In a rare rebuke, a top American Jewish organizational official is criticizing the Israeli minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs, former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, for penning a scathing critique of American Jewish campus activism.
Avraham Infeld, interim president of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, said that Sharansky’s portrayal of the state of pro-Israel campus activism in a recent opinion article painted an overly gloomy picture.
“To say that the Jewish student is being ignored and that we’re only reaching a very small number is wrong,” Infeld said.
He suggested that Sharansky’s article — which first appeared in the Israeli daily Ma’ariv and was translated and republished in the October 24 issue of the Forward — may have been intended to push the Israeli government to boost funding for programs aimed at Diaspora Jewish college students, such as Birthright Israel, which recently had its government funding slashed.
“He could have been motivated by a desire to get greater Israeli funding,” Infeld said. “But I think he should have been sensitive to the fact that this could be detrimental to our raising the necessary funding in this country.”
Sharansky’s article followed a six-day speaking tour of 13 North American colleges and universities intended to bolster the morale of Jewish students and improve Israel’s image on campus. Although the trip garnered significant media and student attention, Sharansky wrote that he came away with the impression that Jewish students are often beleaguered, finding themselves on campuses that have become “hothouses of anti-Israel opinion.”
An aide to Sharansky disputed Infeld’s suggestion that Sharansky had penned the article in order to drum up support in Israel for programs aimed at Diaspora students.
“It was not an article designed in order to get funds and get attention,” said Vera Golovensky, an adviser for the Diaspora Affairs Ministry. She added, “It was an article to share his impressions and for Israelis to become aware of the fact that there’s a situation right now in the American Jewish scene that requires a little bit more attention and focus.”
Sharansky and Infeld had been scheduled to appear together at a press briefing on Monday in New York to clarify Sharansky’s views on the state of campus activism, Golovensky said. The press conference, however, was canceled at the last minute, which Golovensky and Infeld both attributed to scheduling conflicts.
In his article, Sharansky estimated that no more than a tenth of Jewish students on the campuses he visited participate in Jewish or pro-Israel activity. “And the rest?” he asked. “The rest are simply silent. They are not identified, not active, not risk-takers. Nearly 90% of our students are Jews of silence.”
In previous decades, Sharansky wrote, Jewish students had been at the “center of student activism” for human rights, citing the campus movement on behalf of Soviet Jewry. “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,” Sharansky wrote.
“There are definitely positive things and wonderful activists out there,” Golovensky said. “But there is definitely a lot of work to be done, and you can’t make up in six months or a year the fact that we were a little bit dormant, that maybe we were taking campuses for granted. That’s a fact. Nobody can deny that.”
Infeld, however, said the situation was not as dire as Sharansky had portrayed it.
“If I were to look at the 400 campuses where Hillel has a presence, I don’t think there are serious battle issues on more than 25 or 30 of those campuses,” Infeld said. “And on those campuses the Arab students are organized, the Arab students have mobilized the faculty and we’re having a more difficult time. But that’s not representative of the entire country.”
In his article, Sharansky cited the example of a Harvard University student who told him she was afraid to participate in pro-Israel activities for fear that her professors would retaliate against her.
The president of Harvard Students for Israel, Josh Suskewicz, told the Forward that outspoken pro-Israel faculty members, such as law professor Alan Dershowitz, have helped to create a campus climate free of intimidation. But at the graduate level, students have said they felt intimidated by professors who are hostile to Israel, said a Harvard Hillel rabbi who asked not to be identified by name.
Infeld agreed that hostile faculty can be a problem, but said the problem is limited in its scope.
“There is no question that faculty on campuses speaking out against Israel can be very intimidating to the Jewish student,” Infeld said. But, he added, faculty intimidation is a problem on only a few campuses.