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The Perils Of Coffee-Cup Diplomacy

The recently reported David Project merger with Hillel can only help the Hillel movement which has so far failed to effectively deal with the ideological assault against Israel and its Jewish supporters on campus. Sadly, however, this new development will not fundamentally change the ugly situation on the quads or in the lecture halls. To understand why, some history of The David Project, which was to some extent, ironically, established to counter the failure of Hillel on campus, should be especially instructive.

In 2002, Avi Goldwasser and I founded The David Project because we were pained by the lack of an effective response from establishment Jewish organizations — especially from Hillel — to the growing hostility toward Israel and Jews on campuses. In fairness to Hillel, its mission was self-limited to providing a Jewish social and cultural experience, not to defending attacks on Israel and its supporters.

After spending months on several Boston campuses we concluded that “hasbara” (“Israeli PR”), as it was being practiced, was ineffective. Facts, logic, and reason were not sufficient to win the campus. At the time, Myths and Facts was the hasbara handbook. It is a defensive text: it responds to falsehoods about Israel but fails to make salient that what it seeks to correct are not “myths” but lies that are part of a concerted campaign to defame Israel. An approach that treats lies as mostly inadvertent errors, and that fails to expose and discredit the liars, their goals, their strategy and their funding sources, misses the real challenge students face on campus: that once more in history, the Jews are being defamed. This time a new antisemitism makes Israel the Jew among nations.

We knew two things about the lies told about Israel, namely that they were analogues of the slanders told by classical anti-Semites about Jews and Judaism — and also that the sins falsely attributed to the Jewish state were actually sins committed by the Muslim/Arab world: Land theft? Occupation? Settlements? —The Christian Middle East, and all of North Africa was conquered, stolen, occupied, and settled by colonists from Arabia.

We realized that playing defense and always explaining Israel cannot be a winning strategy. We concluded that we have to go on the offense.

To prepare students to engage in the ideological war against Israel and the Jewish people, we created a ten-unit workshop including discussion skills that were adopted by over 100 Jewish high schools in the USA and Canada. We also developed a rapid response capacity to help students facing intimidation and harassment on campus. In 2004 we were asked by students at Columbia University to help them respond to personal hostility by professors in the classroom. Their complaints were ignored by the administration, Jewish faculty, and even Hillel. We produced “Columbia Unbecoming,” a short documentary about the abuse suffered by Jewish students. This was the film that first rang the bell in Jewish communities across the country about the growing campus problem. We were shocked when established Jewish organizations not only failed to support beleaguered students but sometimes tried to undermine them.

In 2005, as part of an effort to expose the fraud that the Arabs are indigenous to the land of Israel, we produced the an award winning documentary “The Forgotten Refugees,” the story of the destruction and expulsion of Jewish communities in the Middle East and North Africa. The film was subsequently ‘adopted’ by Israeli consulates around the globe-and was screened in the UN in NYC and Geneva.

By 2008, The David Project, had an extraordinary team of talented young activists ready to do battle on campus and a growing army of trained Jewish student activists from high schools flowing onto the campuses to be networked with an expanding base there.

Sadly, at about that time it became clear that fighting an ideological war was not within the comfort zone of the David Project’s board, which sought a less aggressive, more genteel way to do advocacy. In 2008, I left The David Project and a new leadership was brought in to train Jewish students in what was labeled “personal advocacy,” befriending other students and showing them how wonderful Israel is. Instead of challenging the hostility, The David Project was going to use “coffee cup diplomacy” to win one supporter at a time. The new David Project also took many of these new friends to Israel, which is always a good and fun thing to do. It’s easy to recruit Jewish students to do “coffee diplomacy” and to lead trips to Israel, but it’s not clear that it’s a winning strategy.

Of course the harassment of Jewish students has only gotten worse over the past dozen years. Avi and I continued to expose the ideological assault on Israel and Jews though our new organization, Americans for Peace and Tolerance. In the past several years we produced several films exposing such indecent activities, including “The J Street Challenge,” “Northeastern Unbecoming,” and most recently, “Hate Spaces: The Politics of Intolerance on Campus.”

The battle for the hearts and minds of the next generation of Americans is continuing. Recent polls are not encouraging. According to a study by the Brand Israel Group, in just six years, support for Israel ‎has dropped from 73% to 54% among U.S. college students. The drop-off in support among Jewish college ‎students has been particularly steep — from 84% to 57%. Jewish leadership must acknowledge this failure and question the effectiveness of current strategies.

On the campus today, students are more influenced by feelings and certain (distorted) moral frameworks, and less so by facts.

Hillel and other Jewish campus groups need to move beyond explaining and defending Israel, and to promote and defend fundamental moral principles at stake in the conflict. The first step is to deconstruct the false moral tenets used against Israel, including the simplistic, selective and bigoted application of the “oppressor/oppressed” world view; and the hypocritical approach to human rights which exclusively focuses on “Western sins,” while ignoring true horrors committed by non-Western cultures.

None of these things require brilliance. Only courage.


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