Israel’s military approach to the Palestinian conflict — respond to attacks and defeat the enemy — doesn’t work when applied to the U.S. campus ideological clashes over the Mideast. And the more strident the pro-Israel position, the less likely tens of thousands of American Jewish college students are to be sympathetic to the Jewish state.
That’s the sobering upshot of conversations with Israeli and U.S. Jewish leaders who are becoming increasingly aware of the high stakes in the effort to win the hearts and minds of the next generation of American Jews, most of whom are ignorant of, disinterested in or confused about the Zionist cause.
Israeli Minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Natan Sharansky, shaken by what he witnessed during a recent whirlwind tour of 13 U.S. colleges in six days, is worried that Israel is losing the political and ideological battle on campus. He says his sobering report to the cabinet back home prompted Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to urge all ministers visiting North America to include university campuses on their itinerary.
American Jewish communal leaders, freshly focused on the struggle and pouring millions of dollars into pro-Israel advocacy programs, insist their efforts are meeting with success.
And a high-ranking official of the Israeli Consulate in New York says the Jewish community is fighting the wrong battle. “We should be focusing on what is taught in the classrooms rather than on the flag-waving going on in the quads,” says Ido Aharoni, consul for media and public affairs.
But all sides agree a more thoughtful strategic approach is needed to appeal to Jewish college students, who are less comfortable than their parents about choosing between Israeli and Palestinian viewpoints. The leaders acknowledge it would be wise to start making Israel’s case with students in high school, and younger, implicitly suggesting that it may be too late to make Zionists out of college students. They also note that anti-Israel university faculty are a major source of the problem and need to be addressed.
Sharansky and Wayne Firestone, director of the Hillel Center for Israel Affairs and the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC), discussed and debated how best to bolster Israel’s position among college students during an interview here Monday. The jumping off point for the meeting was a lengthy article Sharansky published in Maariv, the Israeli daily, and reprinted in English last week by The Forward, that painted a bleak picture of pro-Israel students outnumbered and dispirited on premier campuses that have become “more and more hostile” toward the Zionist cause.
“The situation on campuses in the United States and Canada is more serious than we think,” he wrote. “And this is truly frightening.” He called the atmosphere during an appearance at Rutgers University as “more reminiscent of a battlefield.”
While Sharansky maintains that his article was written for an Israeli audience, and geared toward galvanizing the government to reinstate funding for pro-Israel programs on diaspora campuses, some American Jewish leaders of the college programs were angered that it made no mention of their efforts.
Avraham Infeld, an Israeli educator serving as interim president of Hillel, told The Jewish Week that Sharansky “made a mistake by doing the opposite of inspiring” in the Maariv article. He said it had a “negative effect” and “created disappointment” with leaders of a new Jewish campus initiative for Israel that was “completely ignored.”
Infeld, who is serving for a year while a replacement for Richard Joel is sought, asserted that Hillel is “blamed for the students we receive,” the majority of whom are not knowledgeable of or passionate about the Zionist cause. “I think we do a damn good job of working with these students,” he said, and pointed out that Sharansky’s collegiate tour, which he described as a great success in focusing on Israel as a champion of human rights, was made possible only through the efforts of campus groups like Hillel and the ICC.
Sharansky later agreed, praising these groups for all they do to lead the pro-Israel cause. He also acknowledged, after listening to Firestone, that confrontational language and war terminology may be a turn-off to young American Jews. “For those who are largely unconnected to Israel,” Firestone said, “we don’t think it will bring them closer to speak of the campus as a ‘battlefield.’ Instead, it will move them further away.”
He noted that most Jewish college students find more resonance in talking about peace, dialogue and cooperation than in military struggles. “They think of Israel as associated with war, conflict and death,” he said.
One result of focus-testing, according to Firestone, is that a highly popular topic with college students is love and romance. He said pro-Israel groups are exploring ways to talk about love of one’s neighbors, and the love expressed between parents and children in a society constantly aware of suicide bombings and the ephemeral quality of life.
“We are so used to dealing with the rational level,” Firestone said, “but we have to talk about emotions, too — about our love for Israel, for justice, and even donating organs to show our love of life.”
Sharansky and Firestone agreed that no single approach in making Israel’s case can work, especially on college campuses, where openness, tolerance and dialogue are highly valued. In his Maariv essay, Sharansky suggested that 90 percent of Jewish college students are not involved with Israel, dubbing them the new “Jews of silence.” Whatever the statistics, several Hillel directors around the country interviewed for this article noted that many Jewish students feel emotionally close to Israel but lack the historical and political facts to counter pro-Palestinian arguments.
“I see Jewish students in agony,” said Michael Brooks, director of Hillel at the University of Michigan. “They feel inadequate, and we in both the Israeli and the American Jewish communities have failed to contextualize for them just how extraordinary the Zionist enterprise is. We send them signs and slogans, but that’s not enough.”
He said that a non-Jewish student recently wrote a piece in the campus newspaper expressing his annoyance with Hillel T-shirts that read, “Wherever We Stand, We Stand With Israel.” To him, the slogan meant Israel, right or wrong, Brooks said after meeting with the writer. Brooks said he explained that the intent was to suggest the diversity of Jewish opinions on Israel.
“We missed an opportunity with the shirts,” he said, suggesting the message should have been one to encourage dialogue rather than proclaim a slogan. “That’s what we intend to do now,” he said.
A Hillel director on the West Coast, who asked not to be named, stressed that “strident pro-Israel advocates who are unwilling to concede that Israel has a problem with settlements, occupation and other controversial stands, only end up making more Jewish students skeptical. If you insist you’re always right, you lose credibility.”
Supporters of Israel can’t use the same kind of advocacy their parents did when Israel was less a military power than it is today, he said.
Jewish leaders confessed they are at a loss as to how to deal with anti-Israel faculty, while noting that teachers play an important role in shaping students’ opinions.
Ido Aharaoni of the Israeli Consulate said that while the American Jewish community was investing in Jewish studies programs at universities around the country, it neglected to establish endowments or chairs in international and Mideast studies, and other fields. Arab governments and other sympathizers have poured millions into such programs, he said.
He called for a long-term campaign to produce professors more sympathetic to Israel.
Everyone interviewed spoke of the need to integrate Zionist and Jewish education from the earliest stages so that young people will understand that outside of the context of Judaism, Israel is just another state, and that without Israel, Judaism is a religion without a home.
“It’s not a matter of solidarity with Israel or strengthening Jewish life,” Sharansky noted. “We need both.