Beyond Apartheid Week: Transforming the Discussion about Israel on Campus
By David Bernstein
It’s officially “Israel Apartheid Week” on a number of campuses across the country. While it’s easy to get upset at such an appalling distortion of the truth, the Apartheid argument has gained little resonance on campus. During a recent focus group held on the campus of a liberal arts school, even students who were largely unsympathetic to Israel did not buy into the Apartheid analogy.
While we will continue to equip students to respond effectively, the big challenge for Israel on campus is not an annual outrageous spectacle, but rather a prolonged hostile environment that poisons the minds of liberally-minded mainstream students.
Here’s a six point plan for transforming the campus environment.
No one organization can do it alone. The pro-Israel community must learn to function as a network, especially on campus, if we are going to neutralize the growing array of forces aimed at delegitimizing the Jewish State.
(1) Educate Jews on Israel before they get to college.College is too late. Jewish day schools have made strides in ratcheting up Israel education with support from groups like The David Project. It’s time we expand our reach to youth groups and camps, which could use an Israel booster. They are ideal places to instill Israel identity, articulate the meaning of Israel to the Jewish people, and expand knowledge. Concerted efforts could also help overcome the disappointing apathy that is all too common among young Jews.
(2) Send students to Israel early in their college careers. Birthright and MASA programs, among others, have been highly successful in instilling a connection to Israel and strengthening Jewish identity. For the purposes of creating activism on campus, however, it’s imperative that we send as many kids as possible to Israel early in their college careers. A trip during junior year leaves only one year left. Send us your sophomores!
It’s equally important that Israel-experience organizers work closely with campus activism groups to identify potential advocates. It’s a shame to ignite a spark but fail to provide a vehicle for ongoing engagement and activism.
(3) Train students to engage a segmented, largely left-of-center political reality. Pro-Israel organizations have often treated campus like Capitol Hill or CNN, relying on talking points and advocacy approaches appropriate for a completely different political environment. Most students won’t be in front of a camera any time soon. While the talking points we use to speak with members of Congress are great for mainstream elected officials, they will likely turn off student leaders from diverse ethnic and cultural groups.
Every campus is different and every campus subgroup is different. How can students calibrate their message accordingly? Pro-Israel students at the University of Maryland, among the most effective in the country, recently organized a dinner with student leaders representing various groups from around campus, from the NAACP to student government. Jewish students brought in Israel experts to lead dialogue sessions about various aspects of Israel. Such a proactive model of engagement goes a long way in generating good will.
(4) Invest in non-Jewish student elites. AIPAC does a great job identifying and cultivating a select group of student elites with potential for future political leadership, but there’s plenty more to be done. Groups like Project Interchange send college newspaper editors and student government leaders to Israel. Additional efforts should be undertaken to connect these student leaders with pro-Israel student groups before and after missions.
Another category of student elites are business and law school students, some of whom will be future political and civic elites in this country. A dean of the business school at Washington University teaches a semester-long class on Israeli business innovation, and then leads a specially-designed mission to Israel with his students. We need to identify and build upon such models.
(5) Create a faculty support network. A dose of realism is in order. Given today’s prevailing “post-modern” intellectual milieu, coupled with Saudi funding for Middle East studies, we won’t claim the majority of the faculty brain trust any time soon. We can, however, help diversify approaches to teaching about Israel and make sure that supportive faculty are present on campus guiding students through challenges.
Programs such as the Schusterman Israel Scholars, which encourages aspiring academics to pursue Israel studies, or the Brandeis Institute for Israel Studies, which trains existing faculty to design courses on Israel, are a great first step. There’s still much work that needs to be done in this arena.
(6) Engage in collaborative intervention. I don’t mean five Jewish groups cosponsoring the same event. I do mean five different groups undertaking five different, but mutually supportive, interventions on campus. Each organization, from Hillel to Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, which works with faculty, must bring distinct strengths to the table.
A recent positive example is an initiative that identifies Jewish and Latino leaders in key schools around the country, brings them to Washington for advocacy experience, and sends them to Israel for a week of learning. Students then host Jewish-Latino summits on their campuses. Along with a Latino partner, American Jewish Committee, with its expertise in intergroup relations, is working with The David Project, with its expertise on the campus scene, to pull off this promising initiative.
The anti-Israel groups on campus are becoming more organized. It will take a network to defeat a network.David Bernstein is the Executive Director of The David Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to educating and inspiring strong voices for Israel.