Recent news regarding a potential military strike against Iranian nuclear sites makes plain an ongoing tension between the views of US and Israeli authorities. Some sources describe an Israeli desire to have ironclad assurances from the US that the US will strike if all else fails; others (notably The Times of Israel) report that the US might deliver such assurances in the next month. Still others argue that what Israeli authorities really seek amounts to little more than the US repeating assurances that it has previously given, if only to bolster the credibility of the US position among both Israelis and Iranians.
The stakes in this signals-and-noise drama, and the level at which the decisions are being made, could not be higher; but the underlying issue that created it is one to which all of us can easily relate. Israeli decision-makers might defer an Israeli decision to launch a military strike against Iran if only they could trust American decision-makers to take the necessary steps even after the point at which Israel could take effective action for itself had passed. But despite prior statements and assurances that US decision-makers may have made, neither Israeli nor Iranian decision-makers appear prepared to trust that the US means what it says; and, indeed, neither Israelis nor Iranians are entirely irrational or emotional in their calculus.
US administrations, including the current one, have a history of not living up to their words in the Middle East; and the history of mistrust between the current US and Israeli administrations, to say nothing about mistrust between the US and Iranian regimes, is well documented. The bottom line is that none of this drama would likely have come to pass if the relationship of trust between the current decision-makers in the US and in Israel had been better; it would be fair to question whether previous disputes were worth the current mistrust those disputes have yielded on an issue of such significance.
In the campus realm, in which my organization operates, the lesson could not be clearer. Like those who work to support Israel on a global stage, Israel’s campus supporters depend upon their relationships with key decision-makers to be effective.
Campus administrators make decisions on whether to permit Israel’s detractors to stage university-sanctioned events on campus, whether to heed calls from detractors to divest funds from Israel, and even how best to strike the balance between academic freedom and intellectual and institutional integrity when faculty take overtly anti-Israel stances. Student government leaders review resolutions to condemn or divest from Israel and face decisions to fund anti-Israel events and groups. Leaders of student campus groups decide whether to co-sponsor events casting Israel in a negative light, or to join alliances with detractors in campus activities. Faculty members must decide whether to work within their departments and academic policy structures to combat anti-Israel activity by their peers.
And, for each of these campus decision-makers, the decisions to support or engage with Israel more deeply — for example, to expand opportunities to study abroad in Israel, to increase joint research and scholarship with Israeli peers, or to host and support events and visitors that present the reality of Israel and Israelis — can be even more frequent and important.
To engage and be effective, the network of campus Israel supporters needs to nurture and sustain deep, effective relationships with these decision-makers. And, just as in the global realm, what undergirds such deep and meaningful relationships is trust. Those in decision-making positions need to know Israel supporters and need to trust them. The reverse is also true: campus decision-makers need to use their authority in ways that engender the trust of the pro-Israel community.
Trust is different from alignment or unwavering support. In fact, it is possible to trust someone with whom a person infrequently or never agrees, or even views as an adversary. In the Cold War era, US and Soviet officials almost never saw eye-to-eye. But after the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis (50 years ago this October), the sides developed mechanisms by which they could trust one another in most instances; each side’s behavior was predictable and reliable, and the rivals could gauge their own behavior accordingly.
Trust and reliability between antagonists is different from the deep relationship of trust and mutual support that Israel supporters ought to develop with campus decision-makers, of course; truly effective advocates seek out and create “win-win” situations in which all sides benefit. But an effective and high-functioning relationship begins with, and depends upon, mutual trust. Without such a foundation of trust, any efforts to support Israel on campus are undermined and easily undone.
While building trust may be clear and important, the desire to speak out and challenge authorities in support of Israel is just as understandable and clear. How, then, should the campus Israel network balance those desires? One gauge on behavior is to ask whether the behavior fits the expectations of the decision-makers with whom campus Israel supporters seek to interact. Communication and expectation-setting, then, is key: the campus Israel network needs to invest in and support an infrastructure of open and reliable communication channels with campus decision-makers and communicate clearly — and, initially, privately — with those decision-makers, in order to be clear about what action or lack of action will lead to what results. Being clear about desired results and the steps that will follow, in ways that allow campus decision-makers to choose their own actions without appearing to bend to external pressures, increases trust and builds that crucial foundation for a continued relationship of strength.
What is true of relationships with campus decision-makers is equally true among the diverse network of campus Israel supporters. There are many viewpoints on how to support Israel on campus; often, there is not unanimity, or even consensus, around the single best course of action. The strength of a network, as opposed to a hierarchy, is that many individual actors with shared values can act independently in reinforcing and supporting ways — if there are open lines of communication and a degree of trust among those actors. My organization, the Israel on Campus Coalition, invests deeply in communicating with campus Israel supporters regularly and routinely in order to maintain levels of trust, but that need is greater than even our resources can provide. We cannot be the only ones invested in such an endeavor; the network of campus Israel supporters needs to understand value and benefit in mutual trust, even when objectives diverge.
Decision-makers in the US, Israel and Iran face significant decisions in the coming weeks and months. All of them, no doubt, wish that they had greater trust and confidence in the decisions of the others. Campus Israel supporters can and must learn by example to work in ways that ensure they do not have to face the same dilemma.
Stephen Kuperberg is executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, an organization dedicated to weaving and catalyzing the campus Israel network to create a positive climate regarding Israel on campus, and publisher of Israel Campus Beat.