Winning the War
As Israel Apartheid Week returns to college campuses across the country, how should supporters of Israel fight the battle for hearts and minds?
The eighth annual Israel Apartheid Week began this weekend, and over the coming days, walls and mock checkpoints will go up on campuses across the country. What is the best way for Zionists to respond to campaigns that aim to smear the Jewish state? We asked students at Harvard, Columbia, NYU, and Penn—as well as professional Israel advocates—to weigh in.
Don’t Go Negative
David Bernstein is the executive director of the David Project, a nonprofit that positively shapes campus opinion on Israel.
The best response to anti-Israelism on campus is pro-Israelism.
It’s important to remember that the United States is not the United Kingdom, where anti-Israelism is widespread. According to the most recent Gallup poll, Americans are more sympathetic to the Israelis (rather than to the Palestinians) by a margin of 63 to 17 percent. While levels of support for Israel are lower on campus, most college students are more inclined to support Israel than the Palestinians.
There may be a more serious problem at elite colleges, where the discussion of Israel is driven by a far-left and postmodern worldview, as well as by radicalized Middle East study programs. But even at schools like Columbia and Berkeley, the problem is mostly not outright hostility but a drip-drip negativity.
In an environment trending negative, the best approach is not to “respond” but to promote. When we spend our energy responding to anti-Israel accusations, we engage the battle on our adversaries’ terms—not ours. Further, by taking on the detractors, we help them get more publicity than they could on their own and can end up sounding shrill ourselves. The average college student, faced with dueling arguments, will say “a pox on both of your houses,” which, in the American context, constitutes a loss for Israel.
A much better strategy than responding to the detractors is to take a targeted, pro-active, and positive approach that meets segments of students (and faculty) where they are and brings them closer to our view. AIPAC has successfully used this strategy to identify and build ties with college students most likely to serve in Congress one day.
The organization I lead, the David Project, just released an in-depth report, “A Burning Campus? Rethinking Israel Advocacy at America’s Universities and Colleges,” that lays out our view on the issue. Here’s a quick summary of our strategy for winning the campus battle:
1. Help pro-Israel students identify and reach out to “influencers” on campus, from members of student government to the heads of ethnic organizations to campus celebrities. These relationships can be enhanced by trips for these influencers led by pro-Israel student leaders themselves.
2. Hold small, targeted events in partnership with non-Jewish organizations (and avoid large-scale events that usually only attract our side and theirs).
3. Take advantage of the growth and influence of business departments and a corresponding interest in Israel’s growing economic successes.
4. Combat the influence of anti-Israel professors by organizing pro-Israel professors and training others to teach more courses on Israel unaffected by anti-Israel propaganda (like at the Summer Institute for Israel Studies at Brandeis).
There is no easy fix for the problems on campus. But by moving from reaction to action, we can assure that future generations of influential Americans remain broadly supportive of the Jewish state.
Expose Biased Professors and the Influence of Petrodollars
Rachel Fish is a doctoral student in Israel Studies at Brandeis.
The new white paper published by the David Project, an organization I worked for between 2003 and 2009, should prompt serious community discussion about anti-Israelism—a growing, decades-long problem that is doing real harm to Israel’s standing among American elites and reshaping Jewish life on campus. For the most part, the description of the problem is on target: Leftist faculty and student groups, along with Muslim organizations, work consistently—and typically in concert—to defame and undermine the Jewish state and its supporters in the guise of “academic freedom” and under the banner of “human rights.”
This campaign has successfully made “Palestinianism”—the notion that an innocent, indigenous people suffers a senseless, cruel oppression by the Jews of Israel—the cause célèbre on many campuses. It has created a hostile environment for pro-Israel students who are sometimes intimidated, harassed, and, in the worst cases, physically threatened. Mostly, however, supporters of Israel on campus are simply silenced. They correctly understand that if they stand up for Israel, they risk being mocked, marginalized, subject to receiving lower grades, and perhaps limiting their career opportunities. After speaking to scores of pro-Israel professors, students, and some Hillel professionals, it is extremely clear to me that many Jewish students are cowed into silence by social pressure and career concerns.
Given the depth of the problem on campus, focusing education efforts primarily on students will not ultimately change the university. Students are an important component of the campus community, and their education about Israel must begin before they step foot on campus, but they are not the decisive constituency at universities. They alone will not be able to alter the discourse.
