August 10, 2003

Campuses are not a lost cause for Israel: proactive, well-supported student leaders can make a difference. Last year was a difficult time on U.S. campuses.

Jewish students and supporters of Israel were on the defensive and often the target of hostility and intimidation by detractors of Israel who operate on North American university campuses.

The good news is that less than a year later, there is growing evidence of an immediate benefit from the community’s strategic and proactive repositioning, and perhaps unstated willingness, to take campuses and students more seriously. This incremental communal awakening may be helpful in establishing a better picture of what is actually happening on campus and where we should focus our future efforts.

American campuses, perhaps contrary to conventional wisdom, often have very little in common, so it is important to avoid broad generalizations. Like fingerprints, each school is unique in its campus life, academics and social dynamics. Nonetheless, the campus as an institution in North America is increasingly recognized by national media outlets and political organizers as contributing substantial value to the development of national grassroots trends and emerging opinions.

This is not lost on Israel’s detractors. For many years they have utilized and exploited the generously prescribed parameters for free and open debate on campus in order to attack Israel with almost no limits. Over time they have seemingly created a false impression and presumption that the campuses are a safe haven for the most repugnant of views and agendas.

However, one of several recent misdiagnoses of the campus problem has led some to conclude hastily that campuses are inherently hostile places for Jews and supporters of Israel, and/or that we can achieve major changes in the campus environment without listening to, and working directly with, students.

These conclusions are directly contrary to the history and experience of Jews in higher education in the US, in general, as well as to the growth and expansion of Hillel (on over 500 campuses) in particular.

Over the past 50 years Jews have achieved unparalleled success and accomplishment on US campuses in nearly every role they find themselves as students, academics, professors and administrators.

Shifting a community’s approach from reactive to proactive may seem logical, but it is unfortunately hardly intuitive. Numerous campus and community groups reported this year colorful debates on how best to relate to a particular campus challenge (e.g. hostile speakers, mock checkpoint, etc.). Nonetheless, there were off-campus groups that thrust themselves and their agendas onto campus without soliciting student input.

Many campus professionals reported frustration with this repeated phenomenon because it actually undermined indigenous pro-Israel student-led efforts and initiatives that garnered support and momentum across the broader campus community.

Necessarily, the key to a proactivity shift in a campus setting must be implemented by students, even where community organizations offer their resources, expertise and input. Dramatic, if not antiquated chest-thumping models of protests and demonstrations borrowed from other eras, do not generate mainstream student attention, curiosity or participation today.

Students have understood, even where others have failed, that they are best positioned to influence the opinion of other students on campus.

In the words of Yale student activist Zvika Krieger, who created an innovative student journal about contemporary Israeli society and is currently interning this summer at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem: “Students on campus have become numb to the empty rhetoric that now surrounds the Israel debate. We have yet to find partners for a productive dialogue people are more interested in demonizing Israel than engaging in a meaningful exchange of ideas.

“Pro-Israel activists are often just as guilty in this regard, relying on prepackaged advocacy programs and meaningless slogans. We decided it was time to move away from this model and create a forum for people with a genuine interest in Israel beyond the current political situation.”

What we have heard repeatedly from student observers is that the vast majority of mainstream students on campus are simply not attracted to, or influenced by, campaigns with negative messaging. This explains, in part, the failure of the divestment movement last year to meaningfully attract any visible support from mainstream campus students or student groups, let alone any university administration.

It would be premature to anticipate that attacks on Israel on North American campuses will wane in the coming school year. They may actually increase. Israel’s detractors have already targeted Rutgers University in New Jersey for their next fall convocation of Israel-bashing. And increased media attention to the region, focused especially on the road map and the American military occupation in Iraq, will likely encourage Israel’s detractors to expend greater energy and attention on the campus.

A proactively oriented student leadership will need continued support and guidance in reorienting and educating the campuses and student body. The challenge to our own community of Israel supporters will be our willingness to allow student and campus voices to play the lead.

(This piece was originally published in The Jerusalem Post)

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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