In two weeks’ time, “Israeli Apartheid Week” (IAW) will hit American campuses. Many Jewish organizations are already in high gear, preparing a response. Unfortunately, their efforts will probably have few constructive or lasting effects.
To understand the Jewish organizational focus on extreme campus anti-Israel efforts like IAW, we need to remember the shock that gripped many in the American Jewish community in late 2000 when the collapse of peace negotiations and increase in Palestinian terrorism were accompanied on some American campuses, mostly on the coasts, by a surge of anti-Israelism.
In response, the number of pro-Israel groups focused on campus mushroomed. Each grassroots organization carved a niche for itself but all tried to “take back campus” by responding to the growing anti-Israelism. The approach for the most part boiled down to this: For every protest, a counter protest; for every “anti-Israel” sound bite, a pro-Israel sound bite. And lots and lots of campus programs and events. Larger, more established Jewish organizations quickly followed suit and began devoting serious resources to this cause.
Twelve years later, we may be winning minor campus battles but slowly losing the larger war.
In terms of influence, IAW seems to have reached a (rather low) glass ceiling in 2009 and has been weakening since. Its events often draw fewer students than pro-Israel efforts. In a more general sense, anti-Israelists are also largely failing to enact their radical campus agenda: Not a single mainstream university has divested funds from Israel, and not for lack of effort. Additionally, recent polls indicate that students don’t know much about BDS, and those who do tend to reject it. The same goes for what has become known as “the Apartheid analogy.”
So should we continue to respond to IAW?
On the one hand, this type of activism can help mobilize students. It can also be argued that there is a moral duty to counter the outright lies, half-truths, hateful rhetoric and delegitimization of Israel that often occurs at such events. Cynics would add that this type of work also resonates extremely well with donors, many of whom live off of the adrenaline rush provided by the “campus is burning and we’re fighting back” storyline.
But a knee-jerk reaction is by definition defensive and ineffective in promoting one’s own agenda. Worse, by emphasizing the threat of delegitimization and giving it publicity, we play into the hands of the delegitimizers.
Our research has shown that while anti-Israel efforts have an impact, most students, faculty, and administration are put-off by the militant rhetoric of many anti-Israel groups.
There is a real challenge on campus, however, which is a less extreme but far more pervasive growing negative feeling about Israel, which can endanger, in the long-term, bipartisan support for Israel in the American government.
To have any chance at success, pro-Israel efforts must aim to increase positive feelings for Israel among the general student population and not necessarily counter the efforts of anti-Israelists.
In short, it’s time for the pro-Israel campus focused community to grow up. We have recognized the challenge of anti-Israelism on campus and have created a network to support students responding to it. Now it’s time to go from tactics to strategy, from sidewalk advocacy to relationship-driven advocacy and from focusing on the extreme cases of anti-Israelism to addressing the core of the problem.
A new strategy paper released by The David Project last week called, “A Burning Campus? Rethinking Israel Advocacy at America’s Universities and Colleges,” aims to give the pro-Israel community a set of guidelines for doing just that.
It proposes a new mode of advocacy for shaping campus discourse and opinion on Israel, one that, while not as sexy as engaging in heated debates or staging dramatic rallies, through a focus on creating relationships with key campus influencers, has a far better chance for long-term success.
Say a given campus is made up of 5% “pro-Israel” students, 5% “anti-Israelists” and 5% influencers (these could be Malcolm Gladwell’s Mavens, Connectors or Salesmen). That leaves 85% of the general student body, who are usually undecided or somewhat receptive to the Israeli narrative. Pro-Israel students would be well advised to shift most of their efforts and resources from debating the 5% anti-Israelists towards engaging the 5% influencers, who in turn will have an impact on how the 85% see Israel.
This needs to be done in a nuanced, meaningful and honest way. Much of this advocacy (unlike old-school debate advocacy) can emulate the rich internal discussions we have within the Jewish community. Not only is this type of engagement more potent ideologically, most pro-Israel students are also more comfortable with it.
For Israel advocacy to move away from debates in the quads to dorm-room discussions, a paradigm shift is required across our community.
We at The David Project have been glad to see the open arms that have so greeted the strategy outlined in the report. This is a promising beginning to a new era of more effective campus Israel advocacy.