Strategies for addressing academic toxicity towards Israel
20 years ago, as a columnist for the Columbia University school paper, I was approached by students who wanted to share what they experienced on campus. “My professor told me that my green eyes prove Jews aren’t native to the land of Canaan,” one told me. “My professor wouldn’t let me ask a question in class until I told him how many Palestinians I killed,” another told me.
Thanks to the initiative of Daniella Kahane, and the support of Rachel Fish and the David Project, some of these stories became the core of the documentary known as “Columbia Unbecoming.” The film’s release rocked the campus. Together with Daniella, Aharon Horwitz, and Bari Weiss, I spent my last year of college focused on how to end the abuse of Jews and Israelis by their professors.
Obviously, we did not turn the tide. It only got worse. Now observing from a distance, I keep asking myself why the Jewish community failed to mount a successful counteroffensive over the past two decades. How could a community so deeply invested in the American academy forfeit the safety of Jews and fairness for Israel? How could Israel become so thoroughly branded as humanity’s nemesis even as the business and policy world came to know us as Startup Nation?
I believe there are three reasons for our failure:
- We obsessed over facts, not narrative.
- We did not provide an alternative.
- We did not diversify the playing field.
We obsessed over facts, not narrative. Hasbara as a strategy is founded on the assumption that the facts speak for themselves. We believed that if we only explained the facts, smart people would agree with the justice of Israel’s actions. We thought of the academy as an inherently logical place where the better argument wins the day.
Narrative trumps facts because it satiates the young adult’s search for meaning. When Edward Said bent post-colonialist theory to support the destruction of the Jewish liberation movement, he did so to give his students meaning. When Linda Sarsour kidnapped intersectionality for the purposes of a misogynistic, homophobic Islamist movement dedicated to the ethnic cleansing of Jews, she gave passionate youth a cause to fight for.
We didn’t offer an alternative. An alternative would be a narrative, backed by a compelling theory, that defines what is just and good against that which is criminal and evil. An alternative would be founded on a world-historical basis, explaining how humans who have not benefited from the rise of modernity, who have been stripped of their power by oppressive regimes, can live in dignity and prosperity. Zionism is rooted in such a theory: auto-emancipation. Yet we failed to apply that theory to other peoples, and have sabotaged efforts by others to self-define.
An alternative would be a comprehensive advancement of auto-emancipation for all disempowered people. For the Darfuri, for the Kurds, for the Turkomen, and yes for the Palestinians. A narrative that proves it is more effective to fight occupation by building an effective communal alternative, as the Zionist movement did under Ottoman and then British occupation.
It would be much easier for Israelis to imagine a Free Palestine if the Palestinian-governed entity in Gaza was a beacon of freedom. If the Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank bloomed with civil efforts for shared Arab-Jewish prosperity. If the Pride Movement supported a Palestinian cultural renaissance to show that love can, indeed, win the day.
Finally, we need to diversify the playing field. As Ivy League institutions got richer, their disproportionate power training the teachers for our future generations only grew. CUNY was replaced by Columbia, Brooklyn College by Brown as the training grounds for the academic leaders of the future. This concentration of power in a handful of institutions set the stage for Big Oil to invest upwards of $13 billion to capture the academy. Those grad students supporting Columbia’s unbecoming behavior 20 years ago are now heading departments. Admitting PhD students. Hiring associate professors. Shaping the curricula that shapes the future.
We need to capitalize on the Jewish People’s disproportionate advantage in producing world-class academics to reverse this trend. The way to do so is by building world-class international institutions in Israel to recruit these world-class academics now under threat. We will know we’ve succeeded when the best of the best of the non-Jewish world will aspire to study in Israel. Only then will we neutralize Big Oil’s home field advantage.
We have all of the ingredients to transform Israel into the world’s campus. To fulfill our age-old mission of spreading wisdom from Zion. Creating the conditions for Israeli universities to produce or employ the educational leaders of tomorrow should be seen as an imperative of national defense no less important than rebuilding our military deterrence.
We cannot accept a world in which the perceptions of tomorrow’s leaders are framed by our haters today. We cannot accept a world in which Jews are unsafe in the very institutions they helped make great. We cannot survive in a world in which the elite are hearing a single narrative, singularly focused on erasing Israel. We must present an alternative, build an alternative. We must fight to secure a future for ourselves in the academy.
How can people who are not on campus contribute to the fight against hate in the academy? Those of us who are no longer on campus, or do not work with students or professors, can often feel powerless when it comes to affecting academic bias against Israel. From my experience, external support for students and faculty standing up against their peers is absolutely crucial. Here are a few ways you can use the tools of public diplomacy to support the fight against academic bias:
- Amplify stories of student and professor bravery. From my experience, outside voices of support can be lifesavers for students and professors fighting against intense hatred from people they see every day on campus. I remember the letters, the articles, the phone calls of support when I was a campus activist, and I am sure the public support for Shai Davidi’s one-man protest strengthened his resolve and inspired courage in many who have not yet spoken out so publicly. For every voice on campus pushing back we should ensure at least ten voices off campus provide support and encouragement.
- Frame anti-Israel activities within the narrative of hate that inspired it. We shouldn’t be goaded to defend Israel, because the facts do not matter to the protestors, just as tobacco warnings do not stop smokers from lighting their next cigarette. Instead, we need to ensure every protest, every ripping down of posters, every professor-led walk-out, is discussed within the frame of how the academy has been corrupted by Big Oil to direct students’ eyes away from the tyranny and oppression under Oil producing regimes.
- Call on alumni to disown institutions that no longer reflect their values. For decades alumni have seen growing hatred on campus and felt that, despite it all, their gifts would encourage the administrations to take a stand. We need to disabuse alumni of that sentiment. Now it is the other way around: until university administrations do not prove that their campuses are safe for Jews and Israelis, we should make our message clear: not another cent should be given by alumni. Our support for institutions is contingent on the institution’s support for our right to exist. We do not need to apologize for taking that fundamental stand, and must draw that line in the sand for our community members who are still on the fence.