Journalists and pro-Israel activists often share a tendency to see current events as the beginning of history. I’ve been reminded of this lately by apocalyptic stories regarding anti-Semitism in the United States, the situation on college campuses and American public opinion. I’ve been perusing my archives of articles that I and others have written in the past and thought I’d share some historical observations in the next few columns to put present concerns in context.
In 1986, yes more than 30 years ago, I wrote the following: “Israel is fighting an intensifying battle that, though bloodless, threatens her survival. The war is being fought on three fronts: in Israel, in Washington and on the campuses of American universities.” At the time, I was working on my Ph.D. in political science at UCLA and involved in campus activism.
I hear people claiming the situation on campus today is worse than ever, but here are a few examples of what was going on at that time:
At Berkeley, the Muslim Students Association passed out highlights of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. At Arizona State, an Israeli flag was displayed with a swastika in place of the Mogen David. The UCLA black student newspaper printed an anti-Israel article that featured a map of Israel with not only Judea, Samaria and Gaza labeled as occupied, but the entire State of Israel identified as “occupied since 1948.”
UCLA has a huge Jewish student population, estimated then at about 6,000; nevertheless, attendance at our Israel Action Committee meetings averaged fewer than 10 students. The situation at other campuses was similar, prompting what I later dubbed, “the rule of 20,” which says that no matter how many Jewish students attend a university, you’re unlikely to find more than 20 activists. This has not changed in the last three decades.
Then, as now, I asked, “What can we do to motivate Jewish students to become more active on campus?”
Many people claim credit for the idea of the Birthright program; I don’t, but I did write in that 1986 article: “There is no doubt that the single best idea is to get students to Israel. I have yet to meet a student who has come back from Israel unaffected. Students return with a stronger sense of commitment to the State of Israel and to Judaism.”
The secret to getting students to Israel, I said, was to make trips affordable. At that time, a yeshiva was offering a program for the bargain price of $450 and received more than 200 applications from just five cities, but could only afford to take 100 students. It took more than a decade, but, thankfully, philanthropists and the government of Israel created Birthright Israel to offer free trips.
I made another suggestion that I don’t think anyone has pursued. I argued we should also offer trips to Europe. “Many students like to tour Europe during summer break, especially after graduating from college,” I noted. “They are not interested in going to Israel; they want to go to see the sights of Europe.” Many of these students are likely to fit the profile for Birthright and don’t apply for whatever reason. Some may be non-Jews. I suggested that the Jewish community create European tours for these students, which go to all the traditional hotspots, but add one additional stop — Israel. Unlike Birthright, the tour would not be free, but students already pay for trips to Europe. Most would never think of adding a stop in Israel, but if it were already part of the tour, why not? It’s a lot cheaper to get to Israel from Europe, so the tour price shouldn’t be significantly higher.
I also explored the idea of trying to integrate Israel into the Eurail system so that students could use passes to get to Israel inexpensively, perhaps by ship (I used my pass in 1980 to go from Greece to Egypt), and gain free or discounted access to Israeli trains. I don’t know if anything like this is possible, but it might be worth revisiting.
Back in 1986, I was also unimpressed with the quality of the material available to students. I argued that we needed to develop information discussing the major issues in a way “American students can understand and appreciate.” Today, we have a surfeit of material, however, we can still do better. For example, AICE’s Jewish Virtual Library offers students everything they need to know on topics from anti-Semitism to Zionism, and has more than 800,000 visitors per month, but it is severely understaffed and underfunded.
AICE also publishes Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict, the “bible” for activists. Myths, then published by AIPAC, helped launch my career as a campus activist when I was an undergrad at UC Santa Barbara searching for answers to Israel’s detractors. Unfortunately, the book is no longer given to students by AIPAC, as it was in my day, and too few students are familiar with the information it contains.
One last recommendation that I made that has also largely been ignored to the detriment of the cause is to recruit students to become more active in the Jewish community. I observed that students saw the establishment as a plutocracy. If anything, this perception may be worse today. I stand by the suggestion I made at that time: “We have to bring college students onto the boards of the various organizations so that they will not only feel like a part of the Jewish community at-large, but will also be able to express the needs and concerns of the campus community directly to the people who can provide the resources needed to fight the war on the campuses.”
Dr. Mitchell Bard is the author/editor of 24 books including the 2017 edition of Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict, The Arab Lobby, and the novel After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.