At 26 years of age, Tomer Schwartz has fought his battles. From 1996-99, he served as an officer in the Israeli army in Lebanon. Now, four years later, although the landscape he traverses on a daily basis as a third-year law student at Cambridge University in England is a world away from the streets of Lebanon, there are still battles to be fought. And the stakes are still the same...the survival of the State of Israel.
To prepare for the battles Tomer faces in the winter of 2003, his army training is less beneficial than the strategic skills he has garnered as leader of his college chess team or the interpersonal skills he has acquired as captain of his college basketball team.
Each Sunday, Palestinian students at Cambridge operate a booth, distributing leaflets containing vile lies about Israel and maps that extinguish Israel entirely. A short while ago, a collection of Cambridge University students, with strong representation from campus groups like "The Socialist Workers," filed a motion with the Cambridge University Student Council, alleging that Israel was guilty of human rights violations and urging a boycott of Israeli goods and Israeli academics. Tomer and fellow students on the Cambridge Israel Campaign opposed the motion on procedural grounds, and managed to defeat it by a 90 percent margin. But the battle goes on.... in Cambridge and elsewhere.
Like Tomer Schwartz, basketball is one of the few extra-curricular activities 16-year-old Rachel Klapper has maintained. Other interests have, at least temporarily, been put on hold. Rachel, a junior at Mayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, New Jersey was one of 29 students from high schools in New York and New Jersey selected to participate in Write On, a two-year program to provide Jewish high school juniors with the skills to counter anti-Israel propaganda when they arrive on college campuses as freshman.
In the first year, the students in the Write On program meet for a six-hour session, approximately one Sunday a month. In between these meetings, they have assignments, their first being to conduct a survey of a college campus. Each student chose a campus to research, interviewing faculty members, representatives from student organizations
and student publications to get a general picture of Jewish life and attitudes toward the Middle East on a particular campus. They plan to present their reports at the next Write On meeting.
The first year of the Write On program culminates with a trip to Israel in June. In the second year of the program, the students are placed in media internships. At the end of the two-year period, the students do not receive a diploma or graduation certificate. Rather, Program Director Gary Rosenblatt, says the objective of the program is to award each student with "the moral confidence" to advocate their views on college campuses in the future.
The word "confidence" is one that keeps cropping up when speaking to those who, among other things, are focusing on honing the advocacy skills of Jewish students on campus. It is a word that seems strangely out of place in discussions regarding elite groups of students who have labored mightily and competed for years to gain entrance into some of the top institutions of higher education in the nation. Yet, these students are facing assaults both brazen and subtle for which their previous religious, social and educational experiences have not prepared them. As Richard Joel, the outgoing Hillel president and incoming Yeshiva University president, put it, Many young Jews "have no Israel memories," adding, "They are also part of a non-confrontational generation that seeks to avoid conflict. And eight out of ten of them have never seen Israel, except through CNN's eyes."
These students will have to confront peer pressure, verbal (or even physical) intimidation by Arab and Muslim student groups and their supporters, including crude allegations, calling Israelis "baby killers" or "Nazis." Sometimes the threats are violent in nature. It was reported that two students in Brussels who hung pro-Israel posters on campus received telephone threats that their cars would be burned and their family members injured. The offending posters contained such innocuous messages as: Which was the first state in the Middle East to give Arab women the right to vote?"
As rattling as threats of violence and crude verbal slurs may be, organizations working with Jewish students are just as concerned with the propaganda emanating from "respected" academics who have spearheaded divestment campaigns and give talks on college campuses, equating Israeli policies with apartheid and the like.
For Tomer Schwartz, all the Israel bashing he has observed on campus did not bring home the magnitude of the task facing Cambridge's Israel Committee as much as the sight of the 500 or so students who turned out to hear Edward Said, a Columbia professor, when he spoke on campus. Ordinarily, a speaker on campus would attract about 30 or so students, according to Tomer. A tenured professor at Columbia University, Said, is one of the leaders in the anti-Israel movement.
Dr. Daniel Pipes and the staff at Middle East Forum, a think tank dedicated to the issues surrounding conflicts in the Middle East, takes very seriously the problems of anti- Israel indoctrination on campuses. In September 2002, a website called Campus Watch was created by Pipes and staff at the Middle East Forum. Among other things, the site lists, in survey fashion, campuses where the problem is particularly acute. According to Campus Watch Managing Editor, Jonathan Calt Harrison, the website receives two to three reports from students reporting such concerns during the week and 20 to 30 over the weekend. The staff at Campus Watch researches these reports and, if they discover a problem of
indoctrination on campus, they address it on their site.
The loudest and most energetic Israel-bashers on campus often rely upon imagery and jargon from political battles of the past, hoping to condemn Israel and its supporters through association with figures and events unanimously reviled. In this vein, professors highlighted on the Campus Watch site have charged Pipes with chilling free speech and "blacklisting" tactics reminiscent of "McCarthyism." Yet, on the wide open highway of academic exchange, free speech and tolerance appears to be a one-way street in the eyes of those opposed to Israel's policies and/or Israel's existence.
