Universities are a breeding ground for ideas and change. From the Civil Rights movement, to the fight for Soviet Jewry, to the Save Darfur campaign, major political and social movements have originated on the college campus. Since the fall of 2000, debates about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have intensified on campuses across the country.
Pro-Israel advocacy is a particularly challenging task in today’s college and university campus environment. Many high profile academics, charismatic speakers, and influential student leaders have presented the Israeli-Palestinian situation in a one-sided manner, blaming the conflict on Israel and largely ignoring Palestinian terrorism and violence.
However, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a complicated issue that cannot be easily explained through one-line talking points. Making the case for Israel requires historical knowledge, current information, and a nuanced perspective on the conflict as a whole. The great majority of students (including many Jews) are apathetic, feeling no personal connection to or stake in Israel’s future. To many, the Middle East is another far-off, seemingly endless conflict similar to those found in Africa, South Asia, and elsewhere. In sum, those who would make the case for and defend Israel on campus must contend with an activated hostile minority and a potentially friendly, but generally unengaged and uninformed, majority.
When developing an effective strategy to an anti-Israel campaign on campus, always consult and coordinate with on-campus Jewish groups, particularly Hillel.
The Anti-Israel Campaign on Campus
While most campuses do not experience harsh anti-Israel activism, the past decade has seen an increase of anti-Israel activity on campuses across North America. Today on campus, it has become common for anti-Israel activists to compare Israelis to Nazis during anti-Israel conferences and rallies. Israel’s detractors continue to invite self-proclaimed anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic speakers to campus, launch divestment campaigns and plan annual “Israel Apartheid” weeks. On some campuses, anti-Israel groups have attempted to intimidate pro-Israel advocates. There is a growing trend of audience members heckling pro-Israel speakers. In addition, anti-Israel bias has increasingly been reported in the classroom.
Anti-Israel activism was widespread on campuses throughout the 1970s and 1980s, especially during the first Intifada. With the dawn of Arab-Israeli negotiations at the 1991 Madrid Conference, and particularly with the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian Oslo agreement, anti-Israel campaigning on campus was much diminished, although it never entirely ceased. While there were periodic flare-ups of anti-Israel activity, such as those countering the celebration of Israel’s 50th anniversary in 1998, themes of peace and reconciliation symbolized by the establishment of Jewish-Arab dialogue groups on some campuses received more attention.
The outbreak of the second intifada in 2000 and the Gaza Conflict in the winter of 2008/09 led to a resurgence of anti-Israel and anti-Zionist campus activity. On many campuses anti-Israel rallies were a daily occurrence. Some crossed the line into violence, overt anti-Semitism and hate, with protesters engaging in vandalism, physical assault and hate speech. These episodes have created an atmosphere of intimidation and fear among Jewish members of university communities, and anti-Israel and anti-Semitic incidents have taken place on campuses across the United States and Canada.
Being Positive: Making The Case For Israel on Campus
The best strategy for students who support Israel is to be proactive rather than merely reactive on campus. Your job is to make a positive case for Israel, instead of focusing solely on refuting and counteracting anti-Israel agitation. The latter puts you in the position of always playing catch-up and acting within the parameters of an agenda that is set by others. When you move first, with positive programming, you get to set the tone and the agenda.
The people you most want to educate are not anti-Israel activists, who may never agree with you. Rather, seek to educate campus opinion leaders, potential student groups who may be allies and the general campus population who are amenable to hearing the case for Israel. Indeed, a number of your peers may become important public and private sector decision makers in the years to come after they graduate.
In making an affirmative case, you will need a long-term, though flexible, plan of action in which you identify your target audiences and come to know them well. Such a campaign requires that you develop a level of expertise on the complicated and vexing issues of the Middle East conflict. You need to know your facts, through educating yourself, Most of all, you will need to communicate to others what Israel stands for and what it means to the Jewish people.
Here are some specifics actions to consider:
- Bring effective speakers and programs to campus to make a positive case for Israel, at least once each semester. In addition to speakers and programs focusing on current political events, consider bringing in nonpolitical speakers and programs such as artists, musicians, entrepreneurs and environmentalists, Israeli academics on sabbatical in the United States are often available for speaking engagements. When on campus, these academics should not only be used for evening, extracurricular events but also as guest lecturers in appropriate courses as well. In addition, set up an interview for speakers with a reporter from the campus newspaper and schedule an appearance on campus radio (and TV if available). Always reach out to the campus media and invite them to cover your events.
- Provide concise, well-written and researched letters, op-eds and longer articles to the campus media. Submit items on a regular basis, but do not overdo it. These submissions should not always come from the same person or small group.
- Have a supply of literature on Israel on hand and seek to distribute it widely. Download and post such material on your group’s Web site.
- Present an image of Israel beyond the conflict. Engage students through music, literature, films, scientific research, business development and other elements of Israeli society.
