It’s nearly Halloween, celebrated here in the US largely as a secular holiday with fake spooks, pretend zombies, and other false scares that make it easy for us to laugh at our fears. Fittingly, the Israel-related media has covered a recent report regarding campus activities about Israel by focusing on all the wrong things. It’s as if we’re characters in a scary movie: having opened the closet door to find nothing inside, we’re lulled into a false sense of relief — until we turn to face the very real danger right behind us.
Although some may question the report’s completeness, for these purposes let’s assume that the report’s data was accurate. Nevertheless, there are three dangerously misleading elements to the coverage the report received; and while I have made a point of disputing claims that “campuses are on fire,” we risk missing the real danger that the media coverage obscures.
We don’t have a 3 percent problem; we have a 100% problem. The headline most repeated from the report indicates that the most virulent anti-Israel activity occurs on approximately 3% of North American campuses. Again, even assuming that were true, as my colleague Elliot Mathias of Hasbara Fellowships pointed out in The Times of Israel several days ago, the headline fails to capture that the campuses within that 3% are all of the elite schools in the nation — Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Berkeley, UCLA, Michigan, Columbia, Penn, and so on — and also represent the schools at which roughly 80-90% of American Jewish students attend. In other words, the “3%” represents those schools at which the next generation of American and Jewish leadership receive the basis for their impressions of Israel for the rest of their lives. If that’s the case, the pro-Israel community doesn’t face a 3% problem; it faces a 100% problem.
Activity isn’t the problem; sentiment is. Because the report focused only on what activity the researchers could observe from a national vantage point, the coverage misleadingly concluded that where there wasn’t visible activity, there wasn’t a problem. That’s incorrect, because the ultimate issue is sentiment regarding Israel, which does not necessarily get captured by observing anti-Israel activity.
Take for example a decision in just the past few days at Drew University, a small Methodist liberal arts college in Madison, New Jersey. According to a report in the Drew campus newspaper, The Acorn, the student government last week rejected an application to establish a student club celebrating Israeli culture, because, “according to them, it overlapped with other Middle Eastern Clubs on campus like the Middle Eastern Student Association (MESA) and SJP (Students for Justice in Palestine)” — two organizations that rarely portray Israel positively in programming on any college campus. The report dispassionately continues:
Although a few council members opted to table the vote in order to check if the other Middle Eastern Club’s charters included Israeli culture in their club discussions, activities, and events, the majority of members voted “yay” to denying the club proposal.
The result sounds strikingly like the argument posed by fierce Israel critic and SJP adviser Marc Ellis in opposing an Israel group at Baylor University just a few years ago.
The point is that measures of activity fail to reflect the degree of sentiment regarding Israel on campus. At Baylor and, apparently, Drew there is at least a significant misunderstanding, and quite possibly a great degree of animus regarding Israel that may not be reflected in levels of activity, but is nevertheless very real.
The bogeyman isn’t the detractors; it’s our failure to engage. Like in a horror film, we shouldn’t let the “false scare” lull us into missing the real danger. The greatest danger that Israel, and for that matter Judaism, faces on campus is not what detractors do, but what we fail to do. And the coverage around the report completely misses what we fail to do — namely, to engage young American Jews, and others, regarding Israel and Judaism. What frequently gets reported as “apathy” is a sense of the irrelevance of Judaism and Israel in the lives of the next generation. What’s striking, then, is not whether anti-Israel events occur on 3%, 5%, or 20% of American campuses, but rather that vast swaths of American students, including Jewish students, couldn’t care less if they did. If the campuses are quiet because the next generation doesn’t care about Israel, we lose. No misleading media coverage should distract us from our important mission of engaging the next generation.
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 Israel Campus Beat.