Facts versus fiction regarding campuses
The Jewish community tends to judge the situation on campus by hysterical fundraising letters and highly publicized incidents on individual campuses, which are then extrapolated to suggest they represent the general climate on campus. The misinformation is exacerbated by media reports that also give the impression that singular incidents represent a broader trend. In a new report from the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, "Israel and the Campus: The Real Story," Jeff Dawson and I have documented that the atmosphere on campus is not as bad as advertised, but that serious problems remain, such as the repetition of libels that are eroding Israel’s image among students, and faculty who misuse their positions to push political agendas that reinforce messages critical of Israel.
As we reported in the Executive Summary, much of the Jewish community’s attention has been directed toward fighting the “new” delegitimization campaign, but the truth is there is little new about it. Israel’s detractors have sought to stigmatize Israel and erode its image since the 1950s.
Some have argued that there is a well-funded and organized network promoting the delegitimization of Israel. The evidence we have found, however, is that this is not true. Unlike pro-Israel groups, most anti-Israel groups are student-led with little or no professional assistance. Still, at least one anti-Israel student group has a presence at approximately 330 universities out of roughly 4,000 in the US By comparison, Hillel is on 363 campuses and 273 universities have a representative from at least one national pro-Israel organization.
We tracked 674 unique anti-Israel events at no fewer than 108 universities in the United States. These incidents were confined to fewer than 3% of all US colleges and most took place during a two-month period when 49 American campuses held Israel hate fests. For most of the year, few campuses had any anti-Israel activity.
One-third of the incidents occurred on just 10 campuses, 4 of which were from the University of California system. Several of these campuses, however, have very strong pro-Israel groups and cannot be characterized as hostile toward to Israel.
Despite fears of a growing boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) movement, our research found that fewer than 10 percent of the events were BDS-related. Two American universities did adopt divestment resolutions, but several others were defeated or deterred from being brought to the student government. Moreover, no US university has divested from Israel and many presidents have made clear they would oppose such a move. BDS efforts are likely to continue, however, with a greater emphasis on selective boycotts. Rather than weaken the relationship between US colleges and Israel, however, the BDS movement has largely backfired and ties are stronger than ever and continue to grow.
A shocking percentage of Jewish students report experiencing anti-Semitism on campus and administrators have shown far less sensitivity to these incidents than persecution of other minorities or women on campus. Still, we see no evidence that Jewish students are afraid or that any campuses are hotbeds of anti-Semitism.
The most serious problem on campus is not from student activities, but from faculty. Faculty, unlike students have both power and presumed knowledge and therefore what they transmit in their classrooms carries far more weight than a random lecturer passing through campus or a student protest. Moreover, faculty often can influence the overall climate on campus. Though it is important to monitor and publicize academic malpractice, it is difficult to do anything about professors who abuse their positions for political purposes because they are allowed to hide behind the shield of academic freedom.
In the last decade, more emphasis has been given to building up the field of Israel Studies to offer students the opportunity to study with authorities on Israeli history, politics and culture. AICE has contributed to the growth of the field by sponsoring more than 100 visiting Israeli scholars at more than 50 universities, placing postdoctoral fellows in Israel Studies with mentors at major universities and building a cadre of young scholars to fill new positions through the Schusterman Scholar Award program.
While many activists would like to respond to every detractor on campus, we believe in a more sophisticated approach that bases the response on the level of threat. Furthermore, we believe local stakeholders are in the best position to determine the severity of the threat and the appropriate response.
The most serious impact detractors have had on campus has been to erode Israel’s image through a repetition of attacks on Israel, which are reinforced by biased media coverage of the Middle East. The antidote is to create our own drumbeat of positive messages about Israel and Israelis. By adopting the Israel Calendar, for example, students can structure their programming around positive themes, set the campus agenda and help their classmates get a better understanding of Israel and its people.
It is wrong to interpret the positive findings as an opportunity to declare victory and withdraw investments in students and Israel Studies. On the contrary, it is the focus on the campus in the last decade by generous donors and campus organizations that has achieved these gains. To sustain them and ensure that the situation does not deteriorate, it is vital to continue the work currently being done and actually do much more, which the report outlines in a series of recommendations on everything from pre-collegiate education to university accountability.
Moreover, even if every campus was a fortress of Zionism, work would still be necessary to educate the next generation about Israel and nurture their connection to their homeland. The report ends with a series of recommendations for how this can be accomplished. This is where much of the campus work still needs to be done.
Mitchell Bard is the author of The Arab Lobby: The Invisible Alliance That Undermines America''s Interests in the Middle East (HarperCollins) and Israel Matters (Behrman House).