This article was originally published on September 12, 2016.
To the girl-and-boychiks of the Class of 2020,
You’re going to college! Mazel tov! Your parents must be thrilled, such nachas you bring them. Except for you slackers who ended up at safety schools—how are you ever going to become doctors or lawyers now? Shameful.
You all must be so excited about this new chapter in your lives. You’re about to embark on a wonderful adventure that will expand your horizons, expose you to new ideas, and give you access to the giants of your chosen field. A world of extracurricular opportunities also awaits you. Many of you will be moving to a new city, which you’ll explore and discover by going on pub crawls. You will be able to steep yourself in culture like never before, by attending gallery shows and recitals, which, while often lacking any artistic merit, usually have open bars.
Some of you might also be nervous. If you listen to the news, it doesn’t seem that this is a very nice time to be a Jewish student at American colleges, especially if you’re one of those rare Jews who is both opinionated, and interested in politics.
In light of this, Tablet magazine asked me to have a word with you, to see if I can’t dispel some of your wilder fears about college and encourage you to feel free to speak your mind about Israel and reassure you, in their words, that “the sky won’t fall down on your heads” if you do.
I can do this. I spoke to the top scientists, and they explained to me that the sky is a visual phenomenon produced by sunlight refracting in the atmosphere. As such, it cannot fall down, no matter what you do. So relax.
On the off-chance that Tablet’s editors were speaking metaphorically, I should probably take a minute or two to tell you that in addition to having no effect on the location of the sky, speaking about Israel won’t have any other catastrophic consequences. I can prove this with personal anecdotal evidence, which is the best kind of evidence, because it’s non-falsifiable, and questioning its validity in any way is the same as calling me a liar—which would be a very rude thing to do, especially since we hardly know each other.
So, here it is, indisputable proof that nothing bad will happen to you if mention Middle Eastern politics during the next four years:
Once upon a time, in my second year at college, I took part in a public debate about Israel …
If you have older Jewish relatives who enjoy forwarding chain emails, you may have heard about it. I’d responded to the debate club’s general call for volunteer speakers, and was asked to argue in support of the motion “This house believes Israel is a rogue state.”
I suggested to the organizers that given my background (which included a couple of internships with pro-Israel NGOs), it might be appropriate to have me argue on the other side of the motion. But that wasn’t possible; I couldn’t switch teams. I wanted to win, but I wasn’t prepared to argue against Israel’s legitimacy. Instead, I resorted to a common tactic in competitive debating and redefined the motion. “Rogue” often means “dishonest, immoral, and dangerous,” but it can also just mean “unexpected or unusual”—a much less pejorative usage. While my teammates argued that Israel was a rogue state as a result of its treatment of Palestinians, continued occupation of the territories, violations of international law, and not-so-secret nuclear arsenal, I argued for Israel’s roguishness from the other end of the spectrum. Israel could be considered an aberrant democracy in a corner of the world dominated by dictatorships, with an unusual commitment to principles of liberalism and humanitarian aid for the region.
Despite a litany of well-documented stylistic and substantive flaws, the speech was mostly well-received by the immediate audience. My team lost, but it got a standing ovation.
Not everyone was happy. A coalition of student groups complained that I undermined the debate by “effectively and unashamedly” arguing for the opposition. For every person who came up to me over the next few days to offer their congratulations, there was someone else who wanted to call me a wanker, or tell me I should fuck off and die. None of that was unexpected.
What surprised me was the reaction off-campus. I honestly didn’t think that anyone outside of the university would care about the debate. But they did, often far more passionately than any of my fellow students. Within a day, stories about the debate were appearing online, some by written by journalists, some by bloggers (this was back when there was still a difference). The reaction was again mixed—some liked what they heard of the speech, others didn’t. Both the praise and the condemnation were superlative, and more than a little bit ridiculous. At the height of the madness, I was inundated with emails and messages on Facebook and LinkedIn. After a short delay, I started getting snail-mail as well. Some enterprising strangers even managed to get my phone number and call me.
