Pro-israel College Activists Quietly Successful on Campus

Parents are frightened, defense organizations are sounding the alarm, and community-based activists are in a state of near apoplexy over the alleged dominance of anti-Israel forces on American college campuses. In the past few years, however, there has been a quiet revolution in pro-Israel campus advocacy — supported by such mainstream organizations as AIPAC, Hillel, and the Israel on Campus Coalition — and savvy pro-Israel students have made stunning inroads at colleges and universities across the country, including those frequently pointed to as the most hostile to Israel.

Some have come to believe that today’s pro-Israel students are silent, apathetic, even fearful. From our experience, nothing could be further from the truth. This generation constitutes the most confident and competent community of pro-Israel student leaders America has ever seen. What accounts for this staggering discrepancy in perception? The problem may be an outmoded system of metrics ill equipped to gauge inroads made by sophisticated advocates in a radically transformed campus environment.

Today’s college students grew up in an era defined not by ’60s-style street theatrics but by the entrepreneurial ethos of the start-up phenomenon. They spent their teenage years watching small innovative firms undermine giant industry monopolies through a mastery of new technology, strategic use of resources and a devout commitment to quality and efficiency. College students are the leading purveyors of these new approaches. They have found faster, more economical ways of getting a job done. Consequently, college students’ approach to problem-solving and goal attainment tends to be more streamlined, agile and imaginative than that of their parents and grandparents.

Pro-Israel student activists are smart, focused and intensely results-oriented. They realize that “standing up” to Israel’s detractors through zero-sum confrontations on the quad is more likely to alienate potential allies than engage them, more effective at securing short-term publicity than long-term impact, and subsequently constitutes a poor use of time and talent. The sharpest pro-Israel activists prefer to identify key sources of power and influence that will determine the strength of the U.S.-Israel relationship for years to come, and then invest the bulk of their advocacy in influencing those strategic targets.

It is also worth remembering that today’s pro-Israel students reached political awareness in an era of transformational change: the second intifada, Sept. 11 and the war in Iraq came at them fast and furious. Acutely aware of the accelerating pace of history, they bring to their activism the start-up principles of ingenuity and effective impact. Savvy pro-Israel students approach their advocacy by remembering that there are but 24 hours in a day and then asking themselves, “How can I employ my limited personal resources to achieve maximum political influence?”

While Israel’s detractors at the University of California at Berkeley make fellow students late for class by erecting mock Israeli checkpoints on the main campus drag, pro-Israel activists recruit student government officials and other mainstream campus leaders to sign petitions expressing support for the U.S.-Israel relationship. When Israel’s detractors disaffect the politically moderate majority of students by accusing the U.S. and Israeli governments of “neo-colonialism” and “imperialist aggression,” pro-Israel activists at Rutgers University engage the College Democrats and College Republicans, volunteer on political campaigns, organize student lobbying missions and build enduring relationships with members of Congress.

While Israel’s detractors at the University of Florida sponsor propagandistic “Palestinian Awareness Weeks,” pro-Israel activists work with campus political leaders to compel the university to remove barriers to studying abroad in Israel. When Israel’s detractors indulge in simplistic and distorted sloganeering about the security barrier, pro-Israel activists at the University of Colorado set up coffee dates with the editors of the campus newspaper for extended conversations about how the barrier saves lives and facilitates peace.

Pro-Israel students spend months — even years — cultivating personal relationships with influential people, both on campus and beyond. They bring Jewish and non-Jewish campus leaders into the pro-Israel movement by inviting them to participate in such national and international gatherings as the AIPAC Policy Conference — which this year will host more than 800 students from 250 campuses in all 50 states, including over 100 student government presidents — as well as the Hillel-AIPAC Advanced Advocacy Mission to Israel and the birthright israel program. As a result of these relationships, pro-Israel students are spectacularly positioned for success if large-scale mobilization is determined to be a strategic objective.

When an anti-Israel divestment resolution was presented to the University of Michigan’s student assembly, pro-Israel students rallied hundreds of supporters from all walks of campus life to express their opposition publicly. They organized conservatives and progressives, blacks and whites, Jews and Christians to stand with Israel, and relied on their friend and ally, the student assembly president, whose systematic deconstruction of the case for divestment ultimately torpedoed the resolution.

Pro-Israel students at Washington University in St. Louis recently turned out 600 people for an Israeli hip- hop concert by securing the co-sponsorship of 50 distinct student organizations with which they had established ties, including the African American, Latino-American, and Christian students’ associations. Activists at the University of Iowa engaged campus political leaders beyond their traditional base by organizing a pro-Israel conference featuring two members of Congress, and which was attended by College Democrats, College Republicans, and student government officials from more than a dozen Iowa universities with little or no Jewish infrastructure.

These examples are not exceptional but reflect a national trend of more sophisticated pro-Israel campus activism. If members of our community have missed this phenomenon, it is because much of today’s most significant and effective advocacy takes place under the media’s radar at countless student government meetings, campus political forums and quiet conversations at Starbucks. If pro-Israel students aren’t marching anymore, it’s because they’ve found a more effective way of getting the job done.

(Barry Silverman is chairman of AIPAC’s leadership development committee and a member of Hillel’s scholars council, and Randall Kaplan is chairman of the board of directors of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, and a member of AIPAC’s board of directors.)

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