The Rule of 20
One phenomenon I’ve observed over the years, but never really been able to explain is that no matter how many Jewish students are on a campus, the number of activists will be 20 or fewer, usually less than 10. You can go to a campus with 3,000 Jews or 300 and this is likely to be the case. Very few students have the time, energy and passion to devote their scarce college time to advocacy for Israel. These students are often the best and the brightest, and will become community leaders at some point, but it is still a source of frustration that we have not figured out a way to motivate larger numbers of students to become involved.
Even with the success of Birthright – I often meet alumni who are now campus leaders – the number of students who return and become active is a tiny fraction of the thousands who have taken the trip. The hope, of course, is that the Israel experience will stick with them and have a longer-term impact, but it still is disappointing that it has not had a greater short-term effect. It may be time to reevaluate how the trips might be better structured to develop campus activists.
Two sacred cows of Birthright should also be reconsidered. One is the idea that the trips should be free. There is no reason to charge for the trip, however, students should be encouraged to make at least a token voluntary contribution of say $18 to their home Jewish federation. A case could be made for simply encouraging a donation to any charity, but there are good reasons to encourage a commitment to the federation. First, the federations have been partners in Birthright but they have gotten little from their contribution in the short-run. Linking students to federations, even if they move around and do not end up living near the one in their home community, will at least introduce them to the institution. It is also important for students to learn the Jewish tradition of supporting local Jewish needs as well as Israel. Finally, it is useful to teach young Jews the obligation of tzedakah.
The second change Birthright should consider is its refusal to make the mailing list of participants readily available to Jewish organizations. The group is understandably protective of the privacy of students and sensitive to turning people off by having them return from Israel to be inundated by solicitations. The downside of this approach has been to significantly reduce the prospect for keeping students involved upon their return.
Applicants to Birthright should be told up-front about the expectation of a charitable commitment and the release of their names to Jewish organizations so they can decide whether they still want to participate. It’s hard to imagine many students turning down a free trip to Israel because of these changes, but, even if some do, many more are on the waiting list to take their place.
Given that students come and go in four-year cycles, it is always difficult to ensure a continuity of leadership. At the University of Maryland, a campus with approximately 5,000 Jews, for example, a student activist told me the pro-Israel groups are in disarray this year because of a lack of leadership and this longtime philo-Semitic campus is now seeing an upsurge in anti-Israel activity. Apathy, schoolwork and alternative distractions will always pose a challenge, but we need to do a better job of teaching organizational skills to help student groups sustain themselves from year to year.
This year one also gets a sense of a letdown among pro-Israel students. The presidential election provided a great stimulus for political activism on campus but that energy has dissipated. Pro-Israel students are once again finding themselves with little to advocate for while being put on the defensive by anti-Israel groups looking to build on the Obama administration’s campaign against settlements, the Goldstone report and the boycott movement.
Iran is the number one issue for the pro-Israel community today, but it has not become a serious concern on campus. Moreover, the general position on the issue is muddled because most organizations call for sanctions that few people believe will work. This leaves the implication that military action will ultimately be required and that is likely to be very unpopular on campus.
Meanwhile, the usual anti-Israel suspects will be making the rounds on college campuses. AICE has brought 23 visiting Israeli professors to teach and lecture on campuses across the country who will offer students a broader perspective on Middle East issues, but this is still a drop in the bucket when you look at the number of universities that still have few, if any courses about Israel and more likely than not teach students a distorted version of Middle East history.
It’s a new academic year, but the challenges remain the same.
Mitchell Bard is the author of Will Israel Survive? and 48 Hours of Kristallnacht: Night of Destruction/ Dawn of the Holocaust.