Tour of U.S. Schools Reveals Why Zionism Is Flunking on Campus

By Natan Sharansky

Published October 24, 2003, issue of October 24, 2003.

When I got to Rutgers University in New Jersey last month, I almost forgot I was on a college campus. The atmosphere was far from the cool, button-down academic reserve typical of such institutions. It was more reminiscent of a battlefield.

My arrival was greeted by a noisy demonstration of Palestinian and Jewish students holding signs reading “Racist Israel” and “War Criminals,” together with black-coated Neturei Karta members calling for the destruction of the blasphemous Zionist entity. Faculty members, predictably led by a former Israeli professor, had sent out e-mails protesting the granting of a platform to a representative of the “Nazi, war-criminal” state. Of course, there was the famous pie incident in which a member of a campus Jewish anti-occupation group made his way past my security guards and plastered me in the face with a cream pie while shouting “End the Occupation.”

Opposed to them were hundreds of no less rowdy Jewish students, full of motivation to defend Israel and give the protesters back as good as they got. After the pie incident, when I returned to the hall and mounted the stage, the atmosphere was so electric, so full of adrenalin, that the Palestinians and their supporters who had come to disrupt the event had no choice but to abandon their plans for provocation.

Things were not much calmer at Boston University: An anonymous bomb threat brought swarms of police to the lecture hall and almost forced a cancellation of my appearance. But here, too, some good resulted when the bomb threat caused the lecture to be moved to a larger hall, which was quickly filled with some 600 listeners who were unwilling to accept the violent silencing of pro-Israel views.

These moments — the pie throwing, the bomb threat, the demonstration — as raucous, threatening and contentious as they were, are among the more pleasant memories from my 13-campus tour of the United States. Perhaps it is because at these moments I felt that there was some point to my trip, perhaps because the violent hostility had stirred the students and motivated them to want to fight and win — which I, of course, was delighted to see.

There were other moments during my tour, difficult moments when I felt fear, sadness and worry. During a frank and friendly conversation with a group of Jewish students at Harvard University, one student admitted to me that she was afraid — afraid to express support for Israel, afraid to take part in pro-Israel organizations, afraid to be identified. The mood on campus had turned so anti-Israel that she was afraid that her open identification could cost her, damaging her grades and her academic future. That her professors, who control her final grades, were likely to view such activism unkindly, and that the risk was too great.

Having grown up in the communist Soviet Union, I am very familiar with this fear to express one’s opinions, with the need to hold the “correct opinions” in order to get ahead, with the reality that expressing support for Israel is a blot on one’s resume. But to find all these things at Harvard Business School? In a place that was supposed to be open, liberal, professional? At first I thought this must be an individual case, particular to this student. I thought her fears were exaggerated. But my conversations with other students at various universities made it clear that her feelings are widespread, that the situation on campuses in the United States and Canada is more serious than we think. And this is truly frightening.

To most Israelis, what happens on the world’s campuses hardly seems a life-and-death concern. The world is against us in any case. And as for Jewish students, why should we care? They’ve got troubles? Let them move to Israel. In my own view, however, this is a fateful issue for the State of Israel and the Jewish people.

Israel has few strategic assets as critical as American Jewry. The fact that the world’s leading superpower is a steadfast ally of Israel is due in large measure to this proud and activist community. But nobody can guarantee that the current state of affairs will continue indefinitely. I have been in close contact with the American Jewish community for more than 30 years, and its leadership is largely unchanged. I entered a Russian prison, I got out, I moved to Israel, I became a Cabinet minister and the people I work with are mostly the same people. The leadership is getting old, and the younger generation is not stepping forward.

The continuing support of American Jewry depends on this younger generation. If it chooses to affiliate actively with the Jewish people, if it supports Israel and acts on its behalf, then we will continue to have a strong backbone of support in a world that is turning more and more hostile. But if this younger generation were to disappear — whether through assimilation or an unwillingness to be identified — Israel would find within a very few years that it faces an entirely different United States.

This younger generation is growing up on the university campus. That is where the core of future administrations is taking shape. The students I met at Princeton, Columbia and Harvard will be the decision-makers of the coming decades. Will they be as pro-Israel as today’s decision-makers? Will they stand up fearlessly for Israel? Given the level of anti-Israel sentiment on today’s campuses, where being “in” means being hostile or at least apathetic toward Israel, I have grave doubts.

The transformation of campuses into hothouses of anti-Israel opinion did not happen by itself, nor did it occur overnight. In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the mood on campus was completely different. Jewish students then were at the center of student activism, leading movements for human rights, including the Soviet Jewry freedom movement. Demonstrations, hunger strikes, mass rallies — all this combined to form a massive army that was largely made up, as the Soviet secret police used to put it sneeringly, of “students and housewives.” These struggles were an inseparable part of the Jewish identities of those young people. They were certain of themselves, certain of the justice of their cause and certain that they were on the side of the angels. The goal was clear, the enemy was defined and their pride in themselves, their Jewishness and Israel was boundless.

When I sat for Sabbath dinner with 300 Jewish students at Columbia University in New York — together with Glenn Richter, who in 1964 at the university launched the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry — and I told them about those days, the events seemed to them all but unimaginable. Today, when Jewish activity on campus is directed almost entirely inward, when Jewish student organizations feel like walled fortresses in enemy territory, when pro-Israel students hardly dream of taking leadership positions in campus struggles for human rights, those days seem like a distant dream.