Based upon his alleged "McCarthyist" policies, Colltown (College Town), a consortium of colleges in the Maryland area, revoked an invitation extended to Pipes to speak last October as part of a symposium on globalization and the crisis in the Middle East. An individual with knowledge of the workings of the Colltown Board claimed the board was swayed by the McCarthyism allegations, as well as a fear that Pipes' presence may provoke "unseemly reactions." This latter explanation, of course, allows threats of thuggery and physical intimidation to prevail over open discourse. So much for free speech. Pipes was also disinvited to speak by Stamford Univeristy on similar grounds.
The Pipes/Colltown incident summons to mind the incident at Concordia University, where current Israeli Foreign Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was compelled to cancel a planned speech at the university following a violent student riot. None other than the 94-year-old Simon Wiesenthal sent a personal letter to the President of Concordia, requesting that he reschedule Netanyahu in the interest of free and open campus debate in response, Concordia chilled free speech. As a result of the Netanyahu debacle, the administration banned all dialogue regarding the Middle East on campus, thereby effectively punishing not only the violent pro-Palestinian rioters, but also the Israel supporters who were never charged with any wrong doing.
Then, in the dead of night, the nine members of the Concordia 27-member student council, in an item of "new business" to the agenda not previously publicized, voted to cut off funding to Concordia's Hillel because a pamphlet for an Israeli program that included volunteer army service was spotted on a Hillel table. The pamphlet constituted a technical violation of a Canadian law banning recruitment for foreign military. Had the council motion been publicized and received a full and fair hearing, it no doubt would have been strenuously opposed by the Jewish students on campus.
In fact, the Concordia Hillel episode could easily have been duplicated in Manchester England, where the Muslim Students brought a motion before the student council accusing Israel of apartheid- like policies. The practical effect of the passage of this motion would have allowed the University to cut off funding to all Jewish and pro-Israel organizations on campus on the basis that they supported a country that promoted apartheid. Unlike the Concordia incident, Israel supporters had advance notice of the motion which failed to pass for one reason and one reason alone, or, maybe, it was because of more than 1000 reasons... in the form of thousands of Jewish students from all over the United Kingdom, who arrived at Manchester University on the day of the vote, sporting specially printed T-shirts proclaiming their support for the State of Israel. On that day in Manchester England, the rousing unity of thousands prevented the chilling of free speech.
Yet, there is no time to savor victories like the one on the Manchester Campus. Although the motion failed to garner the two-thirds vote required for passage, it did get a majority, and there is little reason to believe that anti-Israel forces will not launch another attempt in the future.
In addition to direct campus activism, Jewish and pro-Israeli groups have been focusing on two other means of providing students with the confidence to stand up to the Israel-bashing on campuses. CAMERA ( the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America) twice a year publishes a CAMERA on Campus , a publication which is mailed directly to students and Hillel houses throughout the country. Deborah Passner, a Research Analyst for CAMERA, encourages pro-Israeli students to counter anti-Israel campaigns by getting involved on college newspapers.
Similarly, Felice Friedson, President and CEO of Media Line, a non-profit media organization based in Jerusalem, sends representatives to speak on campus colleges in the United States, most recently, Trinity College in Hartford Connecticut, Central Connecticut State University and the University of Oregon. Her organization also offers media internships for college at her company's studio in Jerusalem so they can experience the news in Israel firsthand.
And finally, there are the organizations that seek to solidify students' bonds with Israel by flying them there, often for the first time. Birthright Israel, a unique partnership between the Israeli government and Jewish philanthropies, has flown 32,000 young adults, ages 18-26 to Israel to date.
While the vilification of Israel on college campuses is cause for concern, the response on the part of Jewish students and supporters of Israel has been swift, energetic and unifying. Students have been forced to speak out, and, in the process of doing so, they have come to their own realization about what matters to them.
Over the past two years, the World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS), based in Jerusalem, has been getting calls from students in Germany, many of whom do not speak a word of Hebrew and/or have never been to Israel. Nevertheless, because they have been identified as Jews, they have been the targets of taunts and slurs, viewed by their tormentors as "Israelis" or de facto "ambassadors for Israel." And, as fate would have it, pushed by this adversity, they have become ambassadors of sorts...on their own terms.
According to WUJS Chairperson, Peleg Reshef, when the German students first started calling his organization with reports of campus harassment, they were embarrassed and unsure of how to respond. Over time, with support from organizations like WUJS, they gained the confidence to speak out, "not as Israelis or official representatives of the Israeli government," said Reshef, "but as Jews with a belief that Israel is the home of the Jewish people."
It would seem that all efforts to provide students with the tools necessary to confidently advocate in support of the Jewish people and the State of Israel would naturally produce the future Jewish leaders of the world. Not so, says, Reshef, "They are not just the future leaders. They are the present leaders."