NEW YORK — There is a crisis regarding perceptions of Israel on college campuses today. But it’s probably not the one you think it is.
Many adults believe the acute dilemma is the number and level of aggressive efforts to delegitimize Israel from advocates of BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) and programs claiming Israel is an apartheid state. But the far bigger problem, experts say, is the attitudes of many Jewish students who are so averse to conflict and divisiveness that they would rather avoid the issue of Israel and the Palestinians altogether. They find it too complicated, too emotional, too intense. Best to just leave it alone.
Campuses are not as highly charged ideologically today as they once were, and most students aren’t interested in debating issues, according to David Bernstein, executive director of The David Project, which seeks to shape positive campus views on Israel. Many Jewish students are “turned off by the antagonism of both sides” in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, he says, including aggressive tactics employed by some pro-Israel activists.
One Jewish professional working with college students bemoans how reluctant Jewish students are to speak out against offensive behavior they encounter. “‘Who am I to impose my views on others?’ they say to me,” he notes. “They are tolerant of intolerance.”
When more than 10,000 participants — including a record 2,000 students — gather in Washington this week for the annual AIPAC Policy Conference, there will be several major sessions on “the struggle to secure Israel on campus” and engaging students in Israel activism.
Bernstein, who visits colleges regularly, will be one of the panelists. He believes that the actual discussions among Jewish students on campus, and those held by their elders at conferences like AIPAC, are “polar opposites.”
“The parents tend to want someone to come to campus to protect their children,” he told me this week. “That’s understandable, but it’s not always the most effective strategic course.” The students, on the other hand, are looking for effective ways to move the conversation from talk about the conflict itself to the future of Israel, and where perhaps they can fit into the narrative of the Jewish state.
A recent study found that U.S. college students, by a margin of 32 to 1, believe that Israelis better reflect American values than do Palestinians. The good news is that the Palestinians score so low; the bad news is that the pro-Israel number is not even higher.
Since joining The David Project two and a half years ago, Bernstein has been trying to shift pro-Israel activities from the confrontational to the educational.
“Jewish students today are more interested in dialogue and engagement in a positive way,” he says, noting that sometimes well-meaning pro-Israel adults “conflate the solution with the problem.”
On becoming aware of anti-Israel activity planned for a campus, many pro-Israel adults’ first reaction might be to seek to prevent it from taking place. But the more effective response, and real challenge, is to “build up Israel among students and faculty,” says Bernstein, whose organization seeks to create and sustain long-term relationships with students.
That means following up after sponsoring trips to Israel for students and encouraging participants to be “multipliers,” using their knowledge and experience by reaching out to peers and student leaders on campus.
Professionals in the field of Jewish campus activities, several of whom were interviewed but preferred not to be quoted by name, point to the recent Brooklyn College controversy — over an invitation to two BDS supporters to speak at the school — as a textbook case of mishandling a situation. Some pro-Israel activists sought to ban the speakers, and the ensuing international media attention created a public relations victory for the anti-Israel camp. The event, which otherwise may have attracted a small audience, sold out and was widely covered in the press.
“It takes a lot of discipline to stay away,” one Jewish campus professional said of essentially ignoring the anti-Israel critics and instead sponsoring pro-Israel programs unrelated to a particular event. “But that’s what works.”
Last year, for example, when a national BDS conference was being held at the University of Pennsylvania, pro-Israel students organized dozens of Shabbat dinners that weekend featuring discussions on Israel.
They were able to set the agenda and “engage audiences on their own terms, in a constructive way and reach far more students than usual,” one expert in the field noted. “It was the best course of action.”
Bernstein says our community “sometimes overestimates the power of the message” in its pro-Israel work. “There is no single message,” he says, emphasizing the need to have students understand the complexity of the Middle East situation and to focus on cultural and social issues, not just the conflict.
In his frequent travels to universities around the country, he has found that “relationships trump issues.” That’s why his group puts a premium on having David Project activists keep in touch with non-Jewish student leaders, often inviting them to informal discussions over coffee. He refers to this as “relational advocacy.”
While relatively few major campuses around the country are prone to anti-Israel activity and capture the Jewish community’s attention and concern, experts in the field note that small liberal arts colleges are a consistent problem when it comes to Israel. And the source of the contention is often found among Jewish faculty who speak out against Israeli policies.
The David Project recently hired a full-time staffer to deal with the issue of faculty, seeking to engage them in the conversation and find those who are sympathetic to Israel but reluctant to speak up.
Unlike some other segments of the Jewish community, those dealing with Israel on campus often work closely together, including but not limited to AIPAC, Hillel, The David Project and the Israel Campus Coalition, coordinating plans, sharing best practices and supporting each other’s work. They note that no university has supported divestment from Israel, but some worry that Stanford University, which faces the issue soon, could be the first.
“We have our work to do,” one official said, “but it’s not about out-shouting or shutting down the anti-Israel activists on campus.”
It’s about being strategic, long-term and engaging students in ways that make sense to them, if not always to their parents’ generation.
(Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Rosenblatt’s blog, RosenBlog, at thejewishweek.com throughout the week. This column previously appeared in the Week.)