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Op-Ed: Colleges playing catch-up on Israel

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WASHINGTON (JTA) — Just as college students were finishing their winter exams, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg selected a partnership of The Technion Israel Institute of Technology and Cornell University to build a campus on Roosevelt Island that will become a global center for technological talent and entrepreneurship.  Few people know that before these universities formalized collaboration on today’s most cutting-edge engineering and scientific work, the Hillels at each of the institutions collaborated through networks of entrepreneurial students to advance common interests that spanned Jewish, social and business realms.

In this and many other respects, our students are ahead of us. In developing direct student-to-student ties, they have chosen the most direct way to connect with Israel via their Israeli peers. On more than 75 campuses nationwide, students are connected directly with Israel Fellows and MASA peer interns (trained by the Jewish Agency and Hillel) who encourage them to participate in scores of student Israel initiatives that speak to diverse political, cultural, educational and social interests.  Today, tens of thousands of college students are now proactively defining their relationship with Israel in the most meaningful and intimate ways and not merely embracing a slogan, ideology or myth.

This picture is much different than the one often presented by campus critics and commentators. As an example, Tom Friedman of The New York Times recently presented a distorted picture of students’ relationships to Israel. He claimed students at leading universities would “boycott” appearances by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The immediate reaction this produced proved him wrong:  Three dozen mainstream student leaders from the University of Wisconsin responded by signing a public statement of support of the U.S.-Israel relationship — and sent it to Friedman — and a group of Jewish student leaders invited Netanyahu to speak on campus.

A similar phenomenon occurred last year when Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren was outrageously interrupted at the University of California, Irvine, by a small fringe group whose leaders were subsequently expelled, indicted and criminally convicted.  Allowed to finish his speech,  Oren did actually receive a standing ovation, although it was not a focus in the media.

UC Irvine was not the only campus to invite Oren; 85 student government presidents have invited the ambassador to speak on their campuses.  Disruption of speakers and boycotts are real threats to democratic conversation and should not be conflated with other forms of legitimate political dissent or discourse.

For the past decade — regardless of the sitting government in Israel — we have seen students regularly exploring Israel personally, emotionally and intellectually in deeper and more nuanced ways than prior generations, even when they are confused or have questions about their Jewish identity or specific Israeli government policies.  Many spent their winter break in Israel on a Birthright trip in a year forecasting more than 40,000 participants.  Whether or not students agree with a particular policy of the Israeli government is probably the wrong question to ponder. The right question is how to make space for the “next generation” and beyond to love and explore Israel in their own way.

This spring semester, many students will return to the 22 North American campuses that were energized in the fall by Hillel’s public “Talk Israel” discussions, held in 20-by-20 tents in the hearts of their campuses. “Talk Israel” engaged more than 4,000 Jewish and non-Jewish students, 55 percent of whom were not affiliated with Hillel.  The event demonstrated the viability and self-confidence of Jewish students to “take back” the campus from polarizing voices by providing facilitated forums for civil discourse. "Talk Israel" will launch this spring on a host of other campuses.

Further, the self discovery occurring back on campus following the Israel trips is beginning to influence the larger uninvolved student cohort.  According to The Israel Project-American Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (TIP-AICE) online survey of 800 college students (400 Jewish),  Jewish students may know less about Israel’s history and politics than prior generations but they seem to know more about its people and are significantly more sympathetic than previously thought.  In that survey, which was conducted last October and November by Neil Newhouse and Robert Blizzard, 68 percent of respondents defined themselves as “close” or “very close” to Israel and 73 percent agreed that Jews in America and Israel share a common identity.

Indeed, there are pernicious efforts to boycott Israeli speakers, goods and even academics on college campuses that will be highlighted at a forthcoming national conference on the boycott divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement to be held at the University of Pennsylvania.  Despite a decade of efforts, the BDS movement has failed to make inroads on any of the campuses visited by its supporters, and this time was greeted by an immediate Penn official statement that it “… does not support sanctions or boycotts against Israel. Indeed, Penn has important and successful scholarly collaborations with Israeli institutions that touch on many areas of our academic enterprise.”

Indeed, when asked about BDS activity in the TIP-AICE poll in light of the prevailing trends on campus, Jewish students overwhelmingly opposed these efforts, 70 percent to 5 percent.

When I visit campuses, it is not surprising that Jewish and non-Jewish students ask how they can visit or return to Israel now that their schools have dropped restrictive study abroad measures and are expanding academic ties. This is good news. Jewish students today see Israel, warts and all, as valuable and relevant to their lives. It is encouraging to see universities building new academic bridges in an effort to catch up with their students’ already connected imaginations and passions.

(Wayne L. Firestone is president and CEO of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.)

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