Disinformation is most effective in a very narrow context.”

– Frank Snepp, former CIA analyst

Imagine a crowd of young, impressionable college students listening rapturously to a speaker describe the goal of eliminating the Jewish state of Israel and replacing it with a single state that would be populated by millions of returning Palestinian refugees. Imagine, too, that those students take copious notes on how boycotts, divestment, and sanctions might achieve that goal. Imagine the audience comes from elite institutions and that among those leading the session are many Jews and Israelis.

As someone dedicated to advancing a positive climate regarding Israel on campus, I will tell you that such events happen all the time; and not only should you not worry about such events, but you can, should — and do — support them.

Before you think that I’ve completely lost my mind, bear with me a moment longer.

The event that I described above could be typical of training sessions held by many campus Israel advocacy organizations to prepare students for what they might face on campus from Israel’s detractors and how to address it. It is core to the education of an effective Israel campus advocate to know the arguments and tactics of Israel’s detractors — to know them better even than the detractors do themselves. That requires exposure to a wide variety of claims, allegations, and truths — sometimes ugly truths — regarding Israel.

(photo credit: Courtesy of onestateconference.org)

(photo credit: courtesy of onestateconference.org)

If it is so essential that campus Israel activists be exposed to such content in order to be effective, then why did recent campus events — such as a conference held by a student group at the University of Pennsylvania on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, or a conference held by a student group at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government on a “one-state solution” to the Israeli-Arab conflict — cause such angst, even though the core content was the same?

I submit that the concern, while appropriate, wasn’t due to the content; and it isn’t the audience being reached by such events, either. Reliable reports place at 30 the total number of students that attended the Penn BDS conference, including the conference organizers (but not including non-student community members); reports from the Harvard “one-state” conference indicate similar numbers.

It’s the context that counts

When we peel away the outer layers, it is the context, and not the content, that is the primary cause for concern regarding these and similar events. The same content we would entrust to a pro-Israel training program is not something we would entrust to a campus-wide program. And when it became clear that neither the Penn nor the Harvard administrations supported or endorsed the student-run conferences on their campuses, for many the level of concern regarding those events decreased. The context had changed from that of an Ivy League institution endorsing anti-Israel vitriol to a handful of typical Israel campus detractors attempting to cloak their hate in the robes of their campuses’ respectability.

Perhaps, you may concede, it is important to know the arguments propounded by Israel’s detractors — if only to refute them. But surely such events are rife with inaccuracies, distortions, and outright lies; and campus Israel supporters would not agree with or endorse the underlying assumptions of the detractors’ claims. And yet, one can extend this observation of context versus content to many activities regarding Israel on campus, even when the underlying factual content is not in dispute.

For example, a program highlighting alleged human rights violations by Israeli soldiers in the territories would rightly be of concern if offered to a North American campus audience that would not otherwise be familiar with the fuller context. But the same content would be a source of great pride if the context of the program were how Israelis monitor, police, and enforce high ethical and legal standards to prevent, deter, and punish such abuses — particularly when compared, favorably, to the standards applied in other areas of conflict in the Mideast and around the globe.

A program featuring harsh criticism of Israeli government policy on a North American campus might appropriately receive questioning as to its motives; but place that criticism in the context of an exploration of the Israeli political system, and the same content becomes a powerful validation of the robust nature of Israel’s thriving democracy.

No one would deny that Israeli Arab citizens and other minorities deserve protection, civil rights, and integration into broader Israeli society. Presenting content regarding the struggles of integration of the Israeli Arab sector, without the context of the concerted efforts by both government and non-governmental groups to achieve those goals, would be misleading.

Presenting the existence of a security barrier — all too often portrayed out of context as an “apartheid wall” — without presenting the urgent life-saving needs that brought about its construction, is nothing more than campus quad theatrics; and so on.

Advocate for effective change

When we understand that what bothers many about anti-Israel campus events is not necessarily the content, but primarily the lack of context, we can better begin to understand how to advocate for effective change. Campus institutions hold sacred the protection of the exchange of ideas and academic freedom; asking educators to censor on the basis of particular content runs against the grain of everything the campus environment holds dear.

But institutions of higher learning also treasure their ability to contextualize information; in fact, that is their highest cause. Displaying naked human bodies in a math class would be pornographic; in an art class, it is a modeling exercise; in a medical school class, it is basic anatomy. In the academic environment, context matters. Just as it would be highly inappropriate for an instructor in a math class to rail against Israel to her students, so, too, should campus institutions see it in their own interests to ensure that their campus environments be ones in which they promote the exchange of accurate information in appropriate contexts.

When one begins to consider the context in which students and others receive accurate information about Israel, many of the issues regarding how to relate effectively to the campus environment become clearer. By shifting our attention in these ways, we as a community can stop getting frustrated by the wrong things, and focus our abilities on effecting fundamental change in the right ways.

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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 the Israel Campus Beat.

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