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The disappearing legion

Why is it that at Columbia University, a school with one of the strongest, most vibrant Jewish populations anywhere in the world, Israel seems to be the farthest thing from anyone's minds?

As a product of the American Jewish educational trifecta (day school, youth group, camp), I knew what I was in for when I started college after my gap year. American universities, the conventional wisdom goes, are bastions of anti-Israel activity on the level of Ramallah or Gaza or the foreign affairs arm of the European Union. With Middle Eastern studies professorships bought and paid for by the Saudi-Arabian government poisoning the minds of the impressionably liberal student body, colleges from the Atlantic to the Pacific had been hijacked. I was pretty sure Noam Chomsky had a dorm room at several schools – though probably not the party room on his hall. All joking aside, I was quite sure that college was a scary place to be a Zionist.

I knew all of this before I ever stepped foot in my freshman orientation. I saw the YouTube clips and the occasional feature film, such as “Crossing the Line: The Intifada Comes to Campus” (a film that was apparently so important it was screened both at my high school and on my gap year program). I spent hours in seminars with Israel advocacy experts. I role-played responses to Israel Apartheid Week. I discussed and debated from all angles, alternating between play-acting a right-wing Zionist, a left-wing Zionist, a moderate Palestinian eager for peace with Israel, an angry Palestinian who refused to even say the word “Israel.” Basically, I was ready for anything. Except what I encountered.

Apathy. A pervasive, silent apathy.

At Columbia University, a school with one of the strongest, most vibrant Jewish populations anywhere in the world, where many students had been deeply involved Jewishly before matriculating, Israel seemed to be the farthest thing from anyone’s minds. Was it the stress of a rigorous college course-load? Was it the erosion of morals and beliefs inherent in the college experience? Was it “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment?” These ideas may all play a role, but not one of them is sufficient to explain the black hole. A typical Israeli cultural event — a Cafe Ivrit (at which students enjoy free coffee and snacks while learning and speaking Hebrew) or a screening of a new Israeli movie – will have fewer than 10 participants, despite taking place at a Hillel that successfully reaches over 1,000 students each year. But the problem is greater than that; from work in inter-campus collaborative groups I know that this is not just a Columbia problem.

When I posed the question to a long-time friend of mine, now also a student at Columbia, she explained that she would “be there when it mattered.” When I pushed further, she reasoned that she choose not to come to Israeli cultural events so that she would “have time for the bigger things.” Again, I pressed on through the semi-obscure phraseology. “I’ll be at the response to Israel Apartheid Week” was the ultimate reply. And that is the problem.

A pervasive, silent apathy. Columbia University (photo credit: CC BY-SA InSapphoWeTrust, Flickr)
A pervasive, silent apathy. Columbia University (photo credit: CC BY-SA InSapphoWeTrust, Flickr)

American high school students and gap year participants are inundated with warnings and preparations for Israel-bashing on campus. And it is true that there are terrible, slanderous events that take place on college campuses around the country. But the problem is not nearly as pervasive and all-consuming as it is made out to be. In fact, this veritable cacophony of words of caution ends up as self-defeating. The students who are most likely to get involved in pro-Israel activities on campus, expecting to be called upon to wage holy war on behalf of the State of Israel, serving as the shock troops working against Students for Justice in Palestine and other groups of its ilk, are rather indifferent to Israeli cultural opportunities in their own lives. They were taught facts and figures chosen to impress the average American, and to impress upon them the importance of Israel. They were taught defensive mantras, ways to explain away a rapidly deteriorating situation on the West Bank and the religious oppression of the Chief Rabbinate. But these students often take no personal joy in hearing a speaker on some aspect of Israeli culture, see no value to an hour of dialogue in Hebrew, an Israeli movie night, a Tel Aviv dance party. They have been taught that Israel is a cause, Israel is a side of an argument, but they have never learned to revel in Israeli culture for its own sake, never learned to wrestle with Zionist ideology.

And in the end, they disappear. They don’t come to cultural events and they don’t come to political events. Despite their intentions, they need to be begged and cajoled to show up to responses to Israel Apartheid Week. They may keep up on the news from Israel, but they don’t engage in conversations about it with others. They remain unengaged despite organizations like Hillel, the Israel on Campus Coalition, the Jewish Federations of North American and others pouring millions of dollars each year into Israel engagement.

Until the pre-college fearmongering is replaced with speakers and seminars and YouTube clips (and yes, the occasional feature film) promoting dialogue among Zionists of all stripes, teaching young day school students and youth group participants and Jewish campers to love to discuss Israel and think about Israel, and not only to fight for Israel, this trained legion, armed to the teeth with their facts and figures, will continue to disappear when the other side doesn’t show up to the fight.

About the Author
Seffi Kogen is Global Director of Young Leadership for AJC, coordinating the organization’s activities for the rising generations of American Jews. He is also the host of People of the Pod, AJC and the Times of Israel's weekly podcast, which can be found at AJC.org/PeopleofthePod and on your phone’s podcast app.