A Progress Report on the War on Campus

Two years ago I wrote in these pages that “the plight of Jewish students on college campuses is desperate.” I am happy to report that the siege has been broken. Today, the pro-Israel students dominate debate and usually set the agenda. That is the good news. The bad news is that the number of students who are knowledgeable and involved remains precariously small, and the more insidious danger from anti-Israel faculty has been largely neglected.

The view that the campus is “on fire” remains prevalent largely because of some misleading commentaries in the press and continuing reference to a handful of extreme events on a limited number of campuses. For example, the shouting down of Bibi Netanyahu at Concordia is continuously cited even though it occurred two years ago, was an isolated incident even then, and hasn’t been repeated.

Israel’s detractors continue to hold rallies, launch divestment efforts, build “apartheid walls,” and engage in guerilla theater, but these actions are annoyances rather than problems. Thanks largely to the members of the Israel on Campus Coalition (an umbrella group of all the major organizations that work with students), students are better trained and organized than ever before.

Of the eight steps I outlined two years ago to win the war on campus, the ICC has implemented five and is working on two of the other three. The members are providing students with the information they need; training students in Israel advocacy; incorporating the campus into the community; continuing the birthright israel program; and sharing information. The ICC membership is not funding Jewish newspapers on campuses, could do a better job putting speakers on campus, and is just beginning to respond to the faculty problem (more on that in a minute).

The speakers program could be dramatically improved if more funds were allocated and greater effort was made to coordinate speaking tours to maximize the effectiveness of the speakers and minimize the cost. Today, many organizations sponsor speakers, who often go to the same campuses at nearly the same time. If a national strategy were adopted, a larger number of campuses could be covered and more students educated and inspired. In addition, speakers who are addressing community audiences need to be encouraged to visit colleges and high schools.

Greater emphasis also needs to be placed on graduate students. Students in professional schools — who will be our future leaders — have been neglected. While I was speaking to undergraduates at Stanford and Pitt, the PLO legal adviser was speaking to the law schools on those campuses. We should not cede the education of graduate students to the enemy.

If there is a general guiding the troops, it is Avraham Infeld, Hillel’s dynamic new president. I know he does not see the campus as a battlefield in the same way that I do; nevertheless, Hillel is the key player on campus and therefore Infeld’s strategic decisions regarding Israel education will play a crucial role in determining how the war is fought, and whether it is won.

While great progress has been achieved in just two years, serious problems remain. Ignorance and apathy are two of the greatest impediments to winning the long-term war for the campus. While today’s activists are bright, informed, and passionate, they make up a tiny minority of the student population. The buzzword of the day for addressing the problem is “engagement,” and long hours are spent discussing the best way to entice more students to take an interest in Israel.

One of the most distressing aspects of this effort is the suggestion by some campus professionals that we avoid talking about Israel altogether or, at least, be careful not to appear too pro-Israel. This is a potentially catastrophic error; the focus must be on educating young Jews (and non-Jews) about the history of Israel rather than suggesting it is all right for students to have misguided views based on ignorance. AIPAC has begun to educate students on a handful of campuses with its new CORE program, but much more needs to be done to provide students with the basic knowledge they need to develop informed opinions about issues related to Israel.

By the time students get to college, however, it’s very late to be first learning the aleph-bet of Jewish history. The education process needs to begin in high schools, if not before. Recognizing this, the Jewish National Fund has begun a project with high schools and the American Jewish Committee and the Solomon Schechter High School of New York have developed the IKAR program to promote Israel Knowledge, Advocacy and Responsibility. The pro-Israel community needs to make a stronger commitment to insure that students in Hebrew schools, day schools, and even public schools learn modern Israeli history and, ideally, are also trained in advocacy techniques.

One other positive development has been a greater effort to collect data about student opinion toward Israel and the issues. This is an important trend that should continue; however, it needs to be done more carefully because some of the data that has been reported is questionable and has been misinterpreted.

Two years ago, I wrote that the community’s top priority should be to endow chairs and establish centers for the study of Israel to provide an alternative to the Arab-funded professors and Middle East studies centers around the country that are teaching distorted views of Israel. Since then, Brandeis and NYU have created centers and established chairs in Israel studies. Much more needs to be done. AICE and the ICC have just released a study I prepared, “Tenured or Tenuous: Defining the Role of Faculty in Supporting Israel on Campus,” which outlines the scope of the problem with faculty and offers a series of recommendations for solving it. AICE is already implementing one by creating the Israel Scholar Development Fund to establish visiting Israel scholar programs and offer scholarships for doctoral students who write dissertations on Israel-related topics.

We are now winning most of the battles on campus, but we still have a lot of work to do to win the war.