A lot of the attention was positive—which, in the short term, gets you buzzed like no other drug. It also got me invited to attend various conferences and speak to student groups at several schools and universities. Collectively, that was a fantastic learning experience.
There was also a lot of negative attention—the dirty looks (most of which I’m sure I imagined); the cyclist who rode past me screaming “kike”; and the countless internet cranks who sent emails or wrote posts calling me a shyster, fascist, pig, racist, and again, a kike. And then there were the death threats, delivered to both my virtual and all-too-real mailboxes. Those were a joy.
Some people will say stupid things like, “If people hate you, you must be doing something right,” or “Death threats are how you know you’re doing a good job.” Bollocks. All it means is that people hate you—some of them apparently hate you enough that they’ll express their desire to kill you in a manner that the police will describe as “troubling.”
The attention—or notoriety—that I received was unusual, but thankfully it didn’t last long. By the end of the term, my classmates had moved on to the next scandal, and soon after that the emails, calls, and other craziness slowed, and then all but stopped. And five years later? No one cares. It’s had zero negative consequences for me, and I get more grief about things I did in elementary school.
So when I tell you that the sky won’t fall down on your head if you ever mention Israel, I’m speaking from personal experience. Just to be sure that I haven’t been unusually lucky, I conducted a very scientific and not at all haphazard survey of friends and acquaintances who were politically engaged as students. Few could remember running into any serious short-term problems as a result, and not one of them could point to any negative impact on their postgraduation lives.
And really, why should any adult care about the opinions you held in college? Like with sex and drugs, the political experimentation you do in college just doesn’t count. (If you don’t believe me, ask the baby boomers how peace, love, and a practical understanding of mind-altering substances turned into a vicious war on drugs.)
So rest easy. No matter what you say about Israel (or any other political hot potato) at school, the sky is going to stay exactly where it is. This should be obvious, because if some poor student’s life had been ruined as a result of on-campus activism, you know we all would have heard about it, at great length, from the same people who might have sent you a story about my speech.
And yet over the years, a truly ridiculous number of people—sometimes students, more often their parents—have asked me for advice on how to “deal” with Studying While Jewish—as if it’s some horrible trial that you need to prepare for physically and mentally.
Despite anything you’ve read or heard, the “growing problem of campus anti-Semitism” is not “a serious threat facing the Jewish community,” in general, or Jewish students in particular. You don’t need to take my word for this—(and you shouldn’t, because my only U.S. academic experience was eight months at a Jewsuit law school)—you can, and should listen to experts who’ve investigated the issue, or look at their results for yourself.
In 2015, Brandeis University released a report based on a survey of Jewish students at colleges across the United States and Canada. When asked about hostility toward Jews on campus, only 13 percent of the respondents thought it was a “big problem,” and only 3 percent thought it was a “very big problem.” In another question, 32 percent of respondents reported that they were the target of anti-Semitic insults or harassment in the past year, while 39 percent said they’d seen it happen to another Jewish student.
I find those numbers interesting for two reasons. First, they’re only slightly higher than when the question is asked to Jews of the same age who aren’t attending college. In my eyes, that goes a long way toward discrediting the idea that anti-Semitism is significantly worse at colleges than in the broader community. If anti-Semitic harassment isn’t a problem for you now, it’s unlikely to become one at school.
Second, if nearly 40 percent of students reported witnessing or experiencing anti-Semitic harassment, how come only 13 percent said that anti-Semitism was “a big problem?” The answer might lie in the substance of that harassment. The Brandeis survey asked students which of various anti-Jewish remarks and insults they heard most frequently. These were the top three answers:
1. Jews have too much power in America
2. Israelis behave “like Nazis” toward the Palestinians
3. The Holocaust is a myth or has been exaggerated
Another source for what Jewish students have to deal with is the Anti-Defamation League, which tracks anti-Semitic incidents on- and off-campus. Here are some highlights from 2014 and 2015. Reading these and similar reports, one thing jumps out at you: swastikas. Swastikas painted on buildings. Swastikas scratched onto cars. Swastikas superimposed onto Israeli flags. Swastikas here, swastikas there, big ol’ swastikas everywhere!
