Stifled Discussion Dampens Student Advocacy Efforts

By Nathaniel Popper

Published April 16, 2004, issue of April 16, 2004.

When Jeff Silver arrived at the University of North Carolina for his freshman year, Israel advocacy was at the top of his slate of extracurricular interests. His motivation, though, was quickly quashed after he attended the first few meetings of the Carolina Students for Israel and found participants unwilling to broach any criticism of the Jewish state. “Every time that members of the group felt that anyone was challenging Israeli policy, they would call it anti-Israel,” said Silver, who is now a third-year student. “They made it clear they did not want people who did not share their beliefs.”

The student leader of the Carolina Students for Israel, Ruthie Warschenbrot, acknowledged the unhappy experiences of students like Silver and said that in spite of her own efforts to create an inclusive environment, “a lot of people don’t join because they feel their views won’t be respected.”

This problem is not limited to her own campus. “I hear students talking about this concern at every conference I go to,” Warschenbrot said.

Campus leaders and students say that pro-Israel organizations at American universities are increasingly becoming inhospitable places for dialogue — particularly in the past year — as fears of antisemitism have risen along with the stakes in the Middle East. For Silver, the polarized situation and perceived lack of debate represented a mere disappointment, but many campus experts say the situation could portend a crisis for the future of Israel advocacy in America.

“We are not doing as well as we could at creating places on campus and publicly acknowledging that there is a place for dissent and disagreement,” said Wayne Firestone, director of the Israel on Campus Coalition at Hillel, which oversees organized Israel advocacy at colleges across the country. “If we lose this one, we could be writing off at least 10-20% of the Jewish people.”

The issue was thrust to the center of the Jewish communal agenda in February at the Spitzer Hillel forum, a national gathering of student leaders held in tandem with the annual meeting of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs in Boston. After a panel discussion on dissent and Israel, which included Forward editor J.J. Goldberg, a long line of students appeared at the microphone and expressed frustration with the narrowing ideological field of the pro-Israel community on their own campuses.

One of the disgruntled students, Rebecca Cariati, a sophomore at New York University, said, “Most students who are in my position are moving to apathy because there is no acceptance of their views in the Jewish community on campuses.”

The debate over creating a space in the Jewish community for dissent and ambivalence extends beyond the campus in these heated times. But campus experts say the situation with students is both more polarized and the consequences more dire because of the simultaneous vulnerability and receptiveness of the college-age population.

“At that age, there is a push to be right, and the campus tends to break down to extremes” said Larry Sternberg, director of the Perlmutter Institute for Jewish Advocacy at Brandeis University, and the moderator of the panel on dissent. “But for the future, in this case, the important thing is not being right, but being inside, and feeling welcomed.”

The situation seemed to vary slightly with each student who spoke up. Some, like those at Brandeis and Berkeley, praised the wide range of ideological positions fostered on their campuses. Sternberg said that schools with large Jewish populations, like Brandeis, tend to afford more space for a broader range of students to speak comfortably. But such schools are few and far between, he said.

Many of the communal leaders on hand for the students’ testimonials seemed taken by surprise, and the session sparked heated discussions for the remainder of the JCPA weekend. The debate was stoked by two of the panelists, who chided the students for their desire to criticize Israel.

“If you are in a context where Israel is being assaulted by unapologetically pro-terrorism people and your only response is, ‘Yes, but I have these concerns about Sharon,’ that’s more or less saying you are not willing to engage for Israel,” said one of the panelists, Jonathan Tobin, editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia. “This is not a time for a lot of caveats.”

But Firestone said the community should be neither surprised nor disappointed by the growing desire for dissent among students.

“At a time when the Jewish community is coalescing around a central position,” Firestone said, “it’s not surprising that students are feeling nervous and saying, ‘Wait a minute.’ We send our children to great universities that teach them to be critical, and then we are disappointed when they question our rigidity?”

The root of the increasing number of students who say they are uncomfortable raising questions within Jewish campus groups has been only imprecisely defined.

For their part, many students made immediate reference to the uncompromising students who they came across at Israel-advocacy meetings.

“The advocacy agenda attracts zealots — in necessary ways,” Sternberg said. “They are needed for convincing people outside the Jewish community. But they don’t worry about people inside the community, and it shows.”

The other side of the problem at the student level was voiced by Tobin, who blamed the increasing anti-Israel tilt of leftist politics at universities, which can leave progressive students feeling uncomfortably pulled in two directions.

“People wind up having a small identity crisis,” said Lach Litwer, president of the University of Oregon’s Israel Alliance, who identifies himself as a leftist. “They’ve considered themselves liberal and they know they should be pro-Israel, but all the people in their political community are arguing against Israel. It takes a great deal of strength and character to buck the tide.”

Still, campus organizers said, the Jewish organizational world can and should play a larger part in fostering an open debate. Firestone, who is responsible for bringing Jewish organizations to the campus, said that of the 27 national Jewish organizations in the Israel on Campus Coalition, few have substantial resources devoted to university campuses, except the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Jewish community’s main pro-Israel umbrella group, which almost always backs the policies of the Israeli government.

When Leora Maccabee, a student leader at Amherst College, made an effort to open up the discussion on her own campus, she ran up against the shortage of pro-Israel organizations able to help her.

“There’s either Aipac or the pro-Palestinian groups on campuses,” Maccabee said. “We’re trying to create a middle ground, but there’s no guidance — no easy, go-to organization that can help us create an unbiased, intellectual dialogue.”

Aipac has made a concerted effort to provide campus speakers from all ideological backgrounds. But Sternberg and Firestone agreed that without more resources from organizations other than Aipac, dialogue easily breaks down as the most strong-willed, uncompromising students dominate the discussion.

The situation can also end up leaving students from the right side of the political spectrum feeling left out, when, for instance, supporting the Israeli government means supporting Sharon’s plan for dismantling Gaza settlements. But with a rightist government leading Israel, ambivalence is more often the province of left-leaning students.

Leaders of leftist pro-Israel groups acknowledged that they have not established enough of a presence on most campuses to engage these students.

“It takes tremendous resources to do student organizing,” said Marc Israel, director of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Kesher college department. “None of the organizations that would be a natural fit have been able to fund this at a level that could make it successful.”

The Israel Policy Forum, Americans for Peace Now and Kesher were all mentioned as candidates for filling this role.

The potential rewards of stepped-up involvement are evident from Silver’s situation at North Carolina. Out of concern for the plight of Silver and others like him, Warschenbrot, the leader of Carolina Students for Israel, solicited a grant from the Avi Chai Foundation to set up an Israel discussion group called the Bina Initiative, which began earlier this year.

Silver was lured back in and took part in the 10-week program, where discussion rather than convincing was the goal.

“It opened the door for me to express my beliefs and opinions — and to make somewhat of a connection to Israel,” Silver said. “Had the environment not changed, I would never have been eager to be involved with any sort of Israel-related parts of the Jewish world.”



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