Matthew Ackerman

Campus change we can believe in

It is largely taken for granted in the Jewish world that American universities and colleges have an Israel problem. Far less clear is what can be done to correct it.

A new report (full disclosure: I am the report’s lead author) on campus Israel advocacy recently released by The David Project aims in part to jumpstart that necessary debate. Now, in the wake of the report’s release, a thoughtful and serious critique has been raised over the strategy it puts forward.

Articulated well by Rachel Fish (a former and wildly successful David Project staff member who is now a doctoral student at Brandeis) in a recent article in Tablet, this view holds that by focusing advocacy efforts on students, activists are missing the real problem and so cannot create meaningful change. In particular, she wrote, “Students… alone will not be able to alter the discourse. If we want to see real change, the structural elements of campus life — faculty, administration, and funding sources, all of which have far greater power than students — must be confronted.”

Without a doubt, Fish is correct in identifying where major sources of power on campus lie. The questions are rather what outcomes we hope to achieve on campus and what chances we have to create change, influenced by a realistic but not hopeless appraisal of the trends beyond our control that both help foster anti-Israelism and mitigate against it.

The David Project report reviews a number of factors that influence Israel’s negative treatment on campus. Chief among these are cultural and intellectual trends with decades if not centuries of provenance that get expressed today as a campus predilection toward relativism, postmodernism, and related and deeply flawed ways of looking at the world. Today, the power of this worldview gets expressed in course materials that are often unthinkingly biased against Western (hence Israeli or Zionist) narratives and a reflexive unwillingness by most people on many campuses to view anti-Israelism as a form of bigotry that deserves to be treated in the same manner as other bigotries. The furies that usually attend even the semblance of anti-black racism at nearly all schools, for example, are plainly not in evidence when it comes to denigrating the national identity of Jews.

While there is a role Jewish organizations can and should play in challenging those views, just as that intellectual climate came to dominate campus discourse for reasons outside our control, so too can we not expect to fundamentally alter it by ourselves and in the near future.

Another factor the report notes is the apathy and ignorance of most Jewish students. In a relevant example, it notes that according to the published statistics of the Hillel at the University of Maryland (with perhaps the largest and most active population of Jewish students at any predominantly non-Jewish school in the country) less than 8% of Jews on campus regularly participate in Jewish-related activities. This corresponds as well to a more general apathy about politics among the student population at large. Standing up for just about any cause is a socially unpopular thing to do at many schools, and all the more so when it comes to the generally unpopular Zionist cause.

Speaking up therefore requires a strong degree of moral courage, some knowledge, and a belief in the justness of the cause, all traits the Jewish community has some distance to travel in effectively inculcating in its young people.

But as the report also notes, there are trends that do favor an improvement in Israel’s treatment. Humanities departments (generally the worst sources of campus anti-Israelism) are in the midst of a generational decline, capturing a decreasing share of student majors and funding. Once sacrosanct fields like classics and anthropology have already been cut or are on the chopping block at many public universities.

Business majors (already the most popular option on campus) are rapidly taking their place. These venues, where politics are far from center-stage, are also very predisposed to sympathetic considerations of Israel growing out of its “start up nation” success. Berkeley, for example, may indeed play host to one of the most vociferous and influential centers of anti-Israelism in the country, but its business school also – without controversy – hosted a conference on Israel’s high tech industry last month. A strong chapter of a growing student group focused on investing in Israel, TAMID, is also active and successful on campus there.

Demographic changes are also rapidly increasing the share of the student body derived from populations with at least the potential for natural affinity for Israel, such as Indian, Asian, and evangelical students. Jeremy Lin, the NBA phenom, toiled for years under the radar of big time basketball scouts before getting his chance with the New York Knicks. So too has the pro-Israel community long overlooked the significant and important percentage of students at his alma mater, Harvard, whose backgrounds are similar to his own Taiwanese ancestry and deep Christian faith.

Even with all this taken into account, we are still left with Fish’s structural issues, but there is a clearer context for them. Radical professors continue to have far too much influence over many administrative decisions, but their influence is waning and we can help push them out the door. More Saudi money than we fully know flows into radicalized Middle East studies departments at elite schools, but, as demonstrated well by Martin Kramer in his 2001 book Ivory Towers on Sand, those same departments are also supported by the university structure itself and the U.S. government. In short, there are larger questions than even successful efforts to cut off the radical money flow would not answer.

We also shouldn’t overlook the real prize: the moral sentiments of the student body. There is much that we can do to influence that without those structural changes.

The complete victory on campus some hope for, we must know, can’t be achieved. But we can move the needle toward Israel in a more positive direction if we are realistic about our own capabilities and remain open to how trends beyond our control may be working in our favor.

About the Author
Matthew Ackerman is the Media Relations Manager for The David Project, a non-profit that positively shapes campus opinion on Israel