I won’t pretend that having to walk past swastikas while being told that Jews control the world and behave like Nazis (who really have an unfair reputation, because the Holocaust is a hoax Jews exploit for our own nefarious ends)—is in any way pleasant.
But is it something to lose sleep over? I’m not being rhetorical. Ask yourself whether this is the sort of thing that would keep you up at night. If the answer is yes—if this level of aggravation and human baseness would have a measurable, detrimental effect on your quality of life—then I have some unpleasant news:
You’re not ready for college, and you should be very angry with your parents and teachers because they have failed you. Utterly. The problem isn’t the gravity of campus anti-Semitism, it’s that you somehow managed to make it to your late teens with skin so thin that doctors never had to send you for X-rays. Life is long and full of assholes who will find worse things to call you than generic slurs. Until you can handle that like an adult, you’re better off staying in your bubble.
The ADL’s annual audits are a good starting point for figuring out if the situation is getting worse. Is the amount of anti-Semitism on campus increasing? It depends on where—or when—you start your search. I can truthfully say that reports of campus anti-Semitism more than doubled between 2011 and 2014. But it is equally true that the reported incidents in 2014 were down 23% compared to 2012. Up and down, up and down—the year-over-year fluctuations seem large because of the small sample size, and unscrupulous pundits can use the data to make whatever point they want. For example, up until now, I’ve avoided mentioning that in 2015, reports nearly doubled.
Going from 37 reported incidents in 2013, to 47 in 2014, or even 90 in 2015 doesn’t mean anti-Semitism is increasing at American colleges any more than a cold day in August discredits global warming. To say anything meaningful, we’d need to look at a data set covering a longer period—like this helpful ADL graph covering the period between 1989 and 1999. What I like about that chart is that the scale on the X-axis (which records the number of incidents each year) starts at 50! 2014 wouldn’t even register.
When you put all the available data together, it looks like this:
A possible explanation for why the figures are so low is that the ADL only counts “pure” anti-Semitism—slurs, swastikas, conspiracy theories—all the fan favorites. The argument goes that this is old-fashioned. No thinking Jew-hater wants to be affiliated with Hitler, so all that bigotry and bile is channeled into the “new” anti-Semitism.
Shouldn’t Jewish students be worried about trying to study in the midst of what must be a near-constant barrage of speakers, events, fundraisers, protests, and campaigns all intended to delegitimize Israel, whether or not they are anti-Semitic?
First off, the sort of “rabid” anti-Zionism that you’re worried about isn’t the norm, and nearly 75 percent of the respondents to the Brandeis survey didn’t think campus hostility toward Israel was a problem. If you do end up at a school with a hostile, anti-Israel atmosphere—guess what: You don’t have to participate in it. No one at college is going to force you into defending, condemning, or even talking about Israel. You can do all that if you want to, but no one will make you. Not your parents, not your friends, not Students for Justice in Palestine, not AIPAC, and not your professors.
Even if you choose not to speak about Israel, other people will, and they may even talk about Israel in ways that you disagree with or find objectionable. How should you “handle” that? You have three options: You can join the debate, you can ignore it, and if the actual or metaphorical noise is impossible to ignore, you can go somewhere else.
And that really is the great thing about college. Compared to high school, even a small college is “big” in a way that you haven’t experienced before. The era of forced socialization with an imposed peer group is over. Lectures are not socially interactive in the same way as a high school class. At college, you can sit beside someone for an entire year without saying two words to them. From this point on, you choose who you spend your time with, and where you spend it. You are the master of your fate, the captain of your social life. And for those rare occasions in which another’s company is forced on you—like on an airplane—rejoice that you were born into a world in which noise-canceling headphones are cheap and ubiquitous. It doesn’t matter if someone’s calling you a kike, or a Zio-Nazi—if slurs aren’t something you can comfortably shrug off, the problem is with you, not your college.
