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As Students Return to Campus, Activists Prepare a New Approach

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At the University of Illinois, Arab students refuse to let an Israeli into their Arabic language course, forcing the cancellation of the class. At the University of Florida, an Arab affairs club puts out an essay claiming that Zionists fall in line behind American political candidates who will be “of use to the bandit state.”

At the University of Alabama, Arab students distribute a list of “Zionist war crimes in Palestine.”

Sound familiar?

These events occurred more than 30 years ago. Recounting them now, though — after the Palestinian intifada engendered heated debate and charged rhetoric at U.S. universities — shows that the challenges facing the pro-Israel community on American college campuses today aren’t new.

That, at least, is a finding of a new survey of Israel-related trends, patterns and events on American college campuses.

But while much remains the same, the Israel on Campus Yearbook 2005, to be released Sept. 8 by the Israel on Campus Coalition, also posits that for Israel to compete in the campus milieu — which is saturated with interesting and engaging opportunities for students — its message must be tailored to reach the modern, “millennial” student.

“Other generations have spoken in large groups, in protest rallies,” says Wayne Firestone, executive director of the ICC, an umbrella organization of some 30 pro-Israel groups. “This generation has a voice via blogs, a voice via Web sites. They are their own editors, filmmakers, opinion makers.”

“Where people used to have diaries to record their secrets,” he adds, “this generation sends e-mails to the university president and writes about relationships and spring-break travel on personal blogs.”

Indeed, the yearbook says, the so-called millennial students, differ from the Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers who preceded them in significant ways: They choose the music they want to listen to and download it to their iPods and they get their news on the Internet and from Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” a self-declared “fake news” program.

Most of the class of 2005 entered college just before or after the seminal terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. They’re savvy when it comes to sex, drugs and violence, and that savvy extends to how they approach on-campus pro-Israel activity, the report contends.

“Cookie-cutter solutions, mass-appeal type of campaigns and messages are going to fail with this generation,” Firestone says. “You’ve got to look at this bottom-up instead of top-down, and the best people to do this are student leaders on campus.”

Those familiar with campus activism say today’s student leaders understand their campuses and what makes their particular school unique. They’ve realized that what works at one school may differ from what’s needed in another.

Students have begun taking a more customized approach to pro-Israel campus advocacy, as well as stressing a strategic approach that burnishes Israel’s overall image rather than reacting on a case-by-case basis to each anti-Israel poster or conference that pops up.

The students “hold the key to our success,” says Aaron Goldberg, the ICC’s associate director. “Students understand their campuses and they’re activist, they want to institute change. We have to find mechanisms to support them and foster that activity.”

One such mechanism is the new Schusterman Israel Scholar Awards, given by the American-Israel Cooperative Enterprise to a few students pursuing academic careers in Israel studies.

Another one is “Israel Starts With i, ” a new ICC initiative being launched Sept. 8 at an event at New York University.

ICC leaders won’t go into details about the new initiative prior to its launch date, but say it will involve several Israel-related “mega-events” at universities throughout the country; Israel trips for student leaders that stress “advanced advocacy” and Israel’s accomplishments in realms beyond the military; the launch of a new Web site, www.israelstartswithi.org; and efforts to allow campuses and students to customize initiatives that promote and enhance relationships between U.S. universities and Israel.

The report highlights several customized student projects in the past year to promote Israel’s image on campus. Among them was a documentary film made by Duke University student Maital Guttman that focused on young Israelis preparing to enlist in the army. The film was intended to change the perception of Israel at Duke by examining similarities and differences between Israeli and American youth.

“People are looking for a different way to understand the conflict,” Guttman says. “The film shows a more complicated and more real side of Israel.”

The documentary has been screened several times at Duke, and will be shown on other campuses across the country as part of the new ICC initiative.

The yearbook also includes a calendar documenting dozens of Israel-related activities that took place on campus during the 2004-2005 academic year. Among them are student-sponsored efforts to combat moves to divest from Israel and “Let Our Students Go!” — an ICC project urging activists to protest barriers to study-abroad programs in Israel.

It further puts campus Israel activism in historical context and looks at specific challenges facing Israel on U.S. colleges, including an academic environment often at odds with or even hostile to pro-Israel sentiments.

While there is a need to tailor efforts to specific campuses, “the anti-Israel onslaught is fairly monolithic,” says Charles Jacobs, president of the David Project, a pro-Israel group that produced a controversial documentary alleging intimidation of Jewish students by pro-Palestinian professors at Columbia University.

“The combination of factors on that campus — egregious behavior on the part of professors, courageous Jewish students willing to speak out, a city with an aggressive press, a strong Jewish community, and more — will not be found everywhere,” he says.

“Still, the anti-Israel campaign on campuses has general characteristics: It is nationally or even internationally organized; it is based on the same set of lies and misunderstandings; anti-Israel feelings are embedded in the American professoriate nationwide; and the radical-left/Muslim alliance is the engine,” he says.

The intifada roused Jewish professionals, says Lisa Eisen, chair of the ICC’s steering committee and program director of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. The foundation founded the coalition in 2002 along with Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life and a larger network of organizations.

“When the intifada began, the watchword was, ‘the campuses are on fire,’ ” she says. “The fact is, they weren’t on fire. There were fires, and students were really not very prepared.”

“It was a real wake-up call when the intifada started that we had not done our homework with our young people,” she adds.

Since then, Eisen says, projects like Guttman’s have been having the desired effect, and the perception of Israel on campus has improved. That’s of extraordinary import, she says.

“All of the future leaders, the future policy makers and opinion shapers in this country, their opinions are being forged on college campuses right now,” she says. “We need to work with them, to educate them, to connect them to Israel right now.”

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