Op-Ed: The real danger of delegitimizing Israel on campus

A pro-Palestinian protester at the University of Maryland displays some of the hostilities facing Israel on U.S. campuses. (David Bernstein)

A pro-Palestinian protester at the University of Maryland displays some of the hostilities facing Israel on U.S. campuses. (David Bernstein)

David Bernstein ()

David Bernstein ()

WASHINGTON (JTA) — There is a serious threat facing Israel’s long-term standing in this country resulting from a prolonged campaign to delegitimize the Jewish state on campus. But it’s probably not what you think.

What commonly incurs Jewish indignation are the more blatant anti-Israel spectacles. They range from "apartheid walls" — barriers erected by anti-Israel students to signify the Israeli security fence — to mock security checkpoints, from boycotts and divestment initiatives aimed at impeding university investments in Israel to hostile anti-Israel protests such as last year’s disruption orchestrated by students at the University of California, Irvine, of Israeli U.S. Ambassador Michael Oren’s speech.

While these hostile activities unquestionably are meant to portray Israel as an oppressive and illegitimate state, such inflammatory acts do not resonate with the vast majority on campus. In recent focus groups conducted by The Israel Project, a diverse set of students was nearly unified in its opposition to boycotts and other such tactics, regardless of the students’ feelings about the Jewish state.

The use of these tactics is certainly growing, but support for them is not.

In the fall semester of 2010, a watered-down resolution calling on Princeton University to sell non-Israeli hummus alongside the Sabra brand was defeated overwhelmingly because it smacked of a boycott. At Columbia, a mock checkpoint, where volunteers were blindfolded and forced to kneel at "gunpoint" in front of students dressed as barking Israeli soldiers, failed to resonate with more than the radical fringe of the student body.

The real danger is that the present campus environment in the United States may adversely affect the future of U.S. support for Israel. Americans may never become Israel haters, as we see in parts of Europe — hostility has been mainstreamed there, potentially affecting diplomatic and economic ties with Israel, and London has been dubbed the “Mecca of de-legitimization” by the Israeli think tank Re’ut — but they may cease to be Israel lovers.

Last fall, the student Democrats at a prominent university wrote to the pro-Israel student leadership of the university that they had adopted “a policy of non-endorsement on Israel-Palestine issues.” The student Democrats explained that there was too much division in their own ranks to continue to co-sponsor pro-Israel student activities.

Such a letter may not make your blood boil like an apartheid wall, but it is far more ominous.

For decades the pro-Israel community has enjoyed bipartisan support for Israel in the United States. Congress members from both parties typically vote overwhelmingly in Israel’s favor. This support influences the actions of the White House, which in turn acts to protect Israel from the scourge of hostility it faces elsewhere in the international community. The U.S. provides billions of dollars each year to Israel in security assistance, which gives Israel a qualitative security advantage over its enemies.

If, however, the student Democrats at this particular school reflect a larger trend, it is quite possible that Democratic support in the next generation is facing serious erosion. Worrisome signs already are afoot.

While young people and particularly mainstream Democrats exposed to hostility on campus may not now or ever join the movement to boycott Israel, over time they may feel less sympathetic toward the Jewish state and more ambivalent about the special relationship between the U.S. and Israel. When these young leaders become the next generation of Democratic Party representatives, it may become much tougher to garner those large bipartisan majorities.

Israel depends on support from both parties, especially considering the rapid political cycling giving each party short-lived turns at power. Israel can ill afford to become a one-party cause.

The struggle on campus, then, is to assure that the next generation of American political leadership is as supportive of Israel as the last one. In a world turning ever more unfriendly to Israel, it is more important than ever that we do all that we can now to ensure that American support, at least, remains strong into the future.

While it is important to oppose walls and boycotts, it is far more critical that we create the kind of environment on campus that will sustain two-party support into the future. We have our work cut out for us.

(David Bernstein is executive director of The David Project.)

 

NEXT STORY