The conflict in Gaza and Israel swept over American campuses in the past two weeks like a tidal wave. From the beginning of Operation Pillar of Defense until now – including last week’s Thanksgiving holiday, during most of which American campuses were closed – my organization, the Israel on Campus Coalition, tracked 55 anti-Israel protests and rallies that sprang up on campuses across the US; in the same period, at least 44 pro-Israel events took place (although our tracking of both types of events is still incomplete and many additional events, particularly pro-Israel events, may not yet be reflected). This wave of activity represents a dramatic increase in a very short period.
In most cases, anti-Israel events occurred in places and took forms that largely followed the precedents of recent conflicts such as Operation Cast Lead in 2009 and the second Lebanon conflict in 2006. In a few cases, some events were more comparable to the fiery protests of the second intifada of a decade ago. In one extreme example, anti-Israel protestors at the University of California, Davis – a campus with a history of inflammatory protests – occupied a campus building and harassed pro-Israel students.
According to one news report, the protesters raised a banner outside the occupied building reading “Davis + Gaza Are One Fist,” while the group inside discussed why “people who support [Z]ionism support genocide.” When the protesters noticed three observers, including one filming the event on a camera phone and two identified as Israelis, the protesters confronted them, “yelling ‘Death to Israel’ and ‘F*** Israel’ until they left.” The news report continues:
About 15 minutes later, a student who asked to remain anonymous vocalized disagreement with one of the signs in the room. A protester grabbed him by the shirt collar and raised a fist…. Protesters said that because they overtook Dutton Hall, they could decide who had a right to be present, and [Z]ionists were not allowed.
Such extreme behavior remains the exception rather than the rule on the vast majority of US campuses; in most places, both protests against and rallies in support of Israel were peaceful. However, even one such incident is extremely disturbing and represents a significant problem for the Davis administration to address.
No less troubling, in a different way, was the response to the conflict in campus media, which also settled into familiar patterns. An editorial from the University of Pennsylvania campus newspaper’s editorial board captures the views of much similar coverage. Entitled “Objectivity: Lost in the Fray,” the Penn editors lament the failure of rallies and counter-rallies to respect the campus ethic of discussion and engagement – one that they believe they have seen ignored by Israel detractors and supporters alike in the recent past:
The grating rhetoric that has emerged on campus over the last few days harks back to the campus climate during the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions conference in February. While pro-Israel and pro-Palestine students have condemned the killing of civilians on these very pages, they’ve also voiced seemingly irreconcilable views on the conflict. No resolution or coalition will be achieved unless students on both sides of the aisle are willing to listen to each other.
The news coverage on many campuses reflected the reality of the US campus environment that rallies and counter-rallies, as much as they help campus Israel supporters to feel better and to find an immediate vehicle to express their solidarity for Israel under fire, tend to alienate the vast majority of campus residents, who do not see in those rallies a way to relate to or engage with the issues in meaningful ways.
Not all events fell into this disappointing cycle. Some campus Israel supporters, either in conjunction with or separately from public rallies, engaged leaders and peers much as they do year-round in direct, personal appeals for support, or called upon those relationships they had previously cultivated for support at this crucial time. As the Israel Campus Beat first reported, for example, campus Israel supporters at Rutgers gathered hundreds of names on a petition of support; in Boston, campus Israel supporters joined the broader community in thanking elected officials who were, in turn, expressing their support for Israel. Sophisticated students, many of whom received AIPAC training, mobilized quickly to capitalize on the relationships they had nurtured for months and years.
The pattern of behavior, from detractors, supporters and observers alike, is not new. It follows predictable patterns of prior conflicts from even just four years ago. But while the lessons are not new, the campus Israel community constantly must re-learn them because generations of students and campus professionals have passed through and exited the campus environment since the last conflict, leaving new generations to learn in their wake.
For this reason, there is never a ceasefire on campus. The process of engaging and educating pro-Israel students, as well as campus professionals, is continual, not just on the core of their relationships with and basic nature of the modern state of Israel but also on the most effective ways to share that knowledge and passion with others. The learning cycle is remarkably short; in the span of just a year or two, a student or professional can pass from novice through leader to alumnus. In the three years that I have served in my current role, I have been struck how often issues can recur in the same places in a short period of time – and that the prior work of many can quickly come undone if we do not remain vigilant.
When the rockets stop falling, the time for learning and re-learning begins. Will we as a community learn the lessons in time, before the next crisis occurs? We have no ceasefire for our diligence and hard work.