WASHINGTON (JTA) — A group of student leaders from a major American university meets in eastern Jerusalem with Palestinian students on the campus of Al-Quds University, named for Jerusalem, the city Palestinians hope will one day be their capital.
It’s the kind of encounter that once might have sent Sheldon Adelson and other right-wing pro-Israel givers into a tizzy — except it’s the casino magnate and philanthropist who is funding the meeting.
Two years ago, when he launched The Maccabee Task Force to fight the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel on campus, mainstream pro-Israel student groups were wary of Adelson’s reputation as a hard-line right-winger. Now the organization is quietly making inroads among progressives on campuses that have been the focus of anti-Israel activity.
Moreover, the group, helmed by David Brog, who is on the board at Christians United for Israel, is working with Hillel, one of the establishment groups that initially held Adelson and his initiative at arm’s length.
“We are very grateful for the really impactful activities to change the conversation about Israel,” said Sarita Bronstein, the Hillel director at San Jose State University. In 2015, the campus became among the first to pass a student resolution favoring BDS.
San Jose was one of 20 campuses where the Maccabee Task Force sent a team of strategists and funders last year. That’s doubled to 40 this year, an official of the group said.
Beneficiaries say that what sets the group apart is that it provides cash and tactical advice — but leaves the vision up to the students.
“We’re familiar with many organizations who hire interns, distribute promotional materials and are very intentional about trying to get their name out,” said Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, who directs the New York University Hillel. “It was refreshing to have a group say they would come and support many indigenous organizations with varying political and cultural viewpoints.”
That impression is the opposite of what observers took away from the rollout two years ago of Adelson’s initiative. At a weekend retreat held in June 2015 in Las Vegas, Adelson’s home base, presenters lined up to prove they had the best plan for spending the magnate’s money.
Most of the presenters were on the right — among them The Clarion Project, a secretive group dinged in the past for spreading videotapes and other materials some consider Islamophobic. Mainstream groups either declined to attend or sent observers and did not make a presentation.
Haim Saban, the billionaire entertainment mogul who is a pro-Israel force among Democrats and was part of the initiative, soon dropped out, reportedly under pressure from centrist Jews appalled at the tenor of the rollout.
Brog immediately understood that things had gone awry. Meeting with a JTA reporter in October 2015, within months of the program’s rollout, he said he was recalibrating.
“When you’re trying to appeal to a demographic like students on campus, who are largely progressive, you’d be ill advised to come with a right-wing agenda,” he said at the time. “We’re still figuring out a strategy.”
The strategy has been in place for a year, and Hillel is now fully on board.
“MTF empowers Hillels and pro-Israel students to develop programs that educate and engage the campus community about Israel’s people, culture and history,” said Hillel’s spokesman, Matthew Berger. “With their support, our students are able to create the programs they feel will have a real impact on campus.”
Not everyone is convinced.
Catie Stewart, the deputy director of J Street U, says her organization is still non grata: Maccabee Task Force won’t have anything to do with the campus adjunct of the national liberal Middle East policy group that emphasizes the two-state solution, supported the Iran nuclear deal and often criticizes the Israeli government. Adelson has made clear he reviles the group.
“Our students would attend Maccabee Task Force meetings, and [MTF officials] would tell the students, ‘OK you guys, you can do whatever you want to do!’ And we would say ‘Great!’ and they would say, ‘Not you, you can’t do what you want to do,'” she recalled.
Stewart said the task force was immediately alienating some of the most committed pro-Israel students on campus.
“It was a classic example of taking a step back,” she said. (Hillel continues to work with J Street U on most campuses.)
Ariana Jahiel, a student at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, who is active with the Jewish anti-occupation group IfNotNow, said the anti-boycott thrust of the Maccabee Task Force is beside the point for Jewish students living with the specter of renewed white supremacism. She noted the proliferation of expressions of support for white supremacists since the election of President Donald Trump, whom Adelson backed and who has equivocated in condemning bigotry.
