Pro-Israel Activism Makes Comeback on Campus

By Jonathan Kessler

Published December 26, 2003, issue of December 26, 2003.
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When the anti-Iraq war movement first burst on the scene, Israel’s core detractors recognized an opportunity to leverage a unique confluence of political dynamics. Thirty million echo-boomers entered the political arena for the first time, anti-war sentiment burgeoned on campus and a radical anti-Israel orientation continued to pervade much of the national leadership of the anti-war movement. The coming year is all but certain to witness a continued upsurge of anti-Israel campus activity.

During the last year, Israel’s detractors made the strategic decision to embed themselves into the antiwar movement. Operating within this political matrix, detractors identified and engaged new recruits. This newly politicized campus constituency will provide the campaign to discredit Israel with a significant pool of first-time foot soldiers. Thousands of others, brought to politics for the first time by a conflict in the Middle East, are now more receptive to anti-Israel propaganda.

The deleterious effects of generational ignorance about Israel, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the American-Israeli relationship, coupled with the severe drop-off of visits to Israel by Jewish young people, will be exacerbated by this new assault on Israel’s legitimacy. This will make the campus community more susceptible to inroads by Israel’s detractors.

Unfortunately, the upsurge in anti-Israel programmatic activity — lectures, teach-ins and printed materials — will draw in a significant number of unaffiliated Jewish students.

However, one of the very real, if unintended, consequences of the recent efforts by Israel’s detractors is that thousands of uninvolved Jewish and non-Jewish students are — for the first time ever — looking for avenues to effectively support Israel.

Preventing Israel’s detractors from making campus inroads will require new and unconventional thinking from the pro-Israel movement. Indeed, some of the most impressive pro-Israel achievements on campus this year have come from activists who understand that mainstream students are not captivated, motivated or impacted by traditional pro- or anti-Israel speakers, forums and demonstrations. The most sophisticated pro-Israel activists on campus today are committing themselves to grassroots retail engagement of their peers.

This past year politically savvy student activists circulated pro-Israel petition statements on 60 of America’s most influential campuses. They solicited more than 55,000 student signatures — in time for Israel’s 55th birthday — not online, but in person. These signatures were the result of what has been estimated to be more than 165,000 individual, face-to-face, student-to-student conversations. Pro-Israel petitions were then published throughout the year as full-page ads in campus newspapers across the United States and sent to the campuses’ respective state congressional delegations.

Pro-Israel students at Dartmouth College — a campus of 4,000 students, only 400 of them Jewish — published a petition declaring campus-wide support for Israel, signed by 1,043 of their peers. Similarly, at the University of Iowa — where out of 30,000 students, only 800 are Jewish — a pro-Israel petition was signed by more than 1,700 students, as well as two members of Congress, a lieutenant governor and two presidential candidates, who were visiting the campus while the petition was being circulated.

At Ohio State University — where Israel’s detractors recently held a national organizing conference — the entire coaching staff of the national championship football team was convinced by pro-Israel activists to add their names to those of the students on a pro-Israel petition. And at the University of California at Berkeley — a campus notorious for its anti-Israel animus — 1,087 students, including student government leaders, College Democrats and College Republicans signed a pro-Israel petition stating: “We Stand with Israel Now and Forever!”

This pro-Israel petition initiative is just one of a dozen nationwide grassroots retail engagement initiatives, each of which has been successful in broadening the base of support for Israel and the American-Israeli relationship on campus. Initiatives such as these are key in beating back the forces that threaten to undercut campus support for Israel.

Jewish and pro-Israel organizations, working through the Israel on Campus Coalition, are now training thousands of student activists in the strategy and methodology of advocacy and grassroots retail engagement. This month, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life jointly sponsored a first-ever Advanced Israel Advocacy Mission for 80 student activists — carefully selected from a pool of several hundred candidates — who are interested in pursuing Israel advocacy careers or community leadership positions. In the short term, these highly motivated students will learn how to apply the most successful grassroots retail strategies to their work on campus. In the long term, these students — having shared a common Israel experience — will work together to fortify Israel’s position across the United States.

With the enemies of Israel sponsoring a new campaign to delegitimize the Jewish state, the work to engage the next generation of American policymakers and opinion leaders — and to train America’s future Israel advocacy professionals and lay activists — is more crucial than ever. By harnessing the passion, confidence and commitment of politically savvy pro-Israel students on America’s campuses today, Israel’s detractors will be kept on the margins of influence for years to come.

Jonathan Kessler is leadership development director of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee.

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