The Pro-Israel Campus

If an article appears in the newspaper with the words “Israel” and “campus” in the title you can typically expect to read some horror story about the hostile climate Jewish students face at college. You probably haven’t seen too many of these articles this year because pro-Israel students have not only taken back the campus, they have begun to turn its resources to Israel’s advantage.

Besides the dearth of Israel scholars and plethora of anti-Israel faculty, the situation on campus was never as bad as it was portrayed. Anti-Semitic and anti-Israel incidents were relatively rare and tended to be concentrated on the same handful of colleges every year. Moreover, while annual events such as the Palestinian Solidarity Movement conference attracted attention and generated angst, the dozens of conferences attended by thousands more pro-Israel students were having a much greater impact on far more campuses.

Thanks in large measure to the efforts of all the major organizations that work with students under the umbrella of the Israel on Campus Coalition, pro-Israel students have been energized, educated and empowered. The ICC has now launched the “Israel Starts with i” campaign to deepen the connections between American campuses and Israel. This project offers almost limitless opportunities for students to develop creative ways to introduce their classmates to Israel and to build ties between their university and Israel.

Students at MIT, for example, created a videoconference lecture/course with the Technion on engineering and science. A new initiative at Wisconsin consists of an ongoing, cross departmental lecture series to increase Israel awareness among graduate students, and to enhance Israel’s exposure in specific graduate departments that are vulnerable to anti-Israel sentiment. Brandeis is offering a six-part, series about current events in Israel and the United States-Israel relationship. The program will culminate in November with a lobbying mission to Washington D.C. Students around the country are also actively working to restore programs to study in Israel that were cancelled during the Palestinian War, and to encourage participation in other program such as birthright.

The fall is typically a slow time for pro-Israel students as they get acclimated to school and plan for events in the winter and spring. Historically, the anti-Israel organizations have set the tone early by immediately organizing protests and using the November 29 anniversary of the UN partition vote as a pretext for bashing Israel. This year, however, approximately 30 campuses have staged or are about to hold large pro-Israel events, which range from a concert at Michigan to an Israel advocacy conference at Wisconsin to a cultural festival at Rutgers. These events are creating a positive atmosphere that introduces the college community to an Israel most have never seen before, the Israel we all know and love – beautiful, innovative, and exciting – rather than simply a place of conflict.

At the same time, ICC members continue to offer students the Israel advocacy training they desperately need to understand the Arab-Israeli conflict and respond to the attacks they still encounter inside and outside the classroom. While it is valuable to talk about Israel “beyond the conflict,” you can’t ignore politics because the first time you tell a classmate that their laptop runs on a Pentium chip developed by Intel Israel, they are likely to say, “That’s nice, but why doesn’t Israel stop persecuting the Palestinians?” Students still need to know the aleph-bet of Israeli political history so they can distinguish between myths and facts about the conflict, and they need to understand how to effectively make the case for Israel.

Even before the ICC developed its initiative, many colleges had strong ties to Israel through a broad range of cooperative endeavors that brought American and Israeli scholars together to take advantage of their mutual interests and skills. For example, the Binational Science Foundation (BSF) has for more than 30 years promoted research cooperation between scientists from the United States and Israel. BSF has awarded more than 3,000 grants, involving scientists at more than 400 institutions. Joint research advances include the development of new methods and techniques, the discovery of new phenomena and major theoretical breakthroughs. Similarly, the Binational Agricultural Research and Development Fund (BARD) has funded more than 800 projects that have led to new technologies in drip irrigation, pesticides, fish farming, livestock, poultry, disease control and farm equipment.

Universities also frequently sponsor conferences to tap Israeli expertise. For example, the University of Georgia and Hebrew University formed a partnership to study the effects of terrorism on children and held conferences in Jerusalem and Athens.

The situation is by no means ideal. Incidents still occur from time to time, nefarious new groups such as Sabeel have emerged, and the faculty remains a serious problem, but it is time to see colleges as assets to promote the U.S.-Israel relationship and educate the next generation about the real Israel, warts and all.