This article was originally published on Sept 22, 2016, and is presented here for Campus Week 2017.
A few months ago, as the academic year was slouching to an end, I wrote in these pages to encourage the not-yet-graduated to stand up and fight anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses. The piece must have struck a nerve, as several readers, most of them parents of students or students-to-be, wrote and urged me to follow up my note with another, more practical one that advised those on the quad what to do when they come face-to-face with the haters. I demurred, in part because the question is more complex than the season, with its beach days and its sandy distractions, permits, and in part because I felt that enough fine organizations were already fighting the good fight on the ground. Now that summer’s almost over, however, and minivans are again being saddled with stuff and charging toward dorm rooms everywhere, it’s time to wrestle with the question once again.
As a prelude to the discussion, and if the subject is one you wish to address intellectually as well as emotionally, you’d do well to consult with two recent publications by two organizations dedicated to doing work on the ground. In its annual report, released last week, the Israel on Campus Coalition, the frontal lobe of the loosely affiliated nerve center of groups and individuals combating anti-Israel bigotry, found much cause for concern. During the 2014-2015 academic year, the number of campuses plagued with anti-Israel efforts, the ICC reported, spiked by a whopping 31.2 percent and now stands at 181. Students for Justice in Palestine—the most prevalent of the anti-Israel groups, whose members frequently express support for terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah while calling for the unequivocal destruction of the Jewish state—has opened new chapters on 40 additional campuses last year alone, and the BDS movement, which calls on organized and bigoted boycotts of Israel, expanded its efforts by 132 percent, to 44 campaigns last year, up from 19 in 2013-2014. Given this groundswell of bias and bile, Amcha, a spirited grassroots organization dedicated to monitoring and fighting anti-Semitism, released a helpful questionnaire designed to help students and parents alike ascertain whether or not their institution of higher learning is, to borrow a phrase from the custodians of collegiate political correctness, a safe space for Jewish students.
With these assets in mind, I’d like to offer my own prescriptions for the fight about to begin all over again with the upcoming academic year. Myself a former college professor, not yet fully recovered, I’ll present them not as steely tactics but as a set of three contradictions, complex structures to keep in mind if we want not merely to win the vulgar ideological knife fights that constitute much of what passes for collegiate discourse these days.
Get Serious, But Always Stay Playful: If you are the product of all but a handful of hallowed halls of secondary education, chances are—and I say this with love, with compassion, and with a sense of commiseration—you don’t know very much about, well, nearly anything. If you think that’s just the bitter grunts of a middle-aged academic nostalgic for some imagined past when everyone wore bowties and traded barbs in Latin, consider the following sliver: “I retired to an armchair and put my feet up, sipping the mixture with carefree enjoyment, rather like Caesar having one in his tent the day he overcame the Nervii.” It comes from P.G. Wodehouse’s Right Ho, Jeeves, which was published in the fall of 1934 after being serialized in a popular magazine and enjoyed tremendous commercial success. The sentence is not an anomaly; Wodehouse sprinkles his work with references to classical texts, heroes of antiquity, and other tidbits he had no doubt his massive readership would instantly grasp. I dare you to stroll into your college campus today and ask about the Nervii.
And so, it’s time to study up. Forget about the convenient talking points often distributed among the faithful on the Internet, the ones that break what is a complex situation into bold-faced bullet points. In fact, forget about the Internet altogether and seek books. I’m not going to recommend any, because I have no wish to pass on my politics and predilections as gospel. Instead, I urge you to remain skeptical; if an argument fits a bit too snugly with your worldview, attack it. If it’s still standing after you’re done assaulting it with facts and counter-arguments, go ahead and pin it to your chest. Take this assignment seriously. American colleges are hostile environments these days, and knowledge is the cerebral equivalent of krav maga.
Once you know your Philip Morris from your Benny Morris, however, it’s time to ascend to a higher sphere of knowledge and move from the realm of facts to the realm of jokes. Remember that while you may think of no better way to spend Friday night than dissecting the reasons for the outbreak of the Second Intifada, the rest of the world tends to find polemics and politics boring. If you want to get your point across, learn from the best and make your listeners laugh. Rather than fume anytime anti-Israel professors distort yet another hunk of history, try playing a game called BDS Bingo: Print common hateful tropes like “Israelis are colonialists” and “Zionism is racism” on a five-by-five grid, and spend the vile class playing with your friends, having fun instead of getting mad and assuring each other that what you’re hearing isn’t gospel but a farce. Or be even bolder and take a note from my friend David Keyes. Earlier this year, Keyes—who runs movements.org, a ground-breaking social network for dissidents and the people who want to help them pursue liberty—took advantage of the Iranian foreign minister’s visit to New York University and threw a party to celebrate Iran’s one-thousandth hanging in a year. An ice cream truck was on site to hand out free cones, with signs declaring “Free ice cream! Free political prisoners!” A lot of students who had no idea about the evils of the Iranian regime got an education that day, and they did so while smiling and licking salted caramel, mint chip, and Sicilian pistachio.
