A year ago American Jewish newspapers were ablaze with headlines reporting the desperate plight of Jewish students on college campuses. The communal fire brigade was brought in to douse the perceived explosion of antisemitic and anti-Israel incitement.
With the situation in the Middle East heating up again and antisemitism on the rise worldwide, American Jews should learn from last year’s five-alarm communal reaction to campus events and instead deploy educators. As my mother would say, the true crisis on campus today is that Jewish students don’t know borscht about their history.
Anti-Israel sentiment was never as pronounced as the media made it appear. Out of thousands of colleges, only a handful were ever truly hostile, and even hotbeds such as the University of California at Berkeley and San Francisco State University were unusually quiescent this year. Detractors make a lot of noise, but volume does not translate into influence.
The divestment campaign offers a telling example. There was never the slightest chance that any major university would divest from Israel, but the Jewish reaction was near hysterical. The divestment campaign backfired by exposing its proponents as antisemites and galvanizing support for Israel.
To its credit, after decades of relative inaction the organized Jewish community became actively engaged in helping students, primarily through the 26-member Israel on Campus Coalition. Coalition members poured unprecedented resources into helping students organize petition campaigns, cultural events and other programs that raised Israel’s visibility in a constructive way, and made Jews feel more comfortable on most campuses. Much of the change in atmosphere, however, was caused more by world events that hindered Israel’s detractors — in particular, the continuing war on terrorism, the Palestinians’ political disarray and perpetuation of suicide bombings and the war in Iraq (though antiwar protests often were suffused with overtly anti-Israel messages).
But while almost all may be quiet on the campus front, many battles remain to be fought in the war for students’ minds.
The prevalence of outspoken anti-Israel professors remains the most insidious danger to Israel’s standing on the campus. Now, for the first time in decades, some faculty are identifying as Jews and taking a more active and positive role in the Middle East debate, but a network of pro-Israel faculty has not yet materialized.
The community’s top priority should be to endow chairs and establish centers for the study of Israel. A few new chairs have been created during the last year as major philanthropists have recognized the importance of having a pro-Israel academic on campus.
Outside of the handful of Israel studies centers, teachers need the resources to provide students with information and to train them in Israel advocacy. Advocacy workshops are being conducted on a wider scale; however, a number of trainers have adopted the bizarre notion that students do not need to know facts. They are teaching students public relations tactics instead of history. While this may improve their communication skills, it leaves them woefully unprepared to respond to anyone who challenges them or to answer their own questions about Israel.
Funds also need to be provided for sponsoring quality speakers on the Middle East. During the last year, as students increasingly sought people to explain the Arab-Israeli conflict, several organizations actually reduced their support for pro-Israel speakers. Hillel and The Caravan for Democracy — sponsored by Hamagshimim, Media Watch International and the Jewish National Fund — are among the few groups with active speakers programs, but the anti-Israel forces dominate the lecture circuit, and it is one reason why the campus environment is perceived by many American Jews as hostile.
We need a parade of pro-Israel speakers to educate and entertain. Federations, local agencies and synagogues bring many quality speakers to their communities; they could easily invite students to their events or make an effort to bring their guests to the campuses.
Sure, lectures may be boring to some students, and will not attract as many people as a David Broza concert, but is the mission simply to bring Jews together or to educate them? It is useful to do both — to create a drumbeat for Israel on campus — but some Jewish leaders advocate substituting “edu-tainment” for education because it appeals more to students.
Endowing chairs, disseminating information, hosting speakers and conducting advocacy workshops — the task incumbent upon American Jewry is daunting, and cannot be done solely by the national organizations. The campus must be incorporated into the community.
But too often the campus is not viewed as part of the community. Too few community members are attending campus activities to show their support for the student organizers. Agencies must give more financial, logistical and political support to the campuses and participate in student activities. Local institutions are starting to accept this role and are forming regional pro-Israel campus coalitions and more actively aiding students.
Support is also lacking for Jewish school newspapers. As a former writer for campus Jewish newspapers, I am disappointed by the lack of support for this important outlet for student thought, and for the nurturing of leadership and journalistic skills.
Lastly, community-wide support must be energized for the Birthright Israel program, which is one of the best tools for promoting Jewish identity. Follow-up remains the biggest failing of the program. In addition, the program needs to be offered to younger Jews, who are more open to learning and who could then be drafted into the pro-Israel corps of activists when they enter college.
More is being done today to help Jewish college students than ever before, but too much of the emphasis has been on putting out fires and not enough on teaching students the basics about their heritage, not enough on strengthening their identification with Israel and the Jewish people. It may not be too late to teach college students, but it is very late. The education process must begin before they get to college — in day schools, Hebrew schools, summer camps and, ideally, public schools.
We need teachers who can pass on the pedagogic tradition my father learned in medical school: “See one, do one, teach one.” Too few of our young people have seen someone stand up for Israel and explain how and why they do it, so they can’t do it themselves or teach others. It’s time that we show them.
Mitchell Bard, executive director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, is the author of “Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict” (AICE, 2002) and “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Middle East Conflict” (Alpha Books, 2002).