The Kennedy School's "One-State" conference provided only the latest reminder of the hostile on-campus attitude toward Israel. (Imagine the likelihood of any major campus hosting an allegedly academic conference ruminating about the destruction as a state of Iran, or Egypt, or Mexico.) In light of the conference and its controversy, it's worth reviewing an excellent Tablet symposium, asking pro-Israel figures--mostly students, but also the David Project's David Bernstein--along with a student representative of J Street about how to respond to the campus climate.
The symposium can be read in full here; I recommend it strongly. Two themes emerged the most strongly.
(1) If anything, students are more aggressive than non-campus figures about the need to confront anti-Israel biases on campus.
For instance, Bernstein (not unreasonably) cautioned about going "negative," arguing that "the best response to anti-Israelism on campus is pro-Israelism," since polling consistently demonstrates that "Americans are more sympathetic to the Israelis (rather than to the Palestinians)." He worried that "when we spend our energy responding to anti-Israel accusations, we engage the battle on our adversaries' terms--not ours. Further, by taking on the detractors, we help them get more publicity than they could on their own and can end up sounding shrill ourselves." He recommended partnering with non-Jewish organizations for smaller events, interesting business departments on Israeli economic issues, and reaching out to key figures within the student body (like student government leaders).
Bernstein conceded, however, that despite the general pro-Israel atmosphere among the public and among most student bodies, "there may be a more serious problem at elite colleges, where the discussion of Israel is driven by a far-left and postmodern worldview, as well as by radicalized Middle East study programs." And it's in this atmosphere that most of the other students in the Tablet symposium operate.
Rachel Fish, a doctoral student in Israel Studies at Brandeis, worried that "supporters of Israel on campus are simply silenced. They correctly understand that if they stand up for Israel, they risk being mocked, marginalized, subject to receiving lower grades, and perhaps limiting their career opportunities." Given that situation, Fish suggested that the focus must be not on the students, but in confronting "the structural elements of campus life--faculty, administration, and funding sources, all of which have far greater power than students," with a goal of showing anti-Israel bias "to be the shameless hypocrisy that it is."
David Fine, a Columbia junior who is editor in chief of The Current, similarly championed a more aggressive approach, urging pro-Israel students to "sharpen our wits and confront those whose aim is the destruction of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state," since the "best that happens is that they reveal their ideologies for what they truly are."
And Gilad Wenig, an NYU senior, recalled a story of his directly confronting a professor (after class) about her biased commentary on Zionism--which ended in the professor backing down during the following lecture and maintaining "an unbiased atmosphere" for the rest of the course.
(2) There are creative ways for liberal pro-Israel students to engage.
In his provocative essay, and in a statement that might capture the sentiments of many left-leaning pro-Israel figures, Harvard student (and former IDF soldier) Yoav Schaefer was blunt: "Let's be honest, with the current direction of Israeli politics, it is becoming increasingly difficult to make the case for Israel on campus."
But, Schaefer argued, the task of pro-Israel students needs to be less on the specifics of Benjamin Netanyahu's policies but "to defend Israel's fundamental right to exist." (Does anyone seriously believe the general campus climate on Israel-related issues would be meaningfully different if Tzipi Livni had been able to cobble together a coalition in 2009?) With that goal, Schaefer contended, relying on talking points and "one-dimensional advocacy" are "counterproductive--uninformed students see it as anti-intellectual and ideological spoon-feeding. Only by discussing the fundamental meaning and purpose of Israel--not defending the status-quo, but challenging students to build a more perfect country that embodies the values of the Jewish people--can we transform North American universities into mechanisms for positive change."
Schaefer's essay showed that there's no tension between a distaste for the Netanyahu government and standing up for Israel on campus. Contrast his arguments, however, with those of Logan Bayroff, the president of J Street U National Student Board. Though the organization describes itself as "pro-Israel, pro-peace," it is much more clearly the latter than the former; in the past couple of days, J Street has attracted considerable criticism for its false assertion that recent Israeli strikes on Gaza "have killed over a dozen Palestinian civilians," the latest in a long line of J Street actions that suggested the organization sees its chief mission as criticizing the Israeli government.
In his essay, Bayroff criticized unnamed figures for a pattern of "hastily label[ing] various activities as anti-Israel or anti-Semitic"; he didn't identify which "activities" had been so hastily labeled. He conceded that there is an "uglier face of campus advocacy" on behalf a pro-Palestinian viewpoint, but offered no guidance on whether these "uglier" faces could be deemed anti-Semitic, or how students should distinguish between these "uglier" voices and what he deems as an appropriate "Palestinian narrative." His essay discussed two specific initiatives run by J Street U, both of which appeared to primarily focus on criticism of Israeli security policies.
As with its parent organization in the national pro-Israel dialogue, J Street U doesn't appear to have much of an impact on campus. I suppose we should be grateful.
KC Johnson is a Professor of History at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, and author of the blog Durham-in-Wonderland. He is co-author, with Stuart Taylor Jr., of "Until Proven Innocent."