Defend Your Turf, But Attack Whenever You Can: No matter what your major, you might have heard that old adage about the best defense being good offense. It’s been attributed to anyone from your local college basketball coach to Mao Zedong, and it makes a very good point: If you’re able to meet your opponents’ slanders and scare tactics with a calm, well-organized campaign of your own, you will secure an advantage and stop their momentum before it grows wilder. Much of the pro-Israel activism on college campuses these days subscribes to just this principle: If the BDSers are staging a public event, let us do the same, and if college walk is blocked by pro-Palestinian activists, their shirts stained with fake blood, staging a theatrical “die-in” to protest some alleged Israeli atrocity or other, let us make sure we’re there on the sidelines to present the other side, a well-reasoned pamphlet at hand. I’m not belittling these tactics. There’s evidence to suggest that they might be working, and that tit-for-tat is sometimes unavoidable.
But whenever you can, which ought to be often, you must attack. When Iran continues to rev up its execution rate, for example, it may be time for a die-in of our own, or, at the very least, for a demand that any student organization critical of the Jewish state but silent about the Islamic Republic explain its tacit support for this abysmal violation of human rights. Insist that pro-Palestinian groups only deserve that distinction if they commemorate the scores of Palestinians starved and slain by the Assad regime every day. Evoke Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, religion, or national origin, and pursue legal action against institutions and individuals who brazenly defy both the law’s letter and spirit.
If any of the above sounds extreme, recall the wisdom of that most formidable of collegiate warriors, Coach Bobby Knight, who famously reminded his men that they were playing not against their opponents but against the game of basketball itself. The same is true of the hate-Israel game; to best it, use its own tools and tactics.
Embrace the Few, Attract the Many: Anyone who has ever tried to organize anything, from a group outing to a mass demonstration, will tell you about the innate tension between keeping things within the domain of a few true believers and advertising them to a larger and more heterodox crowd. Some see victory only when the masses are convinced; others will remind you that every major revolution worth noting was started by a band of pure-hearted zealots. Who’s right? Naturally, they both are.
When you find yourself entering the fray as a proud young Jew on campus, do little until you’ve managed to secure your crew, a handful of people who feel the same way you do. And I do mean “feel” rather than “think,” which is a more amorphous and less trustworthy sensation. Upon entering the ivory tower, you might have entertained a fantasy that all debate would henceforth be rational; five minutes of discussion with a seemingly nice person who insisted that all nations on earth deserve the right to self-determination except the Jews ought to have cured you of that notion. We are living in tribal times, and tribal affiliations are based on the heart, not the head. Find people whose hearts are aligned with yours, and forget about converting the large swaths outside your tiny camp.
Until, that is, you’re ready to do just that. Once you’ve debated all you can, once you’ve defined—painfully, grudgingly—the parameters of your faith and the limits of your tolerance, you may collectively contemplate how to convey these ideas to others who lack your education and your convictions. If you’re smart, you’d realize that the most successful campaigns are the ones that focus on the most rudimentary shared values; instead of expecting the world to accept your vision in its entirety, build strong coalitions around small but significant commonalities. In other words, forget the lofty ideals and focus on the cheese curds instead.
That’s what Itzik Alrov did. A 25-year-old Orthodox father of a small girl from the religious town of Bnei Brak in Israel, Alrov was no one’s idea of a leader. But shopping for cottage cheese one day, he noticed that his favorite dairy product, which just a few years earlier cost less than five shekels, had spiked past the seven-shekel mark, a 48 percent increase. Outraged, he went on Facebook and started a group calling on consumers to boycott cottage cheese until prices came back down. Within days, hundreds of thousands of Israelis of all walks of life signed on to Alrov’s cause. That was in June; by October, the CEO of the largest dairy conglomerate was forced to resign, but not before making cottage cheese affordable again. To connect beyond your base, find your own cottage cheese and build your own coalition.
These are my three pieces of advice. There are, of course, many more—always be proud but never let your pride blind you, keep an open mind but feel free to shutter it when confronted with gales of hate—but they’re for you to discover for yourself as you fight on. So fight on, and remember that the fight began long before you, perfected by new generations of bigots who found new ways to deny Jews their dignity, sovereignty, and, sometimes, their lives. As the reports regrettably show, these bigots are getting more and more sophisticated; let’s make sure we do the same.
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