Many of the headlines relating to Israel on campus these days trumpet malicious efforts to stigmatize the Jewish state at American colleges and universities. A narrow fringe of motivated and assertive anti-Israel students have been pushing for economic and academic sanctions against Israel by deceptively using the language of peace, human rights, and international law. But the good news is that pro-Israel students have turned the tide against the vile Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Of the 13 attempts to pass anti-Israel resolutions on U.S. campuses this academic year, 10 were defeated.
The most recent victory for the pro-Israel campus community was May 20th at the University of Washington where a divestment resolution was roundly rejected by a vote of 59 to 8. As in most of these battles, the Hillel on campus was at the tip of the spear. Rabbi Oren Hayon, Executive Director of Hillel at the University of Washington, skillfully empowered pro-Israel students to mobilize against this divisive divestment resolution. Rabbi Hayon and his students were supported by a coordinated coalition of pro-Israel organizations, including Hillel International, AIPAC, Israel Action Network, Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, StandWithUs, and Israel on Campus Coalition.
These resounding defeats are a positive trend and an improvement over the prior school year. Last year 12 schools considered divestment measures and only 6 were defeated. Indeed, despite the well-funded international campaign to isolate and delegitimize Israel, a diverse array of American college students, mobilized by friends of Israel, are standing up for Israel and standing against anti-Israel vitriol. These students have done incredible work and the Israel on Campus Coalition and our partners are proud to support them.
In reaction to this wave of pro-Israel victories on campus, anti-Israel activists at some schools refuse to accept the results of the democratic process and have resorted to intimidating behavior that is meant to silence pro-Israel students and faculty.
At the University of Michigan, the student government tabled a divestment resolution indefinitely because the representatives did not think the issue was a priority on campus nor a productive use of their time. However, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) were not pleased with this parliamentary procedure and staged sit-ins at the student government office and elsewhere on campus. They verbally harassed student government representatives to the point where the university administration offered the elected student leaders security escorts. The SJP’s pressure campaign worked, but only temporarily. The student government brought the divestment measure for a vote just one week after the tabling of the initial bill. The result? The resolution was defeated thanks to wonderful work by Tilly Shames, Executive Director at University of Michigan Hillel. Under trying circumstances, Tilly and her students led a sophisticated campaign to block BDS inroads at Michigan.
A similar scenario played out at Cornell University. Its student government rejected a divestment resolution. One week later, the anti-Israel students who supported the resolution disrupted a student government meeting and shouted down the university’s president, effectively barring him from speaking to the assembled students. Nonetheless, the student government refused to budge on the issue. The anti-Israel crowd failed again, in this case defeated by pro-Israel students who were deftly inspired and empowered by Hal Ossman, Executive Director of Cornell Hillel.
At Vassar College, a hotbed of anti-Israel activity, a professor decided to take her class on a trip to Israel in order to explore leading-edge water technologies. When the campus SJP chapter heard about the trip, they blockaded the doorway and picketed the classroom where the students were meeting and caused considerable disruption. Later, at a campus-wide forum about the Israel trip, SJP and its allies shouted at students and attempted to shut down the conversation. This is the same campus where SJP was harshly rebuked recently by the Vassar College president for posting on social media an anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda image. They who claim anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism are resorting to vile Nazi imagery.
The events at these three campuses have something in common: unruly mobs. This is not business as usual, and I predict that we have not seen the end of this assault on civility at American colleges and universities.
Strength in Alliance
The good news is that despite these new challenges on campus pro-Israel students are winning and becoming more unified in their efforts. And that is partly because pro-Israel organizations are working together more effectively than ever before. The groups that partner with the Israel on Campus Coalition, such as Hillel International, AIPAC, Alpha Epsilon Pi, StandWithUs, Hasbara Fellowships, Israel Action Network, and The David Project are collaborating closely and effectively to defeat campus efforts to isolate the Jewish state. We are working even harder to define a proactive agenda that creates positive connections to Israel.
In the previous school year, the BDS movement made greater inroads on campus than in the previous ten years combined. But this year we are proving that the prior year was an aberration. We are not only fighting the anti-Israel hatred on campus more successfully than ever before, but we are also implementing a more robust proactive pro-Israel agenda.
To mark Yom Haatzmaut earlier this month, Israel on Campus Coalition funded a joint initiative with our partners to celebrate Israel in 30 different ways on 30 campuses across the country. At Bethune Cookman University — one of America’s Historically Black Colleges — more than 200 students gathered to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day and show bipartisan support for the U.S-Israel relationship. This type of celebration had never before occurred on the campus of Bethune Cookman and was embraced by everyone who attended, including members of the BCU administration. At the University of Texas, pro-Israel students threw a massive Israel Independence Day party, and top student leaders attended even though the celebration was during final exams. At Colgate University, influential campus leaders and pro-Israel students wore t-shirts emblazoned with U.S. and Israeli flags and Theodor Herzl’s famous precept, “If you will it, it is no dream.” At each of these schools and so many others, we are seeing widespread demonstrations of support for Israel and democracy.
Despite our success this school year, Israel’s detractors will not relent, and we are likely to see a greater volume and variety of anti-Israel campus initiatives during the next academic year. Meeting these challenges will require more supporters of the Jewish state to invest additional resources in these students and in coordinated strategic efforts to help them create a positive campus climate for Israel.
In the final analysis, the good news we are seeing from campuses across America reveals an important lesson for our community. When we work together, we can achieve great things. We are stronger together, smarter together, and better together.
Jacob Baime is Executive Director of Israel on Campus Coalition.