Universities are, for the most part, not hostile environments for Jewish students. Large campus events in support of Israel can be counterproductive. And using federal civil rights laws to protect Jewish students from anti-Israel activity could create a backlash against them.
These are just a few of the surprising highlights in a new report from an organization previously known for its take-no-prisoners style of Israel advocacy.
The Boston-based David Project, one of a handful of Jewish groups devoted to campus activism on Israel, made a name for itself eight years ago when it produced the film “Columbia Unbecoming,” alleging that Columbia University was a hotbed of anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic activity. But now the group seems to have distanced itself from its aggressive approach. The David Project’s new agenda focuses on selling Israel rather than on reaming out its critics.
This new posture has been welcomed by groups such as Hillel, the national campus network of Jewish student centers. But The David Project’s original backers deride this softer strategy as a misguided approach for addressing the situation faced by pro-Israel Jewish students on campus.
“Sometimes, challenging Israel’s detractors is warranted,” said Executive Director David Bernstein, who took the helm in 2010. “But we also know that the goal of The David Project is to reach and work with as many Jewish students and professionals as possible. That takes a thoughtful approach to Israel.”
The David Project’s report, released on February 8, paints a nuanced picture of the challenges Israel faces on campus. Called “A Burning Campus? Rethinking Israel Advocacy at America’s Universities and Colleges,” the paper claims that universities are host to the worst anti-Israel behavior in America, even as the American public, more broadly, is supportive of the Jewish state.
But veering from the Israel advocacy world’s frequent position, the report makes a strong distinction between “anti-Israelism” and anti-Semitism on campus. Conflating the two does not “jive” with the experience of Jewish students who feel largely comfortable in American universities, the report warns. The problem, it stresses, is not anti-Semitism; it’s a “drip-drip negativity” about Israel that, Bernstein said, threatens to erode support over the long term.
“The chief concern, therefore, is not the welfare of Jewish students,” the report states, “but that a pervasively negative atmosphere will affect the long-term thinking of current college students, negatively affecting strong bipartisan support for Israel.”