Being able to ignore something doesn’t mean you should. A common line is that while anti-Semitism is merely offensive, anti-Zionism is an actual threat. If Israel Apartheid Week is dangerous, then don’t you have a duty to do something, instead of walking away? And if not you, then who?
Israel’s survival has been imperiled too many times in its short history for us to ignore potential threats to its continued existence. But alarmism is not the answer. Each year, Israel’s intelligence community produces a high-level report on the country’s strategic position. The gist, in 2016, is that things are going quite well. The likelihood of war with neighboring countries, Hezbollah, and Hamas remains low. The rockets being fired out of Gaza are the work of smaller, less-well-organized and funded groups that lack Hamas’ technical capabilities. In the last war, Hamas was able to hit Tel Aviv. These new groups don’t seem capable of hitting anything.
Israel still faces existential threats. Humanity’s knack for inventing new and improved weapons of mass destruction, combined with Israel’s unfortunate geography (both its smallness and location), mean that these threats might always exist.
Do you know what doesn’t pose a threat to Israel’s existence or the safety of its citizens? The political opinions of American college students. It doesn’t matter how many of your hacky-sackying, placard waving, op-ed writing, speaker-interrupting, Che-Guevara-T-shirt-wearing peers think Israel is an apartheid state that violates international law and should be driven into the sea. Israel will just keep on keeping on—its existence is not so fragile or tenuous that it needs your help in defending against opponents who are literal sophomores.
Why? Because as a class, college students have proved themselves to be impotent: You don’t have money; you don’t have power. You don’t have meaningful experience, valuable skills, or occupy positions of respect and leadership in the broader community. You barely even vote.
Look at BDS—by far the most high-profile of the student campaigns, and apparently “the No. 1 nonmilitary threat to Israel and the Jewish people”. It’s also a total failure. It’s been a little more than 10 years now, and the boycotts haven’t stopped Israel from nearly doubling its exports. In the first 10 years of BDS campaigning for global divestment, foreign investment into Israel tripled. As for sanctions, even in the Arab League, the only country still officially punishing companies that do businesses in or with Israel is Syria.
(And that assumes any Syrian laws are being enforced.)
By any objective measure, BDS has failed to damage Israel’s economy. To avoid admitting defeat, BDS leaders are pivoting and claiming that economic pressure isn’t the point because BDS has produced a “palpable psychological impact on the mainstream Israeli psyche about the country becoming more ‘isolated’ from the world.”
I was curious about this, so I called a couple of Israeli friends and asked how they were dealing with the psychological trauma of Israel’s isolation. Neither one had any idea what I was talking about. I know that’s a small sample group—but none of the other Israelis I called picked up. They must have been too busy hanging out with all those foreign tourists who’ve been visiting Israel in record numbers. They’re not who you think, either. Most of them aren’t Jewish, are visiting Israel for the first time, and aren’t American—60 percent are coming from Europe, where both old and new anti-Semitism are supposed to be running rampant. Along with their cameras and swimsuits, tourists bring more than 40 billion shekels with them to Israel each year, supporting more than 100,000 jobs. What horrible isolation!
I will give BDS this: It’s certainly had a psychological impact on Jews in the Diaspora. Jews in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom are all very upset with BDS, with an article about each new horrible development good for a few-hundred-thousand clicks. Imagine how furious we’d all be if BDS actually worked!
Maybe you think this outsize outrage is justified, because while BDS is a failure, its proponents have been very successful at getting BDS endorsed by their peers. Each student government resolution supporting BDS is clear and convincing evidence that Israel is losing the Battle for Hearts and Minds, especially with younger Americans. And as each new class of viciously anti-Zionist college students graduates and rises to positions of power and economic dominance, American support for Israel will decline, bit by bit, until it disappears entirely.
