This morning while listening to the radio I heard a discussion between Nachman Shai (former IDF spokesman) and Labor MK and Ben-Dror Yemini of Yediot on the lack of action by the Israeli government on American campuses. The conversation was the result of a similar discussion that took place in the Knesset yesterday about the lack of action by Israel to fight Academic boycotts.
I was not sure whether to laugh or cry as I listened to the interchange. This topic of concern definitively proves there is nothing new under the sun. This dialogue could have just as easily taken place in the early 1970’s. Back in those years, when I was active on US campuses, we complained bitterly that there was not enough investment on the part of the Israeli government in Hasbara (information/P.R.). How could Israel (which even then was receiving billions of dollars from the U.S.) invest so little in promotion? At that time, Israel invested less than one tenth of a percent of the money it was receiving in Hasbara. My guess is that that percentage ratio has not changed.
Unfortunately, today, so many years later, the situation is actually much worse than it was in my time. Back then there was an organization called “The American Zionist Youth Foundation” (A.Z.Y.F.), which was effectively part of the Youth and Hechalutz Department of the World Zionist Organization. One of the main sections of AZYF was its University Services Department. The U.S.D. was generally run by an Israeli shaliach, usually a kibbutznik, who then paid small stipends to a large cadre of student representatives who worked part-time on campuses throughout the United States. A.Z.Y.F.’s University Services Department organized events on campuses, brought speakers, and generally tried to maintain a Zionist presence on campuses across America. Sometimes it was successful, sometimes less so. However, it was always a presence.
In its day, U.S.D. brought some of the most interesting Israelis to spend time on US campuses. Alas, the A.Z.Y.F.– with all its faults – is no more, a victim of one of the needless wars of the Jews. This fundamental organization has never been replaced. Today, 40 year after I was a campus activist (boy, that really hurts to write) there are a variety of unrelated Jewish organizations working on campuses. The strongest Jewish campus entity tends to be Chabad, followed by Hillel. The “Zionist presence” is relegated to a group of independent organizations such as “The David Project”, “J Street” , “The Israel Project” and others.
The potential to improve this dismal situation today is easier in some ways, and harder in other ways than it was in my day. In my day, the Labor party was in power. Very few American Zionist activists were to the left of the government. (There was one organization, called “Breira”, but that topic is for a different discussion.) Today, I would have a hard time defending some of the actions (or more often, statements) of our government. That, obviously, presents a challenge. On the positive side, today there are tens of thousands of “Birthright” program returnees on American campuses and new alums are being added every year. There has been much discussion about the need to do follow-up with these returnees. My experience and research has shown the way to keep them connected to Israel is to get them active – doing things on behalf of Israel.
In order to keep that connection, we must activate and engage these young people, keep them involved. My suggestion to all of those who are wringing their hands over the sad state of our hasbara on U.S. campuses: Do not totally reinvent the wheel! Bring back to life a “next generation” of the University Department of the A.Z.Y.F. Give it the task of activating the thousands of Birthright graduates to work on behalf of Israel on campuses. One last piece of advice: find someone who is slightly left-of-center to head these efforts. It might be slightly uncomfortable for this government to do that. However, he or she will be much more effective in their efforts. Forty years have passed. So many things have changed in the intervening years – both positive and negative. Yet, somehow, when it comes to Israel on U.S. campuses, nothing has really changed. Ultimately, it comes down to priorities. The State of Israel has spent the intervening years giving ‘lip service’ to the needs of University and college campuses. It can continue to do so… or it could decide the time has come to do something. My fear is that someone will be able to write this same article in another 40 years.