Campus Zionism and the Changing Jewish Student

By Jay Tcath and Paul Saiger

Published January 03, 2003, issue of January 03, 2003.
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American college campuses have become one of the most watched and embattled fronts in Israel’s advocacy wars. While there is a sense among many observers that things on campus are not as bad as some have been depicting them to be, the sophistication that the Jewish community brings to its Israel advocacy on campuses must be enhanced.

Since most communal activists who are now re-engaging in college affairs have been off campus for at least several years, a re-schooling is needed about today’s collegiate realities. Applying the programmatic implications of these realities is essential if we are to have a positive impact on the image and place of Israel among 21st-century students.

Jewish college students, unlike most of us, eat, sleep and study in proximity to Arabs, Muslims and others with diverse attitudes toward Israel and the Middle East. Interaction is routine and occurs within a culture often animated by blunt engagement over political and cultural issues. This in-your-face approach intimidates some students; others, stimulated by it, enjoy meaningful personal relationships with their fellow students that defy conventional stereotyping of the “other.” Consequently, only a customized, intellectually compelling case for Israel will pass the grade on campus. One-dimensional sloganeering and simplistic constructions of complicated realities will both fall on deaf ears and be counterproductive.

Furthermore, today’s Jewish college students are busy on campus with more than advocating for Israel. Campaigning on behalf of the Jewish state, even for the most committed, is balanced against other required and voluntary activities — classes, GPAs, GREs, balancing checkbooks, upcoming parties and the job market. Hence, the quantity and quality of Israel-related activities brought onto campus must be carefully considered and coordinated with the students themselves. More is not automatically better.

Against this backdrop, it is the responsibility of the greater Jewish community and campus organizations such as Hillel to imbue Jewish students with a commitment to Israel. It is now incumbent on us to marshal resources to have an impact on how young Jews understand the history and contemporary reality of Israel and to help them respond to the current situation.

We should not forget that decades of significant changes in our community — including increased intermarriage, assimilation and trends in Jewish education and identity — have shaped a new profile of the typical Jewish student. Some have also speculated that the Oslo peace process, with its hopes for a lasting, secure peace, led to a diminution and recasting of Israel in formal Jewish education, decreasing the emphasis on its advocacy-related curriculum. Whatever the constellation of causes, the “Israel memory” of today’s Jewish college student is shorter and formative impressions are different than those of generations past.

In addition to students, we also need to be thinking about ways to affect faculty, staff and administrators. Professors of all religions, ethnicities, politics and academic fields are engaged in the Israel advocacy battles, both in the classroom as teachers and on campus as advisors. We need to work more closely with those who are actively shaping the minds of today’s Jewish students.

As we seek to more actively engage students and professors in advocating for Israel, we should keep in mind that every campus is different. Colleges come in all shapes and sizes: public or private, large or small, undergraduate or graduate, residential or commuter, significant or small Jewish population, out-of-town or local-based student body. At some schools there is perpetual tension between pro- and anti-Israel students and groups, and some of the anti-Israel activities are increasingly being brought onto campus by non-campus organizations. Yet at other schools such dynamics rarely surface. There is simply no one-size-fits-all approach to pro-Israel campus education and advocacy.

There are an estimated 200,000 Jews currently attending American colleges. So no matter how successful our own expanded efforts are in the large metropolitan areas, no community or campus can be fully successful on its own. Limiting Jewish communal attention to high-visibility, high-prestige campuses in large cities is simply not good enough.

What happens on other campuses — the ones that don’t show up on the communal radar screen, such as Binghamton, N.Y.; Davis, Calif.; Happy Valley, Pa., and Peoria, Ill. — matters greatly to the greater Jewish community, both for today and for the future. That is why expanded campus-focused partnerships — locally involving federations, Jewish community relations councils and individual Hillels, and nationally involving the United Jewish Communities, Jewish Council for Public Affairs, American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life and the Israel Campus Coalition — are so important.

These partnerships are deploying significantly increased resources to campus advocacy battles. One positive corollary has been to enhance the Jewish community’s understanding of today’s complex collegiate context. That is good and important, but with the next semester’s classes starting soon, there is more work and study yet to be done.

Jay Tcath is director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. Rabbi Paul Saiger is executive director of the Hillels of Illinois.

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