Boy, that would be terrifying if it were true. But BDS just isn’t that popular, even at universities. In the 2014-2015 academic year, there were formal BDS campaigns at 29 schools. Some commentators thought it important that this was nearly twice as many as in the year before. I think it’s more significant that there are about 2,500 four-year colleges in the United States, and there was no meaningful BDS presence at roughly 2,471 of them.
Still, resolutions at 10 schools, in one year—that has to mean something, right? Wrong. In the words of the ADL, “student-driven BDS resolutions cannot compel [a] university to alter its investments and are almost always summarily rejected by the university’s administration.” In fact, a BDS campaign has never succeeded in persuading an American college or university to divest from Israel. People may tell you it happened in 2009 at Hampshire College. That’s untrue.
Even though college authorities veto these resolutions (like at DePaul) or ignore them entirely (like at Vassar), shouldn’t we be worried that the students passed them? Especially at schools like Stanford and Northwestern, whose students are among the nation’s best and brightest?
No. Because student governments don’t matter. Even former members will tell you they’re “close to useless.” The average student government is just another campus club, and one that’s more likely to attract students reminiscent of Reese Witherspoon’s character in Election than “the best and brightest.” Nor is the successful passage of a BDS resolution indicative of how the larger student body views Israel. Student governments generally lack broad mandates—the average turnout for a student election is less than 20 percent.
And if you think Israel is losing American hearts and minds, look at the numbers. At 62 percent, Israel’s favorability rating is far ahead of Clinton’s (41 percent), Trump’s (37.9 percent), or Johnson’s (24.4 percent). Come January 20, 2017, Israel will be more popular with Americans than their own president.
Now, if your pessimistic urges are pushing you to point out that the overall numbers obfuscate the Real Issue, which is that Young People Hate Israel—please, don’t bother.
Israel doesn’t poll as well with younger Americans. This isn’t news, and it doesn’t suggest a generationally-driven shift in public opinion. Over the last 15 years, Israel has consistently polled better with Americans 50+ than with 18-to-29-year-olds. And during that time, Israel’s become more popular with both age groups. About 15 years ago, they were 12 points apart (46 percent and 58 percent), and in 2015—they were still 12 points apart (57 and 69 percent)! Young Americans don’t hate Israel, they just haven’t managed to close the gap with their Israel-loving forebears.
But they’re all running in the right direction.
If you think anti-Israel activism at colleges is going to change that anytime soon, you’re ignoring history. What you’re seeing today—attempts by a noisy minority of students to negatively influence their peers’ perceptions of Israel—is not a recent development. It didn’t begin with BDS in 2005 or the formation of Students for Justice in Palestine at Berkley in 1993. It is much, much, older than that. Before SJP, there was GUPS (an organ of the PLO), which was putting up posters equating Zionism with racism back in 1977 . In the early 1960s, students at Urbana-Champaign formed the MSA, a group with ties to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. In the 1950s, the OAS was set up to spread Nasserism in the United States. You can go back to before the even was a state of Israel, when a network of anti-Zionists that included the Institute of Arab American Affairs and the Committee for Justice and Peace in the Holy Land (founded by the former dean of Barnard) were actively marshaling support in and around American universities. Compared to these organizations, modern groups like SJP are unorganized, underfunded, and unimpressive.
For 50 years, campus activists have tried to “stigmatize Israel as the embodiment of racism, colonialism, and imperialism … attempting rework the image of Israel by repeated accusations of unspeakable brutality.”
For 50 years, members of the American Jewish community have worried that it was working and that the next generation would turn against Israel.
And for 50 years, Gallup polling has shown American support for Israel steadily increasing.
I’m hoping that this helps you realize that nothing you or anyone else at college says on the subject of Israel, Zionism, or the Jewish people is of any material consequence. Like any other tale involving idiots, campus-level discourse about the Middle East is full of sound and fury—but it signifies nothing: Nothing “they” say matters, and nothing you say matters.
Which is why you should say as much possible.
You weren’t expecting that, were you? Surprise! The goal of this excessively long discursion into the futility of campus activism was to encourage you to take as large a part in it as you comfortably can.
