The Academic Year in Review: Part 2 - The Bad News
While certain incidents on campus, such as the shouting down of Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren at UC Irvine, attracted a lot of attention and was used by some to suggest American universities are aflame with anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activity, I have argued that this is really not the case. Some of the activities and trends beyond the spotlight, however, are even more worrisome.
An ongoing problem is the propagandizing of the classroom by anti-Israel faculty. Students remain intimidated by this abuse of professors' positions and colleagues are still unwilling to hold them accountable to academic standards. These faculty, who frequently are Jewish, have also grown increasingly bold in their political activities outside the classroom, as exemplified by two faculty members who supported the Berkeley divestment effort.
On most campuses the most serious problem remains apathy rather than hostility. As noted in Part 1, for example, one of the most important foreign policy issues of the day, Iran's nuclear program, is a non-issue on campus. The nuclear freeze movement once generated nationwide protests, but the Iranian threat hasn't caused a ripple.
The lack of knowledge and historical perspective is a growing problem. We have never done a good enough job teaching Jewish students what they need to know, but in the past they had some experience with contemporary threats to Israel that put issues into context. Today's students don't even remember the Palestinian War that lasted five years in this century. There hasn't been a major terror attack in years and so they do not appreciate Israel's security concerns; they think that if Israel would just get out of the West Bank peace would ensue.
As in the case of faculty, some of the loudest student voices attacking Israel come from Jews. Watch the YouTube videos of the divestment debate at Berkeley and you will see students begin their statements of support for the anti-Semitic resolution by declaring that they are compelled to act because they are Jews. Though in many cases they reject their identity, Jewish students often use it to bolster their credibility and to give the impression that they speak for "the Jews." They are entitled to their opinion, of course, but not to claim that they represent anyone but themselves. Non-Jews listening, however, do not know this and, even if other Jews speak out in opposition, the issue is muddled rather than clarified.
The average ill-informed student also believes the conflict has two equal sides and can't make moral or factual distinctions between them. They are even more confused when they hear conflicting Jewish opinions. This leads many to seek the middle ground. The problem is that the anti-Israel position is so extreme the midpoint is not a centrist view but one that is closer to the hostile side.
One of the most serious concerns, which we see internationally as well as on campus, is the hijacking of the peace camp by Israel's detractors. Though Israelis crave peace, they are portrayed as war mongers, human rights abusers and international outlaws. Human rights organizations on campus, which once were led by pro-Israel Jewish students who, for example, were leading antiwar and Soviet Jewry activists, now are populated by Israel's harshest critics.
The critics are now also more likely to question Israel's legitimacy. This is the danger of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, which has shifted the debate from the merits of particular Israeli policies to the right of Israel to exist. Instead of discussing how peace can best be achieved, Israel's interests are dismissed.
None of the anti-Israel activities on campus alone have a major impact, but the drumbeat of divestment, lecturers, "Apartheid Weeks" and classroom propaganda has a cumulative impact that we are starting to see reflected in public attitudes, especially among liberal Democrats. Sympathy for Israel has actually been increasing over the last 40 years, and was noted at 63 percent in the latest Gallup Poll (just one point below the 1991 Gulf War high). There is about a 30 point spread, however, in support for Israel between Republicans and Democrats, a gap that has been growing in the last decade. That spread is even larger among young Democrats (18-29) who, since 2000, have become far less supportive of Israel than young Republicans and usually below the national average as well.
A number of factors can explain this trend, one is that Republicans have become much more pro-Israel. The fact that liberal Democrats are less supportive of Israel than other constituencies is also problematic, however, and may be at least partially attributable to the experience these voters had in college. It could also be related to the failure of our educational system to give them the tools they need to become mature Zionists who remain committed to Israel even as they question some of its policies. More research needs to be done to see if trends on campus and in the polls are related. If they are, then it is even more urgent that these campus issues be addressed.