Years of massive investments of money and effort by Arab states and the Palestinians have changed the picture. One after the other, departments of Middle Eastern studies have been set up on university campuses, with generous Saudi funding — departments that worked to establish pseudo-scientific theories, presenting Israel as the last colonial state, a state whose very existence is immoral regardless of borders, a state that should not exist. Differing views are as a matter of course not tolerated. When Jewish community leaders decided in the last few years to begin investing funds to create chairs in Israel studies, they discovered there is no one to teach them. There are no experts, no writers. The field has been abandoned.

Not only in the intellectual arena have we abandoned the field. In the public relations field, too, the Palestinians have learned, unlike the Israelis, to appreciate the importance of the university as the shaper of the next generation, and to concentrate their efforts there. Articulate, effective speakers have been dispatched to campuses to mobilize the idealistic students for their own political interests.

They have been sent to explain that despite the fact that in the Arab nations, as in the autonomous areas of the Palestinian Authority, there are no rights for women, minorities, gays or nearly anyone else, that despite all this they are the true bearers of the banner of human rights; that all true seekers of justice should act on their behalf, and against Israel’s.

The absurdity cries out to the heavens, but no one seems to notice. The banner of human rights, once identified to a great degree with Jews, has become a weapon against them. Liberal and democratic discourse on human rights serves mainly as a vehicle for attacks against Israel, and increasingly against Jews.

In the last three years the process has greatly intensified. Students, young, idealistic and naturally tending to see the world in black and white, have been greatly influenced by daily media reports about “human rights violations” carried out by Israel, by pictures of Palestinian children, by unbalanced reportage. Lacking a serious “other side,” lacking any real information about the roots of the conflict, lacking any serious Israeli public relations effort, the campuses have become more and more hostile.

When I assumed my current position as minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora affairs, it was clear to me that this issue of campuses as centers of anti-Israelism and their influence on the young Jews of the world must be at the center of my agenda. It is a matter of critical importance for the State of Israel and the Jewish people. And so I decided to travel, to learn the facts first-hand and to try to begin a process of change.

Before I left Israel my daughter said to me, “Dad, if they throw eggs at you, duck.” My other daughter countered: “Why duck? Catch them and throw them back.” You may laugh, but that is how I felt. After ducking for so long, while Israel was under constant attack for supposedly being a “war criminal,” a “Nazi state” and the “embodiment of evil,” I felt the time had come to throw back a few eggs. Especially on campuses, especially on the topic of human rights. Not to apologize, but to try to show the true picture — who is the only democracy in the Middle East and who are the dictatorships, where are human rights honored and where are they trampled.

I wanted to show that even during a cruel war against terrorism, Israel was showing great sensitivity to human rights — certainly in comparison to other democracies at war: the United States in Afghanistan, NATO in Yugoslavia, Russia in Chechnya. I talked about the battle of Jenin, when we decided not to use airplanes that could hurt the Palestinian civilian population, and instead sent our soldiers hunting house to house for weapons and terrorists.

I wanted, as someone who had spent a considerable part of his life struggling for human rights, to bring the human rights struggle back to its proper context. To return it to its true owners. To explain that support for terrorists and dictators like Yasser Arafat and his gang cannot be considered support for human rights.

For six days I traveled across the United States. I did not meet with administration officials or do any politicking. Just campuses. Meeting students, instructors, Jewish and non-Jewish activists. A marathon of 13 campuses in six days. I discovered an enormous thirst for knowledge, for straight answers about these supposed “human rights violations” and “war crimes.” I learned that combining human rights, a popular, burning issue among students, and Israel, a very unpopular issue, works to Israel’s advantage, because even the most pro-Palestinian students, including Arab students, had to back down when the discussion centered squarely and honestly on human rights and democracy.

But I also learned that every such victory was a limited one, like capturing a single hill in enemy territory. The overall picture is deeply worrying. On every campus I visited, Jewish students make up between 10% and 20% of the population, but no more than a tenth of them, by my estimate, take part in Jewish or pro-Israel activity. Another tiny but outspoken fraction serves as the spearhead of anti-Israel activity, for there is no better cover for hiding the racist nature of causes like an anti-Israel boycott than a Jewish professor or student eager to prove that he is holier than the pope. And the rest? The rest are simply silent. They are not identified, not active, not risk-takers. Nearly 90% of our students are Jews of silence.

To the credit of the activists, it must be said that they do impressive work. But they are few, and many are tired and discouraged. One student who was active in pro-Israel organizations told us that at a certain point he could no longer stand the peer pressure of those around him who viewed him as a pro-Israel obsessive. He now pours his idealistic energies into an organic farm he started. Now that he is involved in environmental activism everyone is happy with him. Having myself grown up in a place where those around me barely tolerated my Jewish involvements, I know that this sort of peer pressure will drive most people to flee, just as we — most of us — in Russia tried to run away from our Jewishness to the ivory towers of science or the arts. We thought that scientific excellence would save us from the mark of Cain on our foreheads.

Can the trends be reversed? Can we recapture the campus? I believe we can. But it will require a concentrated effort and a genuine change of consciousness and direction in Israel’s informational efforts. We in Israel and in Jewish communities around the world must combine our efforts and work together. In the United States things have begun to stir, and various organizations are active on campus. Now it is time for Israel to do its share.

This article first appeared in Ma’ariv and is reprinted with permission. Translated by J.J. Goldberg.



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