Can Campus Coalition Unite for Israel?

Opinion

By David Harris

Published February 23, 2007, issue of February 23, 2007.
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I just think, says the hawk to the dove, that there should be limits regarding what kind of programming your organization can sponsor on a college campus if it is going to remain part of the Israel on Campus Coalition.

True, replies the dove, but the same limits could apply to programs that you’ve supported on campus.

This conversation could have occurred anywhere in America: between Jewish communal professionals at a meeting in Manhattan, or among organizational supporters at a pro-Israel conference elsewhere in the country.

But it didn’t. It occurred thoughtfully and civilly, in the abundant sunshine of northern Israel, between ideologically diverse American college students — while overlooking southern Lebanon from Israel’s northernmost kibbutz, no less. That it occurred as a politically diverse array of students united to help support Israel demonstrates the very value of an ideologically diverse pro-Israel campus coalition in the first place.

For several weeks in December and January, the 31 member organizations of the Israel on Campus Coalition sent 160 students to the north of Israel to repair damage and provide emotional and material support in the wake of last summer’s conflict. The trip — called “Leading Up North,” and sponsored by the Center for Leadership Initiatives — brought pro-Israel students from varied perspectives and political backgrounds to Israel to do the same thing: to help support the Jewish state, with their hands and with their hearts.

There was a precious byproduct of this effort, a result that is a common thread woven through the work of the ICC. Students from different backgrounds worked together to support a common goal: helping Israel. And through pursuing that goal came a measure of understanding, as demonstrated by the difficulty with which students said goodbye to one another on the closing day of our trip.

A diverse group uniting to support a common goal and purpose is nothing new; it’s the very essence of what a coalition is. It’s the same formula by which such venerable communal umbrella organizations as the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs regularly work. And it’s the model that the ICC has followed for the past five years, fostering collaboration and communication among different pro-Israel organizations on campus as we work together to educate about, and advocate for, Israel.

But in recent weeks, that comity has been sorely tested, as some have debated whether the Union of Progressive Zionists can remain a member of the ICC after the UPZ sponsored a controversial campus program titled “Breaking the Silence.” The ICC Steering Committee voted in January not to remove the UPZ, not to change our mission statement or membership criteria and not to monitor or police the programs of ICC member organizations. But the debate continues.

As long as it is respectful, a healthy debate like this can be a useful exercise. But it can be constructive only so long as it doesn’t eclipse the real work that needs to be done — the work upon which all of us, from right to left, can agree. And if there’s one thing we can all agree upon, it’s the need for education about Israel and advocacy for Israel on America’s college campuses.

As with any coalition, there will always be ideological differences that threaten to push our coalition apart. And the current debate, as played out on the pages of this newspaper, is a reflection of those differences.

Yet the antidote, as with any coalition, is as simple as working collaboratively around the common goals that bring us together. But what can such an array of vastly different Jewish organizations agree upon when it comes to promoting Israel on campus?

In addition to the “Leading Up North” trip this winter, students on 30 American campuses have previously worked collaboratively with ICC member organizations — in the best spirit of a coalition — to reduce or eliminate university-imposed barriers to studying abroad in Israel. And earlier this month in New York, all 31 member organizations of the ICC committed themselves to work toward a common goal: measurably expanding opportunities to study Israel on campus over the next three years, through both formal coursework and informal education programs.

This same collaborative spirit has infused the work of students affiliated with ICC member organizations on more than 50 campuses who have received ICC “Israel Action Grants” and ICC-funded pro-Israel speakers so far this academic year, providing them with resources to work together and engage in proactive Israel education and advocacy. And this is just the start of the list; as it turns out, there’s a great amount of common ground among our diverse members.

Debates and controversy will always work to sharpen the differences between us, as with any coalition. But our charge, when it comes to Israel on campus, remains the same as ever: to strengthen the ties that bind us together as supporters and lovers of Israel, and to move forward in the many areas where we concur.

Our combined strength stems from working collaboratively on what we all agree upon, which is frankly much greater than what divides us. The stakes are too high, and the task too important, to turn our focus away from the pro-Israel work on campus on which we all can agree.

David Harris is executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition.


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