- Take the lead on campus-wide campaigns that connect Israel to the mutual interests of other student groups. For example, Israel has a long history of providing equipment, financial resources and volunteer assistance to countries and people in crisis. By working on a campaign to help victims of natural disasters, or promoting awareness about HIV/AIDS, you will find common ground and potential allies.
- Utilize Web sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and popular campus blogs to distribute positive messages about Israel to your peers.
- Be in regular contact with local and national Jewish organizations and your local Israeli consulate, who can be a source of timely information, literature, speakers and programs.
RESPONDING TO ANTI-ISRAEL CAMPAIGNS
While positive programming is preferable, there are situations where it is essential to react directly to anti-Israel incidents and rhetoric. Certainly, any anti-Semitic incidents cannot be ignored. When reacting to such situations it is also imperative to think strategically.
It is important to consider the following:
- Jewish groups on campus should maintain routine contact with appropriate personnel in the university administration (i.e., Student Affairs) and campus security. Keep them informed on a regular basis of national trends in anti-Israel activity (e.g., divestment campaigns, acts of violence, interruptions of Israeli speakers, harassment, etc.) that should concern them. If an emergency situation arises, an already established relationship will provide you with easier access to the administration. Consider appointing one individual or a small group to serve as designated liaisons.
- While anti-Israel protests may be protected by free speech rights, the protests cannot disrupt normal school functions, obstruct student access to school buildings, create pervasive, severe, or persistent harassment of students, or physically intimidate or threaten individual students. When the protests violate these parameters, alert the university and ask administrators to take action. ADL’s publication Fighting Back: A Handbook for Responding to Anti-Israel Campaigns on College and University Campuses can provide guidelines to dealing with these scenarios.
- Respond with accurate information in a succinct fashion to specific anti-Israel sentiments in the campus media. It is most effective to do so in the form of op-eds or letters to the editor. Generally submit a response once, as continued back and forth gets tiresome to most readers and can prove to be counterproductive.
- In some situations, counterdemonstrations may be an effective and appropriate tactic. Keep the counterdemonstrators separate from the anti-Israel demonstration so as to minimize the possibility of physical confrontation. Always be civil and come prepared with written statements for the campus and local media. Have a supply of literature that refutes the standard anti-Israel arguments available for the general public. Be sure to frequently cite unbiased sources in your arguments; using only overtly pro-Israel sources invites criticism and allows readers to easily dismiss your arguments.
- When an on-campus panel discussion excludes knowledgeable speakers supportive of Israel, make the case to the administration and to the general campus community that this event violates the accepted standards of fairness and balance. This point is especially vital when such events are sponsored/co-sponsored by academic departments or by the university itself. Your efforts in this regard will prove to be persuasive when you are able to affirm, rather than to challenge, the basic shared norms of the academic enterprise.
- Research anti-Israel speakers before they arrive on campus. Come prepared with pointed questions and to challenge inaccuracies.
- When anti-Semitic materials and/or rhetoric appear, you should publicly condemn them and seek to educate the administration and the general campus community to the dangers of hate on campus. Campus administrators and leaders should be urged to strongly denounce such bigotry. Keep in mind that not all anti-Israel material is anti-Semitic. When in doubt, contact Jewish organizations for guidance. ADL’s advocacy manual, Israel: A Guide for Activists, www.adl.org/israel/advocacy, can be used as a reference for understanding when criticism of Israel becomes anti-Semitism.
- If you feel intimidated or discriminated against by your professor in your classroom because of your viewpoints or beliefs, you should follow established academic procedures and discuss the matter first with your instructor. Do so in a calm and non polemical fashion. If this does not lead to a satisfactory solution, you should next bring your concerns to the department chair, dean, or whoever is the appropriate follow-up at your university. If such appeals are mounted, be sure to have documentation of your claims: include statements from other students, detailed class notes, the course syllabus and assigned readings.
- Be careful with the language and rhetoric you use. It is easy to fall into arguments concerning “us” and “them” and to generalize about Palestinians when you are actually only referring to specific groups, political organizations, terrorist organizations, and so on.
- The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a complicated topic. In order to strategically respond to the anti-Israel campaign, you must educate yourself and your peers on the nuances of the issues.
SOME LONG-TERM CONSIDERATIONS: BUILDING COALITIONS, PARTNERS AND RELATIONSHIPS
- Find common ground with other student groups on campus and work to build personal relationships with their membership. These may include college Democrats and Republicans, African American, Asian American, LGBT and Latina/o student groups. Often, when Jewish groups publicly support issues of concern to other groups, those groups will, in turn, support Jewish issues (or at least remain neutral.)
- Encourage pro-Israel students to be active in key areas of student life such as student government, public affairs forums, campus newspapers and other media.
- Demonstrating vocal support for Israel should not fall on too few shoulders. Get many involved and pay attention to developing leaders who can continue the effort when their older colleagues leave the campus.
- Encourage Jewish and non-Jewish students to travel to Israel to gain a first hand perspective. Once they return, encourage them to share their experiences with their peers.