Likewise, many in the Diaspora thought Israel’s public relations image was not their problem.
Now, due to the success of our enemies, we are once again recognizing a truth that we must never forget: we are both in this together. I believe that by working hand in hand we can turn the anti-Israel tide and make the Jewish State once again a source of pride for university students across the world.