Is all OK on US campuses?
Headlines about a study just released by the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise imply that anti-Israel activity and sentiment on college campuses is at a minimal level, which seemingly contradicts the argument that campuses are “on fire” against Israel.
In my opinion, the coverage of the study is misleading. Here are three reasons why:
First, look at the statistics the study produced. Six-hundred and seventy-four anti-Israel events occurred at 108 US and Canadian universities during the 2011-12 academic year. One-third of the incidents took place on 10 campuses. Does that mean that this is an isolated problem on a handful of campuses? Well, no.
If a third of the events (about 225) took place on 10 campuses, then according to the study, about 450 anti-Israel events took place at 100 other campuses. That’s an average of four-five anti-Israel events per year on those campuses. Does this alone mean the campuses are on fire? Not necessarily – though if one considers the regularity with which students are exposed to the advertising for and execution of such events on these campuses, the gravity of these events should not be trivialized.
Second, the coverage says that these 108 campuses comprise only 3% of campuses in North America, implying that anti-Israel activity is an isolated issue. But among these 108 campuses are the largest and most influential universities in America, including Ivy League schools, elite liberal arts colleges, and prominent state universities. It’s also a safe assumption that minimally 75% of Jewish college students attend these 108 campuses.
So yes, this activity may be at a small percentage of schools, but the particular students being reached are future decision-makers, political leaders, journalists and educators. And, just as worrisome, large numbers of Jewish students are being exposed to these activities, and many of them are unprepared to respond and lack a grasp of their context.
Third, the number of anti-Israel events reported does not give the full picture of anti-Israel activity on campuses. For example, it is commonplace on many campuses to find anti-Israel editorials or letters to the editor in campus newspapers. These sorts of incidents were not measured in the study. A serious problem on many campuses, as noted in the study, is anti-Israel professors who use their pulpit to criticize and at times demonize Israel. This trend was also not measured in the study.
So what is the accurate picture of anti-Israel activity on campus today? It is certainly not the case that an average student walks through campus on a daily basis feeling that Israel is under attack. On most days, on most college campuses, Israel is not an issue – “out of sight, out of mind.”
But on approximately 100 of the largest and most influential campuses across North America, there are anti-Israel activities happening out on the quad, in the classroom, and in the campus media, throughout the year. Perhaps more worrisome, the most sophisticated anti-Israel activists realize that “behind the scenes” advocacy can at times be more effective: reaching out to left-leaning and often uninformed student groups on campuses to build coalitions and relationships; mobilizing sympathetic professors to promote and encourage their extracurricular anti-Israel activities; lobbying student governments to divest from Israel — these are just some of the often untracked and unknown tactics of the anti-Israel movement.
Over my 11 years of involvement through the Hasbara Fellowships, I’ve noticed that the pro-Israel community has come a long way. There is no doubt that pro-Israel students today are more educated, prepared, supported and confident than they were in the past. On many campuses, the pro-Israel side is certainly “winning” — by crafting the dominant narrative on campus about Israel, by building meaningful and enduring relationships with student groups and leaders, and by reaching out to those who are not already committed to being pro- or anti-Israel.
But despite our successes, it is important to acknowledge that anti-Israel activity is not going away and is certainly not an issue to sweep under the rug.