No one should be surprised that Oxford University students unequivocally voted down a motion calling for a boycott of Israeli institutions, goods and produce.
Recent attitudinal research done on university students in the UK were clear in their findings that there is very little support for anti-Israel boycotts on UK campuses. The same is true on US campuses.
What a number of pro-Israel advocacy groups in America and the UK have found is that there is no black and white on the issue of Israel on college campuses. The entire concept that one side is right and one is wrong turns students off. For better or worse, on Israel and the Palestinians, issues are seen in shades of gray.
Similarly, in both places, the concept of academic boycotts are repugnant to most students, striking them as a stifling of the basic right to free speech. Specific vitriolic campuses in the US and UK are clear targets for the BDS movement, but anti-Israel efforts have not seeped into other, quieter campuses – the vast majority. Students even aware of BDS efforts were those from a couple of highly aggressive campuses, but even they rejected the idea as an effective technique for pressuring Israel.
The truth is, most college students are simply not paying attention to what is happening in the Palestinian-Israeli arena nor frankly, are they very interested except for an ideological few. Anti-Israel messaging has bled into the background context of the conflict, but specific instances of conflict are simply not known. Most university students in both nations have no idea about the arguments being used by Israel’s detractors such as settlements, road blocks or the security barrier.
However, there is a general sense that Israel has committed some sort of humanitarian violations, and that there are disenfranchised Arabs and Palestinians as a result.
Because the BDS movement and their supporters have not succeeded to penetrate their messages, pro-Israel groups on campuses would do well to limit their own messaging to simple, positive, pro-active communication which provide an honest rendering of the challenges faced by Israel when warranted.
The lack of knowledge about Israel, particularly on the UK campus scene is eye-opening. For example, students really have no sense that all Israelis, including Muslim and Christian Arabs the have right to vote and serve in parliament, including the fact that Muslim women are currently serving. When students learn this basic fact they are very positive and want to know more. Educating on shared democratic values, most importantly on women’s rights, is key to communicating positively about Israel.
Another strong pro-Israel message to college students deals with alternative energy and other Israeli technological advancements. Although students point out that this information would not necessarily cause them to support Israel, they are interested in the potential for Israel to make the world a better place. Using this information allows pro-Israel activists to broaden the conversation, a key element of communicating with this population.
It is also critical to understand where college students get their news about Israel and the Mideast. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority obtain their news from the Internet and the sites they most often log on to are from the mainstream media such as BBC.com, NYTimes.com, CNN.com, etc. These conventional outlets remain the places where most attention must be paid to make the biggest impact on attitudes of university students in the United Kingdom and The United States. And increasingly, the same goes for their parents.