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Classroom Battleground

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Israel hate fests: All bark and no bite?

 

As the Campus Coordinator for the American Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE), I have spent the year monitoring anti-Israel activity on college campuses. So far, my two busiest months have been February and March. That is the time of year dedicated to a series of global lectures, rallies and demonstrations against the Jewish state, which come under a variety of headings, but are all aimed at delegitimizing Israel on campus. Tactics employed by anti-Israel organizers include raising the South Africa analogy and encouraging boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaigns. The movement strikes fear in the hearts of many in the Jewish community, who say it is proof that the campuses are rife with hatred of Israel and anti-Semitism. But contrary to popular opinion, this is not the case. Support for Israel on campus remains strong and the festivals of hate have been a dismal failure.

For the eighth straight year, an effort was made to organize campus-wide events tarring Israel with comparisons to South Africa. Last year, fewer than two-dozen campuses managed events, but this year anti-Israel events were held on 62 college campuses in North America, including a record 45 campuses in the United States. A number of universities held events for the first time, including the University of Pittsburgh, Tufts and Brandeis. Given that there are more than 4,000 campuses across the country, the detractors continue to reach only a tiny fraction (one-percent) of American campuses. Still, the spread of events is a cause for concern and reminder of the need to continue to monitor these activities.

Despite the growth of events, the real question is whether the Palestinian hate fests achieve any of their goals? Was the impression made in the minds of college students that Israel is comparable to South Africa? Did any universities actually divest from Israel? After extensive monitoring of anti-Israel events and their aftermath, I can safely say the answers are “no,” “no” and “no.”

Recently, AICE and The Israeli Project (TIP) conducted a survey of 800 non-Jewish students and 400 Jewish students. The results showed that young Jews “feel close to Israel, have little sympathy for the Palestinians, are hawkish on peace issues, and don’t believe public criticism of the government advocated by Jews on the far left is helpful.” Sixty-six percent of the Jewish students responded they feel close to Israel and 26 percent feel very close. When asked about support for BDS initiatives, young Jews overwhelmingly opposed these efforts, 70 percent to 5 percent.

Anti-Israel sentiment is not gaining traction with non-Jewish students either. Only 16 percent of the total sample (12 percent of the Jewish students) think criticism of Israel is fair. A quarter of all students said that attending an anti-Israel event actually made them less supportive of the Palestinians and the majority (sixty-one percent) said it had no effect on their views. Only 22 percent of all students have a warm or favorable opinion about the Palestinians, just ahead of Iran (18 percent) and Syria (16 percent). There was virtually no support for BDS; only 14 percent of all students support the movement.

BDS was discussed at fifteen universities during this year's events, but only a handful of resolutions were introduced. The student governments at two universities in Canada, Carleton University and the University of Regina, did vote in favor of BDS. However, the administrations of both schools have said they have no intention of taking any punitive steps against Israel, thus rendering the resolutions moot. Most anti-Israel groups have learned such efforts are fruitless, serving only to divide the campus and expose them as hypocritical for their lack of concern for real human rights violators, such as Syria and Saudi Arabia, and hostile to peace by their opposition to a negotiated two-state solution. No U.S. schools have ever divested from Israel.

On most campuses, few events were held and turnout was unimpressive during the various Israel hate fests. As a number of Hillel Directors told me, the vast majority of students completely ignored the anti- Israel events and attendance consisted mostly of a small group of Israel-haters who were "preaching to the choir."

Substantively, the delegitimizers are failing, so they hope to achieve some pyrrhic victories by attracting publicity that helps them repeat their canards and, through repetition, they seek to erode Israel’s image on campus. They have had some success in doing this, aided, paradoxically, by certain pro- Israel groups that believe every anti-Israel event requires a response and thereby gives the detractors the attention they seek. This year’s coverage of “Israel hate weeks” in the media was minimal, with the majority coming from the Jewish community, which hyped some events and gave them publicity by responding to their calumnies. According to a recent Israeli Foreign Ministry report, the absolute number of articles published remained in the low hundreds across a period of three months, but pro-Israel sources were responsible for 63 percent of all hate week coverage in 2012 compared to 25 percent in 2009. Furthermore, by repeating the detractors’ lies in their op-eds, counter speeches and other responses, supporters of Israel unwittingly serve the delegitimizers’ aim of linking Israel with their specious allegations.

Rather than responding to a week of Israel bashing, more and more schools are engaging in positive proactive Israel programming. This year, for example, a record 75 campuses held Israel Peace Weeks in the U.S. and Canada. One week focusing on peace, which is too often juxtaposed with anti-Israel events, is not sufficient. To remedy the problem, AICE designed the Israel Calendar to provide the pro-Israel community monthly themes to structure Israel activism on college campuses and in Jewish communities. Students, backed by the community, should begin a drumbeat of positive programming at the beginning of the fall semester. It is not too early to begin to think about how to celebrate Israel Heroes Month in August, Social Justice Month in September and Innovation Month in October. If pro-Israel students set the agenda from day one of school, and educate their classmates about what Israelis really like, and who Israelis really are, by the time the anti-Israel festivals roll around they will become
even more insignificant blips on the academic calendar.

While we can breathe a sigh of relief that the anti-Israel festivals have become little more than ritualistic meetings of the Israel-bashing choir, we should not forget the more serious campus threats. We continue to see many instances of professors using their authority and positions to advance their anti- Israel political agendas. Many of these professors join in the Israel hate fests under cover of “academic freedom.” Meanwhile, academic departments, especially the Middle East institutes at a number of universities, promote an “Arab narrative" that is often hostile to Israel.

While there is little support for anti-Israel initiatives like BDS, there is a disturbing level of apathy among Jewish students. And although the drumbeat of negativity doesn’t lure students to support the Palestinian cause, it has raised questions in the minds of some students as to whether Israel is really a liberal democratic bastion that supports human rights and seeks peace with its neighbors. These problems must be acknowledged by the Jewish community as the more significant threat to Israel’s standing on campus and the long-term health of the U.S.-Israel relationship. Resources should be shifted so these issues can be better addressed. Israel hate week should still be monitored, but it does not deserve the attention it currently receives. Anti-Israel events will continue to be scheduled in 2013, but I wouldn’t recommend losing any sleep over them. 

Jeff Dawson is the Campus Coordinator of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise.

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