Back to School for Israel Advocacy

By Ronald S. Lauder and Jay Schottenstein

Published November 14, 2003, issue of November 14, 2003.
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Jewish sages have written that “any love which is offered without criticism is not true love.” Recently, however, Israel’s minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora affairs, Natan Sharansky, found himself subjected to stinging rebukes over a tough critique he penned in these pages analyzing the dismal state of Jewish campus activism in the United States (“Tour of U.S. Schools Reveals Why Zionism Is Flunking on Campus,” October 24).

Sharansky’s critics charged that his thoughtful opinion article was merely being alarmist and that the actual situation on campus was not so worrisome. Unfortunately, it was our own similar experiences on American college campuses — where we found Jewish students in recent years to be demoralized, intimidated and, worst of all, apathetic about their homeland, their heritage and their fellow Jews — that led us to launch the Caravan for Democracy program in 2002.

It is no secret that Jewish students are confronting unprecedented anti-Israeli and antisemitic aggression at their schools. At campuses across the United States, well-organized and well-funded propaganda efforts have been launched to sway public opinion against Israel. Anti-democratic organizations and institutions have joined with other anti-Israel movements and are investing heavily to win the hearts and minds of young America.

At the same time, Jewish students find themselves overwhelmed by an unrelenting deluge of inaccurate information and distorted reporting. Demonstrations and conferences against Israel are now familiar events and succeed in fostering anti-Israel sentiments at an alarming pace. For instance, one university which would have never been perceived as anti-Israel held a university authorized seminar on “why anti-Zionism is not antisemitism.” Moreover, our students do not have adequate information or resources available to confront the lies waged against them. Many who could be effective in answering the false charges aimed at the Jewish state are choosing instead to wait it out on the sidelines.

Jewish students today feel isolated, abandoned and vulnerable — and like the proverbial simple son who asks Passover’s fourth question, many do not even know what to ask.

During recent years we have brought many of Israel’s best and brightest to more than 60 American campuses in order to provide other voices in Israel’s defense. We have reached out to colleges across the United States, which in most instances had never been able to present powerful advocates for Israel’s position. In doing so, we sought to provide a measure of self-pride and empowerment to learn the real facts for Jewish students who, in the midst of this current misinformation war, were beginning to doubt the justness of Israel’s struggle to survive.

We do not view the problem as any inherent lack of talent, energy or concern by the current crop of Jewish students. Instead, we believe that this generation of young Jewish adults has no less potential than earlier ones that have achieved so much and secured such admirable accomplishments for the Jewish people. The only difference currently, however, is that we are allowing our children to fight today’s battles with yesterday’s armor. In this age of information, when our enemies have remarkably managed to loose their misleading slanders upon every university, we are depriving our Jewish students of the hard information and education they so desperately require to respond.

One must understand that by accepting the current campus status quo and not insisting that our students confront the escalating antisemitic sentiments, we are depriving them of the opportunity to train and develop skills that Jews throughout the ages have tragically needed to fashion. When we engage in denial and decline to acknowledge that there is a real crisis, we do nothing short of betraying the next generation of Jewish activist — we are, in effect, withholding the information and tools they will need to take up the mantel of Jewish leadership. If we do not present students with the lecturers and programs they need to confront the lies and disseminate the truth, then we insure that only the message of our enemies will be heard.

The only response to the current college crisis is to bring top pro-Israel speakers to campuses from coast to coast. We must present our most charismatic and articulate spokespersons on every university we can. Concerned students, as well as those not so concerned, must be empowered with the education and arguments in support of the Jewish state by those that have the experience and knowledge to skillfully convey it.

Moreover, we must promote effective dialogue with the Middle East studies faculties which are known for their anti-Israel orientations. Until now hostile professors and departments have never been confronted by those with the proper ability to respond. Meetings between Middle East studies professors and pro-Israel speakers are crucial to reshaping the rhetorical landscape in these faculties, which heavily influence the way the Israel-Arab conflict is taught. Biases and unbalanced curriculums must be protested and pressure applied to change them. We must insist that Israel’s position be presented in a fair and accurate manner and provided equal time in the classrooms.

In addition, Jewish students and their professors must be taught to effectively utilize their campus and local media to explain Israel’s counter-arguments. Much of the misunderstanding and diatribes launched against Israel can be confronted in the campus and town newspapers. All too often opinion articles by Israel’s harshest critics are given prominent space without any rebuttal or reply. Students can and should be trained to successfully debate the opponents and propagate Israel’s defense in an unrelenting manner.

The main difference between strengthening Israel and our people’s future and deserting our young Jewish adults to their own defenses is solely in the education and resources we can provide them. Honestly acknowledging the downtrodden state of Jewish students on campuses is only first step in reestablishing the pride and activism of which they are capable.

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