When do campus Israel detractors win, and when do campus Israel supporters win? My organization, the Israel on Campus Coalition, tracks events relating to Israel on campuses throughout the United States to assess where the campus Israel network is strong and where it could be stronger. Our data points to one consistent pattern that shows up routinely, including last weekend at my alma mater, the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.
Over the past two academic years, ICC tracked over 2300 events purposefully aiming either to build support for or detract from Israel on 180 campuses nationwide. (We published an earlier analysis from this database in The Times of Israel last spring.) Tracking these events gives us the ability to identify where such activity is greatest, both nationally and on individual campuses.
For each event, we assign values based on the event type, its attendance, its publicity and its sponsorships and endorsements. This “impact score” reflects what visibility and support the event obtained on campus. We can then compare impact scores and gain insight into what drives the most successful events (from a marketing perspective) for both campus Israel supporters and campus Israel detractors.
A clear pattern arises in the data, which the chart below illustrates by comparing four conferences that occurred in the last academic year—two organized by campus Israel supporters and two by campus Israel detractors.
All four events are of the same type (a conference) and each had relatively comparable attendance. For the most part, the pre-event publicity by the conference organizers also was similar. As a result, each of the four conferences begins with a similar “raw score.”
But then the scores begin to diverge. The two Israel-supportive events, the Harvard Israel and Florida Loves Israelconferences from this past spring, receive total impact scores of 7.65 and 9.62 respectively, which rank them among the pro-Israel on-campus events with the highest visibility and support of the past two years. Among detractor events, the Penn BDS conference (calling for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel) from last winter receives an impact score of 10.63, making it the event with the greatest visibility of the past two years on this scale. (I address the positive efforts that the Penn Israel community launched concurrently more fully below.) By contrast, the first national conference of Students for Justice in Palestine (an organization that promotes BDS and other anti-Israel activities on campus), which took place at Columbia in fall 2011, garnered just a 5.67 impact score, placing it much lower overall; initial analysis of SJP’s second national conference, which took place at the University of Michigan last weekend, indicates that it would garner a still-lower 5.36.
What drives the differences in the impact of these events? An examination of the data reveals two elements that drive the differences in score—elements from which the pro-Israel community should learn and which ultimately are two sides of the same coin:
When we make the issue about fighting the detractors, they win. Campus Israel detractors have long realized a fundamental truth—one which the pro-Israel community often fails to grasp and continually has to re-learn. Most efforts in the United States calling for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel are doomed to fail and, even if passed, are purely symbolic in effect. This is doubly true on campus, where most often the bodies that Israel detractors ask to consider such measures have no actual authority to enact them; and it goes triple for student-organized conferences that only attract the previously converted and that take place in otherwise empty buildings over weekends and holidays.
The detractors know this. Enactment of the measures they propose is never their primary goal. The detractors’ primary goal is simple: generate media attention for their hateful anti-Israel message.
Don’t just take my word for it; consider the words of long-time anti-Israel activists who write about their strategies openly, for example:
We never considered actual divestment to be the primary goal of our campaign. Instead, we understood divestment as a framework around which to structure our activities, the major goals of which were to gain media attention and stimulate public debate.” (emphasis added)
Campus Israel detractors in the United States, blessedly relegated to the lunatic fringe, realized long ago that they were fighting a war of ideas, and that the only way to gain an audience for their hatred was to generate media attention. As analyses such as one published in The Times of Israel from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs amply demonstrate, the detractors only get publicity when the pro-Israel community gives it to them.
As a result, campus Israel detractors aim to generate controversy by provoking the pro-Israel community into a public reaction that frames the issue around the detractors and their message. The controversy then brings the media attention that the detractors sought in the first place.
When the pro-Israel community doesn’t react in a way that makes the issue about the detractors and their message, the event gathers little attention outside of the previously converted, and the detractors fail at their primary goal. The difference becomes apparent when comparing the impact scores of the Penn BDS conference, where public protest from some in the off-campus pro-Israel community generated significant media attention, and that of the Columbia or Michigan SJP conferences, where the pro-Israel community did not react in that fashion.
To be clear, the lesson is not for the campus Israel community to sit idly and do nothing in the face of detractors’ activity. At Penn, for example, savvy campus Israel activists from a broad coalition, backed by the campus Hillel, the local Jewish federation and a constellation of national organizations (including the ICC), organized a series of events that meaningfully engaged thousands of students on the Penn campus in positive and constructive discussions around Israel and included statements of support from 57 student group leaders, the president of the university and elected officials.
At Michigan, the campus Israel cohort (again with the assistance of Hillel and a host of national supporters, including ICC) organized events, discussions and seminars that have already engaged hundreds on campus in deep, meaningful and constructive experiences regarding Israel. Such positive engagement works effectively for the pro-Israel community regardless of what the detractors do—which leads us to the second lesson.
When we invest in building relationships with decision-makers, we win. The data regarding pro-Israel activity is equally clear. Attempts to generate media attention for pro-Israel campus activities generally struggle because, fortunately, the story that campuses in the United States support Israel is not news.
The Harvard Israel conference is the exception that proves the rule: That conference generated some media attention in part because it was at Harvard but primarily, and perversely, because of prior media attention for an anti-Israel conference at the same university earlier in the same semester. No other pro-Israel events in our analysis generated similar media attention, and certainly none rivaled the attention provided to detractor events. “Campus supports Israel,” like “dog bites man,” is not news; “campus protests Israel,” like “man bites dog,” is news.
Where pro-Israel campus events fail to generate media coverage, however, they have significant advantages in demonstrating legitimacy and credibility through broad participation. Supporting Israel isn’t just something that Israel’s core supporters can agree upon. Effective campus Israel activists reach out, individually, to build personal relationships with campus decision-makers, elected officials and others, and that support translates into the high sponsor scores for events like the Florida Loves Israel conference, which attracted the endorsement and participation of numerous elected officials, campus administrators, student leaders and others from across the state. As mentioned above, the Penn Israel community followed a similar engagement strategy, garnering the support and endorsements of dozens of influential opinion leaders and officials and successfully engaging many times more students than the Israel detractors could reach. Time and again, our data reveals that pro-Israel events on campus with the highest impact scores have demonstrated this lesson: Relationships matter. More importantly, such relationship-based efforts don’t just build visibility, which this analysis primarily measures; they build connections and attachments that last. They not only add to an “impact score”; they create lasting change.
Ultimately, the two lessons from our analysis—when we create media attention for Israel detractors, they win; when we focus on relationship-based engagement, we win—show the path to greatest success for the campus Israel network. Israel’s campus detractors are organized, motivated and determined, and they take a long-term view; and yet, when the pro-Israel community is disciplined, strategic and proactive, we have and will continue to enjoy great success.
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.