This week, 13,000 people are gathered in Washington to express support for a strong US-Israel alliance. Among them are 1,600 students, including 217 student government presidents, leaders of the College Democrats and College Republicans, students from historically black colleges and universities, faith-based institutions and more, from 500 campuses in all 50 US states.
In the opening plenary of the AIPAC Policy Conference, current and former student leaders described how their involvement with Israel advocacy on campus launched them into careers in politics and positions of leadership. President Obama, in remarks that followed, said to enthusiastic cheers:
Every time that I come to AIPAC, I’m impressed to see so many young people here — students from all over the country who are making their voices heard.
When many complain about apathy and indifference on campus; when there is understandable concern whether the campus environment will be an asset or a hindrance to forging positive ties between Israel and the world; when many express concern about anti-Israel activities on campus — what can we learn from this display of strength?
Indeed, what makes pro-Israel campus activism succeed, and what makes it fail?
The pro-Israel community devotes substantial resources to the campus environment. In the past decade, a number of campus-facing organizations either came into existence (full disclosure: My organization, the Israel on Campus Coalition, was among them) or redoubled their efforts. This allocation of resources has produced a considerable amount of initiative over the past 10 years.
But more recently, some have begun to ask whether the effort has the desired effect. One need only look at an article written by Jodi Wilgoren — now Jodi Rudoren, the newly appointed, and already controversial, Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times — over 10 years ago to see strikingly similar themes to those that concern people today. Even then, those focused on campus saw Israel detractors present at many universities, anti-Israel faculty bias and indecisive campus administrations that appeared to tolerate behavior toward Israelis and Jews that would not be have been tolerated had it been directed toward other nationalities or ethnic minorities.
For some, the natural reaction to such concerns was to fight: to stage counter-protests; to compose open letters to campus administrators demanding that anti-Israel speech be suppressed, that anti-Israel political activity be halted and that faculty displaying anti-Israel opinions be censured; and even to bring litigation against campus administrators for failing to take action.
But despite the significant resources devoted to such efforts, results failed to materialize. Instead, what emerged time and again from reflexive, reactive and combative approaches was greater defensiveness from faculty and administrators who might otherwise have been sympathetic, but instead resisted external threats and pressures on treasured principles of academic freedom and integrity; and greater alienation and distaste from students who might also have been sympathetic, but who saw reactive activity as aggressive behavior with which they had no desire to affiliate.
As reactive efforts mounted, detractors of Israel on campus also continued unabated in their activity, although they were ultimately unsuccessful in persuading the vast majority of campus constituents. Indeed, in addition to the AIPAC Policy Conference, this week also marks the tired, but repeated, appearance of “Israel Apartheid Week” on some campuses. If such anti-Israel elements persist in the campus environment despite all of the resources devoted to reactive programming, what isn’t working?
Fortunately, there is good news, and although it begins with the activism on display at the AIPAC Policy Conference, it does not end there. Ten years ago, AIPAC’s student program, led by director Jonathan Kessler, brought a relationship-based approach to the campus environment. That strategy emphasized the cultivation of individual ties between people — “retail engagement” — over mass events and placed the power of activity in the hands of the pro-Israel campus activist. AIPAC’s signature student training programs — Saban training, the Schusterman high school summit and others — consistently reinforced this approach. Some of the results are on display at this week’s conference.
Wayne Firestone, the founding executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition also championed this approach. He also went on to become president of Hillel: the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, which adopted relationship-based engagement as the signature of its Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative. To this day, ICC’s training for Hillel campus professionals and JAFI Israel Fellows stresses building strategic relationships with the network of decision-makers regarding Israel on campus.
Strategically focused pro-Israel students, campus professionals and others on campus not only beat back the tide of anti-Israel activity and sentiment on campus; they dominate it. For example, AIPAC-trained, ICC- and Hillel-supported students with Gators for Israel at the University of Florida could pass a pro-Israel resolution in their student government by 66 to 1; students with Tritons for Israel at the University of California-San Diego could defeat a divestment resolution against Israel in their student government for the third year in a row; and a coalition of students, campus professionals, faculty and community members could work together to persuade the California State University administration to reinstate its study abroad program in Israel for the first time in ten years.
The effect is evident not only on campus, but within the pro-Israel community as well. Organizations like Hasbara Fellowships have endorsed the relationship-based model with efforts such as their Adam and Gila Milstein Family Foundation Coalition-Building Initiative. Most recently, the David Project, an organization that formed 10 years ago with an emphasis on reactive combating of campus Israel detractors, released a white paper embracing instead the strategic relationship-building model of the campus mainstream.
By no means are these examples exclusive. Many individuals and organizations have begun to see that the strategic approach on campus not only feels good, but actually does good.
This week’s events in Washington paint a compelling picture of what success in the campus environment could be. The growing consensus in the campus Israel network is a positive indicator that we as a community are learning the lesson.