If we want to see real change, the structural elements of campus life—faculty, administration, and funding sources, all of which have far greater power than students—must be confronted. As important as it is to work with and educate students, their stints at the university are short, and they have limited influence. They will likely be overwhelmed by radical professors, multimillion dollar programs funded by countries like Saudi Arabia, and administrators bullied by tenured faculty and insensitive to Jewish concerns.
Teaching about Israel’s remarkable achievements is insufficient; a “defense-only” approach cannot win. Bias against Israel has to be shown to be the shameless hypocrisy that it is.
The Jewish community must deal with the institutional issues: professors who abuse the power of the podium, the influence of petrodollars, and insensitivity by the administration. Moreover, instructing students to mostly ignore and be silent about the lies, distortions, and half-truths propagated by Israel’s detractors reflects a lack of moral courage. History has shown that silence has not been a friend to the Jews.
Publicly Confront Pernicious Arguments
David Fine is a junior at Columbia. He is editor in chief of the Current.
It had all the trappings of a bad one-liner—a liberal and a conservative, a socialist and a libertarian, and a smattering of others, all seated behind microphones in the grand rotunda of Columbia’s Low Library. What followed, though, was amazing: an actual substantive debate.
It began when a representative from Columbia’s International Socialist Organization said that Hamas, as the “democratically elected government” in Gaza, had every right to “resist” the Israeli government.
Instead of answering the next question posed to me by the moderators, I turned to the ISO representative and asked: Was she really justifying lobbing missiles into apartment buildings and schools, or blowing up children on buses? She countered very simply, saying that people have the right to respond to political conditions by whatever means necessary. So, my fellow debater endorsed killing civilians as a legitimate means of political action.
It was the moment I had been told to fear—the dreaded campus debate about Israel—and yet no lightning struck. It turns out that it was fairly easy to expose this person’s despicable worldview.
It’s important to remember, as the fake walls and fake checkpoints and fake tanks of Israel Apartheid Week come and go, such spectacles are just that—spectacle. Ideas and arguments hold more sway. And if we know our stuff, and believe in the truth of our arguments, then we should win the real debates every time.
So, while we hold up placards and hand out fact sheets on campus this week, we should look forward to the rest of the semester. We should sharpen our wits and confront those whose aim is the destruction of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. The best that happens is that they reveal their ideologies for what they truly are.
Persuade the Undecided—Especially in the Classroom
Gilad Wenig is senior at New York University majoring in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies.
Earlier this month, the Israeli government announced that it would be dispatching over 100 Israelis to college campuses in the United States. Timed in accordance with Israel Apartheid Week, the “Faces of Israel” campaign is meant to counter anti-Zionist activities on campuses. But will this strategy work? I’m skeptical.
Quite often, speakers sponsored by the Israeli government come across as overtly partisan, and, in my experience, the people who go to such events already support the Jewish state. In addition, as a report recently released by the David Project claimed, pro-Israel speakers can often be “counterproductive” because they invite protest and controversy.
When he visited NYU in 2009, Yuli Edelstein, Israel’s minister of Information and Diaspora, asked a small group of students how to effectively rebrand Israel on campus. Overall, the answers were uninspired. Three years later, I have a suggestion: Leave it to us.
The key is shifting our focus from debating the anti-Israel types to engaging the much larger group that is undecided, uninformed, and vulnerable to persuasion by a politically assertive teaching assistant or controversial reading assignment.
Contrary to popular perception, students who support Israel can have a meaningful impact in the classroom. Empowering pro-Israel students to engage professors, teaching assistants, and even peers on contentious points should be highlighted as part of a multipronged approach to dealing with anti-Zionism on campus.
Just last year, in a survey course of modern Middle Eastern history, my professor made a comment insinuating collusion between colonialism and early Zionism. Based on sources I had read in another class, I immediately met with the professor and expressed my concern with linking the two, especially in an introductory course. After our lengthy and frank discussion, she publicly clarified her comments during the following lecture and insisted that she strives to maintain an unbiased atmosphere. And indeed she did so the rest of the semester.
Pro-Israel Jewish students can challenge professors directly. Just remember to stay cool-headed, and be sure to have your facts in order. Otherwise, you’re in for a very rude awakening.
Abandon Talking Points, and Embody the Right Values
Yoav Schaefer, a former IDF soldier, is the director of the Avi Schaefer Fund and a student at Harvard University.
