Winning the War
As Israel Apartheid Week returns to college campuses across the country, how should supporters of Israel fight the battle for hearts and minds?
The eighth annual Israel Apartheid Week began this weekend, and over the coming days, walls and mock checkpoints will go up on campuses across the country. What is the best way for Zionists to respond to campaigns that aim to smear the Jewish state? We asked students at Harvard, Columbia, NYU, and Penn—as well as professional Israel advocates—to weigh in.
Don’t Go Negative
David Bernstein is the executive director of the David Project, a nonprofit that positively shapes campus opinion on Israel.
The best response to anti-Israelism on campus is pro-Israelism.
It’s important to remember that the United States is not the United Kingdom, where anti-Israelism is widespread. According to the most recent Gallup poll, Americans are more sympathetic to the Israelis (rather than to the Palestinians) by a margin of 63 to 17 percent. While levels of support for Israel are lower on campus, most college students are more inclined to support Israel than the Palestinians.
There may be a more serious problem at elite colleges, where the discussion of Israel is driven by a far-left and postmodern worldview, as well as by radicalized Middle East study programs. But even at schools like Columbia and Berkeley, the problem is mostly not outright hostility but a drip-drip negativity.
In an environment trending negative, the best approach is not to “respond” but to promote. When we spend our energy responding to anti-Israel accusations, we engage the battle on our adversaries’ terms—not ours. Further, by taking on the detractors, we help them get more publicity than they could on their own and can end up sounding shrill ourselves. The average college student, faced with dueling arguments, will say “a pox on both of your houses,” which, in the American context, constitutes a loss for Israel.
A much better strategy than responding to the detractors is to take a targeted, pro-active, and positive approach that meets segments of students (and faculty) where they are and brings them closer to our view. AIPAC has successfully used this strategy to identify and build ties with college students most likely to serve in Congress one day.
The organization I lead, the David Project, just released an in-depth report, “A Burning Campus? Rethinking Israel Advocacy at America’s Universities and Colleges,” that lays out our view on the issue. Here’s a quick summary of our strategy for winning the campus battle:
1. Help pro-Israel students identify and reach out to “influencers” on campus, from members of student government to the heads of ethnic organizations to campus celebrities. These relationships can be enhanced by trips for these influencers led by pro-Israel student leaders themselves.
2. Hold small, targeted events in partnership with non-Jewish organizations (and avoid large-scale events that usually only attract our side and theirs).
3. Take advantage of the growth and influence of business departments and a corresponding interest in Israel’s growing economic successes.
4. Combat the influence of anti-Israel professors by organizing pro-Israel professors and training others to teach more courses on Israel unaffected by anti-Israel propaganda (like at the Summer Institute for Israel Studies at Brandeis).
There is no easy fix for the problems on campus. But by moving from reaction to action, we can assure that future generations of influential Americans remain broadly supportive of the Jewish state.
Expose Biased Professors and the Influence of Petrodollars
Rachel Fish is a doctoral student in Israel Studies at Brandeis.
The new white paper published by the David Project, an organization I worked for between 2003 and 2009, should prompt serious community discussion about anti-Israelism—a growing, decades-long problem that is doing real harm to Israel’s standing among American elites and reshaping Jewish life on campus. For the most part, the description of the problem is on target: Leftist faculty and student groups, along with Muslim organizations, work consistently—and typically in concert—to defame and undermine the Jewish state and its supporters in the guise of “academic freedom” and under the banner of “human rights.”
This campaign has successfully made “Palestinianism”—the notion that an innocent, indigenous people suffers a senseless, cruel oppression by the Jews of Israel—the cause célèbre on many campuses. It has created a hostile environment for pro-Israel students who are sometimes intimidated, harassed, and, in the worst cases, physically threatened. Mostly, however, supporters of Israel on campus are simply silenced. They correctly understand that if they stand up for Israel, they risk being mocked, marginalized, subject to receiving lower grades, and perhaps limiting their career opportunities. After speaking to scores of pro-Israel professors, students, and some Hillel professionals, it is extremely clear to me that many Jewish students are cowed into silence by social pressure and career concerns.
Given the depth of the problem on campus, focusing education efforts primarily on students will not ultimately change the university. Students are an important component of the campus community, and their education about Israel must begin before they step foot on campus, but they are not the decisive constituency at universities. They alone will not be able to alter the discourse.
If we want to see real change, the structural elements of campus life—faculty, administration, and funding sources, all of which have far greater power than students—must be confronted. As important as it is to work with and educate students, their stints at the university are short, and they have limited influence. They will likely be overwhelmed by radical professors, multimillion dollar programs funded by countries like Saudi Arabia, and administrators bullied by tenured faculty and insensitive to Jewish concerns.
Teaching about Israel’s remarkable achievements is insufficient; a “defense-only” approach cannot win. Bias against Israel has to be shown to be the shameless hypocrisy that it is.
The Jewish community must deal with the institutional issues: professors who abuse the power of the podium, the influence of petrodollars, and insensitivity by the administration. Moreover, instructing students to mostly ignore and be silent about the lies, distortions, and half-truths propagated by Israel’s detractors reflects a lack of moral courage. History has shown that silence has not been a friend to the Jews.
Publicly Confront Pernicious Arguments
David Fine is a junior at Columbia. He is editor in chief of the Current.
It had all the trappings of a bad one-liner—a liberal and a conservative, a socialist and a libertarian, and a smattering of others, all seated behind microphones in the grand rotunda of Columbia’s Low Library. What followed, though, was amazing: an actual substantive debate.
It began when a representative from Columbia’s International Socialist Organization said that Hamas, as the “democratically elected government” in Gaza, had every right to “resist” the Israeli government.
Instead of answering the next question posed to me by the moderators, I turned to the ISO representative and asked: Was she really justifying lobbing missiles into apartment buildings and schools, or blowing up children on buses? She countered very simply, saying that people have the right to respond to political conditions by whatever means necessary. So, my fellow debater endorsed killing civilians as a legitimate means of political action.
It was the moment I had been told to fear—the dreaded campus debate about Israel—and yet no lightning struck. It turns out that it was fairly easy to expose this person’s despicable worldview.
It’s important to remember, as the fake walls and fake checkpoints and fake tanks of Israel Apartheid Week come and go, such spectacles are just that—spectacle. Ideas and arguments hold more sway. And if we know our stuff, and believe in the truth of our arguments, then we should win the real debates every time.
So, while we hold up placards and hand out fact sheets on campus this week, we should look forward to the rest of the semester. We should sharpen our wits and confront those whose aim is the destruction of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. The best that happens is that they reveal their ideologies for what they truly are.
Twenty years before Linsanity, the Knicks City Dancers took Madison Square Garden by storm. I should know—my aunt invented them.