Why? Two reasons. First, if the campus debate about Israel actually matters, then only students who are skilled-enough advocates to win that debate should participate. Second, you’re probably not a member of that class.
Advocacy—the technical craft of interpersonal persuasion—is hard. It involves skills that you need to learn, and in some cases be proactively taught. Viable advocacy about a subject as complex as Israel requires you to immerse yourself in a vast body of substantive knowledge. In a report on the problems faced by students, AIPAC highlighted ignorance: “Many Jewish students … are not equipped to enter into the controversy because they are not sufficiently versed in Middle East history to distinguish between truth and falsehood and to reply to the latter.” That was in 1969—now you have an additional 45 years’ worth of bloodshed, propaganda, and missed opportunities for peace to wade through.
To improve as an advocate, what you really need is practice advocating—and you need to practice in “the real world.” Competitive debating and moot court are better than nothing, but they’re no substitute for actual experience. But how can you gain that experience safely without risking your, or Israel’s, reputation? By practicing in an arena where your failures—and you will fail—don’t matter.
You couldn’t design a better training ground than the American college campus, where you’ll find no shortage of impotent opponents. Because BDS and Israeli Apartheid Week are not actual threats—there is no chance that they’ll decrease public support for Israel or weaken its economy—it doesn’t matter how poorly your early attempts at counteradvocacy fare. Israel’s position will not suffer as a result of your incompetence.
And it will be your early attempts that fail most spectacularly—but if you keep at it, if you keep practicing, you can become a confident, competent, and above all, an effective advocate. You’ll discover counters and parries for all the common attacks on Israel. You’ll learn to avoid shooting yourself in the foot by swearing at adversaries or publicly and callously branding your counterparts as anti-Semitic terrorist sympathizers. You’ll figure out how to build an effective coalition (it’s all about helping other people achieve their goals), and wweed outpotential “allies” who are really just bigots who’ve conflated support for Israel with Islamophobia (hint: you don’t want to be associated with anyone who uses the phrase “creeping sharia” or stresses the president’s middle name).
Eventually, you’ll start developing your own style. What’s your mission: “anti-anti-zionism” or “pro-Israel” evangelism? Do you like speaking to a crowd or talking with a smaller group? Are you a stronger written or oral advocate? Do you work better with humor or tragedy? Do you work better by yourself or with a team? Snarky or sincere? Boxers or briefs?
You won’t know what works for you until you try it all on for size, and there’s no better place for experimentation than college. Just make sure you don’t take yourself too seriously, or forget to graduate. Don’t be intimidated by the hostility of your peers—embrace it! Seek them out. Each and every one of them has a lesson or two to teach you. Even if they don’t know it, they’re the best friends an ahzes punim like you could wish for. It’s largely thanks to their efforts on campus that you’ll be leaving college with everything you need to effectively counter their agenda out here in the real world, where such things might actually matter. I think it would be a very nice gesture if, on graduating, you send your local SJP chapter a Max Brenner gift basket, along with a note thanking them for all the free training. Rapprochement has to begin with someone.
And that’s really all I have to say. Except for one small thing. (Sorry).
I lied to you earlier when I told you that the sky wouldn’t fall, no matter what you do or say. That’s not true. The sky—or at least sunlight—is constantly falling all around you, and it is dangerous. One in 5 of you will develop skin cancer at some point. For the unlucky, it will be melanoma, which kills more than 10,000 Americans every year. If those figures don’t scare you, consider that as an American Jew alive in 2015, you were twice as like to develop melanoma than you were to be the victim of anti-Semitic aggression. For every anti-Semitic physically assault , melanoma killed about 275 Jews.
The sun is a far greater threat to the continued survival of the Jewish people than anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, and antidisestablishmentarianism combined. Thankfully, we are not defenseless. Ignore everything else I’ve said if you must—but don’t be stupid. Don’t take needless risks. Protect yourself from skin cancer, and wear sunscreeen. (Even though it was invented by a viciously anti-Semitic Nazi collaborator.)