Earlier this past year, the student assembly at a university in southern California passed an Anti Israel Resolution (AIR), and later the AIR was reversed. As I see it, the biggest risk to Israel activism on campus happens when the student assembly passes an AIR. An AIR can cast a negative shadow over a long record of successful Israel engagement and advocacy. In the southern California case, there was no warning coming from the student assembly that they were going to discuss and vote on the AIR. Therefore the group lobbying for the AIR caught supporters of Israel by surprise, leaving them without a proper opportunity to prevent the AIR.
Until the AIR incident in Southern California I was sure that if the anti-Israel group at Rutgers would try to pass an AIR we would have at least two weeks to get ready with an appropriate response. An analysis of the case in southern California taught me that we don’t have the luxury of even a week’s notice before an AIR attempt. Together with student leaders and a pro-Israel member of Rutgers University Student Assembly (RUSA) I was able to play out the different scenarios that would lead RUSA to vote on and pass the AIR. In a full process, the AIR would be presented a week in advance as part of the following week’s meeting agenda, giving Rutgers Hillel Center for Israel Engagement (RHCIE) a week to gather supporters to object to the AIR. Similar to what happened in southern California, there also is a short process to bring a resolution to the table. The president of RUSA can bring up a resolution to vote even if it’s wasn’t on the meeting agenda, giving pro-Israel voices only an hour to block the AIR, and actually it is better to be prepared for an hour’s notice.
Hillel plays a key role in the Zionist community because of its extensive network on campus, positing Hillel in the best situation to recognize and mobilize even students that are not affiliated with the Jewish and pro-Israeli communities. Hillel connections are essential in case of short notice for an AIR vote. For example, thanks to Taglit-Birthright Israel we got to know Rutgers students that are part of RUSA and willing to help prevent an AIR.
RHCIE prepared the community an hour’s notice to prevent an AIR at Rutgers. For that we created an action form with the names and contact information of students that would be willing to attend a RUSA meeting with a half hour’s notice. Even more, RHCIE made sure that a pro-Israel RUSA member will take part in every RUSA meeting to ensure that the one hour scenario will not occur, keeping Rutgers free from an AIR.
So far RICHIE’s tactics were about defense, but there is a great sports analogy that the best defense is offense. Therefore, we decided we are not going to start a campaign to prevent the AIR. Instead at Rutgers the goal was to promote an initiative to Support, Invest and Connect (SIC) with Israelis.
I follow two rules in Israel advocacy, (1) never use a term coined by the anti-Israel lobby and (2) promote Israel through positive messages. For that we published articles calling to support the SIC initiative, advertised over social media and even crowd funded to cover the SIC costs. As of today hundreds of Rutgers students, parents, faculty and friends signed the petition. Furthermore, the SIC initiative was a vehicle to set the conversation at Rutgers that investment in the Israeli people represents the interests of both New Jersey and the United States.
Appropriate risk management by Hillel professionals and Israel advocacy professionals can prevent the next AIR, but being on defense is not enough. Being pro-active proved itself in fighting AIR and even provides an opportunity to engage the campus community with positive conversation around Israel. The result of the SIC campaign was that the tone on campus was set around SIC, from defense to offense. Finally, I recognize that luck and humility are always needed, and in a different scenario Rutgers could have been the canary in a coal mine for other schools fighting AIR.