WASHINGTON (JTA) — No doubt some in the pro-Israel community are claiming victory for taking on the organizers of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions conference held at the University of Pennsylvania. Don’t listen to them. It was a great example of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
The conference, held Feb. 3-5, was only the latest in a long line of unsuccessful efforts to convince American universities to divest their holdings from Israel in the hopes of turning the Jewish state into an international pariah.
Pro-Israel groups, well meaning though they may be, took what should have been a non-event and turned it into a publicity windfall for the anti-Israel cause. Indeed, Ali Abunimah, the keynote speaker at the BDS conference and a co-founder of Electronic Intifada, a website that serves as a key disseminator of anti-Israelism in the United States, wrote that he was “grateful” for the “added publicity” given to the event by Jewish groups.
We know now that planning for the conference began at least a year ago. We also know, especially after strong anti-BDS statements were made by University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann, that BDS has no chance for success at the university. No doubt anti-Israel groups chose Penn knowing that since it is a prestigious school with a large and active Jewish population that pro-Israel groups would likely overreact. We obliged.
Some in the pro-Israel community are addicted to reacting to every anti-Israel infraction. It creates a wonderful adrenaline rush, gets great publicity and plays well with donors. But in so doing they violate what ought to be our own version of the Hippocratic Oath: Above all, do no harm.
It’s time to kick the reaction addiction.
The real work that must be done in supporting Israel is not reactive at all. It’s not as fun as responding to the Israel bashers or engaging in dueling narratives on the campus quad. The real work targets the influencers, from student government presidents to Indian-American leaders, with a positive, pro-Israel message. It seeks to build long-term allies and sometimes ignores detractors. It’s proactive, not reactive.
The big picture is that the anti-Israel groups have failed by and large to enact their anti-Israel agenda on campus. Not a single mainstream university has divested funds from Israel. A recent poll taken by The Israel Project and the American Israel Cooperative Enterprise shows that students don’t know much about BDS, and when it’s explained to them they reject it.
We are spending way too much time publicly arguing with the detractors and giving them air time. What the same polls show is that while the general population isn’t buying the anti-Israel message, it still has some serious questions about Israel. Our goal must be to shore up the support of the next generation.
In a recently released strategy paper called “A Burning Campus? Rethinking Israel Advocacy at America’s Universities and Colleges,” which drew from dozens of interviews from students, faculty and leading advocates, The David Project suggests a new kind of advocacy that’s meant to shape campus discourse and opinion on Israel.
The report asserts that campuses should first be “mapped” by student leaders and professionals. Mapping means identifying campus influencers, whether individuals or groups. On many campuses they will be similar or the same, but there will be unique sources of influence on each, and some matter more on one campus than they do on others.
When I visited one campus last year, I was struck that Asian- and Latino-American organizations were listed as co-sponsors of the anti-Israel activities on campus. It became clear that no one ever bothered to reach out to them and build a friendship. It can start as grabbing a cup of coffee with leaders representing other student groups and ultimately lead to joint programs. Support for anti-Israel causes then becomes unthinkable.
Faculty plays a pivotal role as well. A combination of one-sided Middle East studies programs funded by the Gulf states and the current post-modern intellectual fashion often leaves students, particularly at elite universities, with the impression that Israel is a deeply flawed country.
Much can be done, but it will take time. Such efforts include training more professors to teach about Israel, organizing pro-Israel faculty on campuses and endowing chairs of Israel studies at key universities.
These fixes aren’t as sexy as standing up to the bad guy. But they work.
(David Bernstein is executive director of The David Project.)