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Four questions for campus activists

If you’re keeping score at home of the debates about Israel on college campuses over the last month, the results from the North American Hillel network are in

For most Americans, March Madness refers to that annual tournament of high hopes and dashed dreams on the basketball court. For those studying at or working for Jewish institutions on North American college campuses, March Madness stands for the perennial surge of anti-Israel activism, most of it under the rubric of something known as Israel Apartheid Week (IAW). It is, to borrow some imagery from the current Jewish festival season, our own mitzrayim, or narrow place, through which we must pass every year. But the term is one of propaganda — not art — as other absurd pseudonyms and antics are used year ’round.

If, like the basketball fans, you’re keeping score at home of the debates about Israel on college campuses over the last month, the results from the North American Hillel network are in. They pretty consistently suggest that, while IAW activists were noisy and sometimes confrontational, as we expected, there’s little evidence they are growing in size and intensity or that their voices reached a wide or sympathetic audience.

To be sure, some pro-Israel students engaged in head-to-head, yet civil, disagreement with anti-Israel activists. For example, University of California at San Diego students, after a seven-hour debate, defeated a resolution before the school’s Associated Students organization to divest from Israel. At many other schools, students published op-eds in campus papers and spoke at public forums directly rejecting the vile comparisons between Israel and apartheid South Africa. As in the past, these symbolic provocations achieved no significant outcomes.

Israel Apartheid Week activists at the University of Texas, Austin (photo credit: CC BY monad68, Flickr)
Israel Apartheid Week activists at the University of Texas, Austin (photo credit: CC BY monad68, Flickr)

But for the most part, on many college campuses the majority of Jewish students used the occasion to turn their energies toward the affirmative: their curiosity about, sometimes complex relationship with, and, yes, love for, the State of Israel. Israel bashers ironically deepened the bonds between many students and the Jewish state.

In short, March Madness 2012 marked an unsurprising win for those concerned with anti-Israel activity on North American campuses. Also in the spirit of the season, our March experience poses at least four questions to consider:

1. Can we trust our kids to do what’s right?

There has been in recent years enormous anxiety in the Jewish community about the rising incidence of campus anti-Israel activism. And for good reason: Colleges are magnets for both outside instigators and academic contrarians looking to indict Israel, and much of what they do and say is alarmingly aggressive and grotesque. Many in the community fear that our students will somehow be overwhelmed or, worse, won over by anti-Israel activism on their campuses.

This last month demonstrated once again that Jewish students can hold their own in debates, and a fair amount of empirical research shows most are impervious to the anti-Israel appeals. To build their confidence as well as their tool kit, we at Hillel – and other groups that understand the psyche of young adults today – must offer them relevant content, context and continuity to ensure their voices mature and their knowledge deepens. But we cannot act in their stead. At a certain point, we need to step back and let them take these matters into their hands, using their own burgeoning voices and asking their own often-unscripted questions that we must be prepared to hear.

2. Is anti-Israel activism dominating campuses?

A lot of anti-Israel activism is serious and often nasty. But the bigger picture – I mean, what’s happening on most campuses most of the school year – is that there is far more light than heat on college campuses when it comes to Israel. The vituperation around IAW and BDS activities makes them appear bigger than they are – but the numbers of people involved and touched is small. In comparison to diverse pro-Israel offerings and short- and long-term Israel travel options, most of what students see are opportunities to form an affirmative understanding of and engagement with Israel.

3. Are we overreacting?

The goal of any activism, and certainly anti-Israel activism, is to create a stir. With a stir comes notoriety and media coverage. As Tal Becker, a scholar at the Shalom Hartman Institute, wrote recently, a study by the Israeli Foreign Ministry showed that IAW was mentioned only sparingly in major non-Israeli and non-Jewish media outlets, and that in 2011, some two-thirds of the coverage appeared in Israeli or Jewish media outlets:

Could it be that our need to identify, ring alarm bells, and rally against the next crisis du jour is sometimes its own threat? Could it be that a more sober, more soft-spoken and less alarmist approach to the very real threats Israel faces is not only the less naive response, but also sometimes the more effective?

4. Do outside actors help pro-Israel voices on campus?

Representing all points of the ideological spectrum, there are those from the Jewish community who bring a passion that unnecessarily ignites even more passion in response. A lot of china is broken while they’re there, and when they leave, the campus residents – including many who devote enormous energy to building valuable relationships with other groups – are stuck putting the pieces back together. Sometimes outside groups or speakers parachute into a program to advance a national agenda with little or no consultation of local efforts or school calendars. Other times these outside voices turn on those very students and Hillel staff, accusing them of trying to silence their ideas. But we’re not against ideas. We are against provocations aimed entirely at tearing down rather than encouraging serious inquiry and civil dialogue.

This week, Jews around the world honor the asking of difficult questions by all of our children as we gather around the Passover Seder table. Unlike the Final Four basketball competition, which culminates this week with one definitive winner, we do not seek to declare a winner of any one particular ideology or point of view, whether from the left, right or center. Let’s not forget that this tradition and value have successfully guided our community for many years.

About the Author
Wayne L Firestone is President and CEO of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life
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