WASHINGTON (JTA) — In a continuing bid to transition from campus rabble rousers to more mainstream educators, The David Project has hired a Jewish establishment veteran to guide the pro-Israel campus organization.
In recent years the David Project has expanded from its original mission — confronting what it identified as radically anti-Israel groups on campus — to educating Jewish students on Israel.
Now the hiring of David Bernstein, 43, a 13-year veteran of the American Jewish Committee, as executive director signals a major growing-up for the organization.
“I’m looking forward to going from the premier Jewish advocacy organization globally to an organization with a more focused approach and mission,” Bernstein told JTA. “The idea is to train the activists, who will then have the skill set to talk to the wider campus community.”
The David Project made its first major splash in 2004 with “Columbia Unbecoming,” a hard-hitting documentary film alleging that pro-Israel students at Columbia University were being intimidated by faculty and peers. Critics said the film, by naming faculty, was itself an exercise in intimidation.
In 2006 and 2007, the Boston-based organization joined an effort to keep a Muslim group that had alleged extremist ties from building a mosque in that city.
More recently, the David Project has focused instead on helping students introduce a pro-Israel narrative on campuses where the organization believes it is absent.
In addition to campus training and national training in the United States and Israel to equip students with the tools to counter anti-Israel activism on campus, the organization contributes curricula to more than 125 Jewish middle schools and high schools. Meanwhile, the staff has grown to 28 from just a handful.
The David Project was at the forefront earlier this year of the Israel on Campus Coalition effort to push back against a stepped-up effort by anti-Israel groups to depict the Jewish state as an apartheid state.
“It’s less about the staff being the advocates; it’s more about the students being trained to being the advocates,” said Evan Bernstein, the director of development for the group. (Bernstein is not related to the new executive director.) “We’re the building blocks for them to get that courage.”
The pro-Israel student community welcomed the hiring of David Bernstein, who until now directed the AJC’s network of regional offices. Bernstein will split his work between Boston and Washington, where he will continue to reside.
“I’m extremely excited by the appointment,” said Wayne Firestone, the president of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.
Firestone said the David Project fills a vacuum among pro-Israel student groups, which often limit their activities to bringing speakers to campus or running candidates in student elections.
“They have a niche approach to education that certainly is not the focal point of AIPAC, which is involved in political engagement,” he said, referring to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s student division.
Firestone said the David Project’s focus on small, relaxed groups was effective.
“That’s the battleground for influencing this generation,” he said. “It’s very hard to influence public opinion on speaker tours. You need more than knowledge and information. You need local stakeholders in educating and influencing their peers.”
With the only material on the David Project’s recommended reading list addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict being uniformly critical of the Palestinian Authority leadership, which some left and center-left pro-Israel groups see as moderate, Bernstein suggested that he would broaden the dialogue under his stewardship.
“We will provide resources that help people have thoughtful, sophisticated conversations as issues emerge — on longstanding issues and controversies as well as short-term ones,” he said. “We will be making sure that we address the range of opinions from left to right, we will make sure people understand the complexities Israel faces.”
Firestone said the broader Israel on Campus Coalition would continue to accommodate the view of the liberal side of the spectrum.
“In the Jewish world the marketplace of ideas is rich and cantankerous,” the Hillel leader said. “That means the more niches we can bring together, the better.”
(David Project co-founder and former president Charles Jacobs responds to this story.)