Israel Apartheid Week is an unfortunate manipulation of the discussion about Israel-Palestine on campuses, but I believe its bark is worse than its bite. Negative and extreme forms of advocacy tend to alienate the very people they are trying to reach. This isn’t just true of the activists that organize campaigns intended to demonize Israel: It’s often true of the Jewish community’s reaction to such displays. Our overly robust response tends to confer greater legitimacy and publicity to anti-Zionist activities. This occurred in reaction to the University of Pennsylvania’s BDS Conference earlier this month and, unfortunately, seems likely to happen at Harvard’s One-State Conference that begins this weekend.
Consider the fact that about 65 percent of the coverage of last year’s Israel Apartheid Week was in Israeli or Jewish publications. It’s time to reevaluate the ineffective and often counterproductive forms of advocacy promoted by many Jewish organizations, and explore new ways to educate about Israel on campus.
As an activist fighting against divestment at the University of California at Berkeley in 2010, I watched as pro-Israel students, with their well-rehearsed advocacy points and flyers packed with facts, failed to combat the emotionally powerful narratives of pro-Palestinian activists. Our advocacy failed us at Berkeley, it has failed us on campuses across North America, and it will continue to fail us. And, let’s be honest, with the current direction of Israeli politics, it is becoming increasingly difficult to make the case for Israel on campus.
We cannot allow our Israel education to be defined by those who are anti-Israel. Nor can we fall into the trap of debating the merits of every Israeli policy—that’s a losing strategy. Instead, our task is to defend Israel’s fundamental right to exist. This can’t be accomplished through a well-oiled hasbara machine, but by personally embodying values and aspirations with which people can identify: empathy, understanding, and peace.
We need to admit upfront that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is complex, and confront anti-Israel sentiments with nuance and sophistication. Most importantly, we need to engage students with whom we disagree.
Rather than respond directly to Israel Apartheid Week, pro-Israel students should work to promote a culture of civility on campus, and focus on positive forms of Israel education that portray the Jewish state’s vibrancy. One-dimensional advocacy is counterproductive—uninformed students see it as anti-intellectual and ideological spoon-feeding. Only by discussing the fundamental meaning and purpose of Israel—not defending the status-quo, but challenging students to build a more perfect country that embodies the values of the Jewish people—can we transform North American universities into mechanisms for positive change. Indeed, the most important work on campuses is not countering anti-Israel groups, but changing the outdated models of advocacy and education within our own community.
Pro-Palestinian Doesn’t Mean Anti-Israel
Logan Bayroff is the president of J Street U National Student Board and a junior at the University of Pennsylvania.
When it comes to political activism on campus, it’s important to distinguish between what is anti-Israel and what is pro-Palestinian. At J Street U, we believe many parts of the Palestinian narrative are worthy of Jewish consideration. Israeli and American leaders have long understood that ending the conflict requires a two-state solution—and that means supporting Palestinian self-determination.
Of course there is another, uglier face of campus advocacy. Some groups denounce Israel’s very existence, often using the extreme language of apartheid. Understandably, this rhetoric, coupled with demonstrations involving “apartheid walls” and mock checkpoints, causes a great deal of upset among many pro-Israel students. Unfortunately, this tends to lead to exaggerated, pre-programmed responses that ignore the intertwined nature of the Israeli and Palestinian causes and hastily label various activities as anti-Israel or anti-Semitic.
Instead, we should encourage dialogue and pragmatism. Inviting students to discuss Israel’s strengths and challenges gives campus advocacy a productive focus. When the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement held a national conference at Penn last month, our Hillel and Israel advocacy leaders responded by organizing over 50 student-run dinner discussions for the general student body, where Israel was the focus. At dinners hosted by J Street U, students of different backgrounds and opinions came together to share their love for and critiques of Israel.
Weeks later, we held an event in conjunction with a pro-Palestinian student group, with a former IDF officer who is now a representative of a major Israeli human rights organization. Students were confronted with the hard reality of settlements and occupation and were at the same time exposed to a fiercely proud Zionist who is working to achieve the Israel envisioned by its founders. An approach like this trusts in students’ ability to appreciate complex situations. In campus advocacy, as in the conflict itself, extremism is best answered with moderation and engagement toward the achievement of shared goals.
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