Pro-Israel activism flourishes in heartland

If you want to know why pro-Israel students are now dominating campus life, you need look no further than Iowa.

Pro-Israel students in Iowa?

You bet!

In April, students from the University of Iowa put on the first-ever statewide Iowa Israel Advocacy Conference and the organizers were the poster children for the changes that have occurred on campus because of Birthright trips and the work of the members of the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC).

Several of the Iowa students were Birthright alumni who raved to me about their experience and returned from Israel to take leadership roles on campus. Many of us wonder if Birthright will change the future of the Jewish community. No one knows, but I inevitably meet several students on every campus I visit whose participation on Birthright trips has stimulated them to become activists, strengthened their Jewish identity, and enhanced their commitment to Israel.

The Iowa activists were also products of AIPAC’s student program, having attended the Saban leadership conference and Advanced Advocacy Israel Mission. These students ran the AIPAC play book perfectly, reaching out to non-Jews, building coalitions, and working with political figures. One Christian participant from Coe College proudly took me to the student center to show me the display he created promoting a Jewish-Christian dialogue. Organizers brought in the College Democrats and Republicans. The student body president and other members of student government attended. The students invited their congressional delegation and Rep. Jim Leech addressed the conference; officials who couldn’t attend sent letters of support.

One organization (forgive me for not mentioning all 25 in the coalition) that’s making a difference on campus is Hamagshimim, whose regional shlicha spoke to the students about the education system and the recent Supreme Court decision on conversions. It was great to hear a young, passionate Israeli talk about what concerns Israelis on a daily basis other than the conflict.

As good as the speakers were, the most impressive aspect of the conference was the quality of the students. I’ll match the knowledge and passion of those UI activists against students from anywhere.

I also participated in the 4th annual Israel academic conference at Michigan, which had a tremendous lineup of speakers, including Walid Shobat, who tells his incredible story as a reformed PLO terrorist, Hussein Haqqani, a brilliant Pakistani Muslim who made the case for Islamic reform, the always insightful Professor Jonathan Adelman, and the brilliant Dennis Ross. The conference was put together by another amazing group of students who raised more than $20,000 and were backed by one of the country’s best Hillels.

And for sheer intellectual firepower, no conference could match the one held in Irvine, the brainchild of Allan Bernstein, who showed what a committed layperson can do for students. He helped establish an Orange County ICC and then decided to give students the best crash course on Israel they could get. With the help of Caravan for Democracy and Stand with Us – two of the major contributors to the ascendance of pro-Israel students – the Federation, Hillel, and others, the ICC brought together the two leading experts on U.S. Middle East policy, Ken Stein of Emory and Steve Spiegel of UCLA, prominent Israeli historian Ephraim Karsh, the brilliant Daniel Pipes, a former member of Israel’s National Security Council, Professor Nadav Morag, communications expert Frank Luntz, and experts on Zionism and Islam.

The Irvine conference was exceptional because of its focus on teaching the history of the conflict in an academic, engaging way, as well as providing advocacy training. Besides the impact on the students, the speakers so impressed a visiting member of the UC Irvine administration – a school where serious problems exist – that she asked several speakers if they’d be interested in coming to the campus.

While most of the news was good, many of the serious problems on campus were also highlighted for me during these conferences. The most disturbing continues to be faculty. Iowa was a good example. This is a large, important Midwestern campus that has one professor (a Jew) teaching the course on the conflict who students said was, to put it mildly, problematic. The professor is apparently coming up for tenure, raising the prospect of yet another professor with an alleged anti-Israel bias receiving a lifetime appointment.

The perception remains widespread that Israel’s detractors are winning the campus wars, but the truth is quite different. While hundreds of pro-Israel students from coast to coast (a conference for high school students was recently held in New York) were becoming more educated and engaged, the detractors didn’t have a single conference and their anti-Semitic divestment efforts were defeated in the few places they mustered the strength to present them.

Pro-Israel students are winning the battles with their peers. Where the war on campus is being lost, however, is in the classroom, where anti-Israel faculty, often using pseudo-scholarship under the cloak of academic freedom, are poisoning thousands of young minds each year. To win that battle, we have to promote scholarship about Israel and the Middle East, and provide incentives for students with a passion for Israel to pursue academic careers. If we don’t address this problem immediately, it will be impossible to hold conferences like the one in Irvine because there are no young American scholars to follow in the footsteps of Stein, Spiegel, and Pipes.