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Lies, damned lies, and campus Israel statistics

The results of a two-month analysis of pro- and anti-Israel activities are in -- and they tell us a lot about the dynamics unfolding on American campuses

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.

– Benjamin Disraeli

In the battle to make the campus environment more positive regarding Israel —particularly in the wake of another year of countering the lies of the tired “apartheid week” trope — perhaps nothing is more elusive or frustrating than trying to place the activity of both Israel supporters and Israel detractors into context.

How much activity is taking place? How far does it reach? How serious is it? How much effect does it have on campus?

The systematic answers to these questions defy easy study. The United States alone has over 2,600 accredited four-year colleges and universities, with over 11 million undergraduate students, making research daunting. Even the estimated 270,000 Jewish undergraduates, who tend to concentrate at roughly 100 US colleges, are notoriously difficult to track and study.

The good news — that there are literally dozens of organizations and resource providers in the campus Israel network focused on addressing the needs of specific campuses — carries with it the unfortunate reality that few of these actors report their activities in any centralized way. Even for all of the good work that individual campus Hillel foundations perform, the Hillel franchise relies upon an autonomous model of action that makes tracking activity of individual campus affiliates with any accuracy very difficult.

But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to assess from what we do know and can observe. My organization, the Israel on Campus Coalition, communicates with over 100 US campuses and more than 30 national organizations on a monthly basis. For the two-month period from February 15 to April 15, 2012, ICC tracked 548 events on 101 campuses in North America.

With the assistance of information supplied by StandWithUs, Hasbara Fellowships, the Israeli Ministry of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs and numerous individual campus Israel-related actors, we identified 202 discrete events that were undertaken during those two months that generally painted Israel in a positive light. Separately, through both “humint” (human intelligence) communications with campuses, “sigint” (signals intelligence) electronically available information, and the assistance of sources such as ADL and the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, we identified some 346 events during those same two months that portrayed Israel in a negative light. To each of these 548 events, ICC research staff assigned weights and values based upon several factors — attendance, costs, type of event, type and number of sponsors and publicity — to arrive at a score representing the overall effect or “impact” of the event on campus.

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)

Such an analysis can only be tentative due to several significant constraints. First, as noted above, reporting of events is incomplete. Pro-Israel activity is vastly underreported — perhaps double, triple or more activity actually takes place that connects students and others with Israel positively than what was readily captured in this initial analysis.

Second, strategic, long-term, retail relationship-building — so crucial to effective campus Israel advocacy, but taking place individually — does not lend itself to such analysis, and is also vastly underreported. The qualitative value of engaging individual leaders is often difficult to capture in a quantitative analysis.

In addition, the broad strokes involved in grouping some events as portraying Israel negatively, and some that portray Israel positively, has some subjectivity. In truth, there is a vast middle ground of events that do neither, and those middle-ground events do not appear in this analysis.

Moreover, for each of the events that are captured, one must estimate some of the factors due to incomplete information. Finally, the factors for weighting events may themselves be subject to critique or revision.

Even with all of these qualifications, however, the results of the two-month analysis — conducted at the height of events like “Israel Apartheid Week” and “Israel Peace Week” — are very telling. First, with regard to such branded events, and even during such a peak time of detractor activity, Israel supporter events far outweigh Israel detractor events in several measures. Roughly twice as many campuses put on “Israel Peace Week” events, a series of events supported by Hasbara Fellowships that portray Israel’s historic quest for peace with its neighbors, as experienced the hateful “apartheid week” events.

In fact, the StandWithUs Israeli Soldiers Speak Out tour reached nearly three dozen campuses in North America, easily more than did the detractors. While individual detractor events had a greater total number in the analysis, the vast majority of those events occurred on a smaller number of campuses overall. Israel’s supporters have a broader reach on a national scale.

The same observation also holds true when evaluating individual events. Detractor events attract fewer attendees, and gain fewer co-sponsors, on the whole than do Israel supporter events. As a result, the individual impact of detractor events is far less than the supporter events — to the extent that when aggregating the overall weight of the detractor events, even though their total number was almost double that of the supporters, the total “impact” score for those detractor events was still less than the Israel supporter events during the same period. Put simply, Israel supporter events are more effective, reach more people and are generally more impactful, measured in quantitative terms, than are the detractor events on campus.

But there is a price for that effectiveness. Israel supporter events consistently were significantly more expensive than detractor events, reflecting the higher quality of speakers, venues, support resources and the like. Placing a mock security wall on campus can be a relatively low-cost affair; coordinating and bringing soldiers and other speakers from Israel, or supplying prominent national experts to relate facts directly to a campus audience, is more costly. In our analysis, Israel supporter events in the aggregate were between twice and four times more expensive than detractor events.

Remember, too, that this initial analysis did not begin to measure the real costs that come from responding to events, rather than focusing on a strategic, pro-active agenda. It does not diminish the impact of bringing a high-profile pro-Israel speaker to campus in response to an anti-Israel conference; but the fact remains that the significant expense that the campus Israel community incurred as a result of such an effort, in terms of resources and expense, benefits the detractors as well. Like any political campaign, forcing one’s opponent to devote resources to defensive actions rather than deploying them to greater good in seizing the agenda can itself be a strategic victory.

What can we learn from this analysis? Although campus Israel detractors are busy, they tend not to have the same reach and effectiveness as the network of campus Israel supporters. Our community may see individual anti-Israel events taking place on campus and rightly feel horrified, but the fact remains that campus Israel supporters work diligently to present a positive view of Israel, and appear to be relatively successful in reaching audiences when doing so.

Although a comprehensive, quantitative, and repeated study of campus sentiment regarding Israel has yet to be performed — something that ICC is beginning to undertake with a team of researchers — this initial evaluation of campus activity regarding Israel in North America tells us Israel’s campus supporters are having a positive effect.

The analysis also tells us that such efforts do not come without investment. Israel’s campus detractors have alighted upon a simple fact: lies, even damned lies, come cheap. To provide truthful, accurate information — the kind that can be subjected to rigorous analysis — in support of Israel on campus requires attention and resources. That, it appears, is a statistical fact.

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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 the Israel Campus Beat.

About the Author
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 campus environment regarding Israel, and publisher of the Israel Campus Beat