“Last week, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, there were swastikas found on my campus,” she said in an interview. “My immediate thought was that the people putting these up were not progressive students but white nationalists. If Sheldon Adelson and the Jewish establishment really cared about Jewish students, they would be fighting swastikas, not BDS. Instead, they are cozying up with the Trump administration and its continued support of Israel.”
Brog, meanwhile, suggests that some on the far left are trying in turn to connect Israel to white supremacy as a way to justify their own “pet hatred” of Zionism.
“The campus left is now laser-focused on claims of white supremacy, police brutality and anti-immigrant racism — so Israel’s campus detractors are changing their rhetoric, updating their slogans and aggressively inserting themselves into every new protest,” he told JNS.org last month.
‘Show them a lot of narratives’
The group’s modus operandi now is to send a team of Maccabee Task Force advisers to a campus at the beginning of the academic year. The team, usually two people, offers its own ideas, solicits ideas and suggests tweaks — but no major changes — and figures out funding. Funding per campus, according to a task force official, is in the low six figures per academic year.
Students bring in speakers and organize on-campus Israel weeks — usually timed for Israel’s Independence Day, which usually falls in May. But by far the most successful initiative, participants say, are Israel trips for campus leaders. The only criteria Maccabee Task Force sets is that the participants are leaders in a campus group and in their junior year or earlier, allowing the student time to counter anti-Israel activity.
Hillels organize two to three trips a year, each with 20-25 students. Accompanying them are staff from the Hillel, often including a Jewish Agency Israel Fellow, the program that sends post-army young Israelis to Hillels throughout the United States.
“It was enriching because it was not a brainwashing experience,” Sarna said of the three tours that students on his campus did last academic year. “Many people were social justice oriented working for minority causes, women’s rights.”
The tours organized by the campus Hillel and the task force, lasting 10-11 days, include stops at Palestinian Authority headquarters in Ramallah and a meeting with a P.A. official. Also on at least one itinerary was a meeting with an African refugee in Israel — a touchy subject there, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government facing accusations of cruel and discriminatory treatment. (Am MTF official said the refugee in this particular encounter was pro-Israel.)
“The purpose was to show them a lot of narratives on the Israeli-Palestinian narrative as opposed to campus, where everything is very one-sided, very sound bite,” said Noa Shemer, a Jewish Agency Israel Fellow who until recently was assigned to the San Jose campus.
Lipaz Ela, until recently the Jewish Agency Israel Fellow at UCLA, helped organize the trip that included the encounter on the Abu Dis campus of Al-Quds University. She said many of the meetings are open-ended — neither Hillel nor the Maccabee Task Force necessarily knew what interlocutors were going to say.
“You don’t know where they are coming from,” she said of the Israelis and Palestinians they meet. “Sometimes Palestinians supported one-state solution, two-state solution, no state solution.”
To be sure, the itineraries are Israel heavy, and students are bound to come away more besotted with Masada sunrises, Tel Aviv’s cafe society and the nation’s embrace of the LGBTQ culture than they are with a critical outlook. And that’s still the point: getting across the pro-Israel narrative, Brog said in a more recent interview.
“Israel, as imperfect as it may be, agree with Netanyahu or not — the story of Israel is compelling,” he said.
Ela said an important component of the program is creating a mix of students, including known on-campus critics of Israel as well as Israel supporters, in order to keep the arguments going throughout the trip.
“We created a dynamic to have open emotional conversations, to bring that back to campus,” he said. (Hillel’s guidelines do not allow joint programming with groups that back BDS, but do not proscribe participation in Hillel programming by individuals who back the boycott movement. It’s not clear if any of the task force tour participants backed BDS.)
Response on the San Jose campus, Hillel’s Bronstein said, is such that there are four times as many students who apply for the trips as there are spots. She has instituted an essay question to winnow the applicants — not to assess bias for or against Israel but to see how passionate they are about the subject, whatever their opinions.
“It’s based on how much effort they put into the assignment, not so much what they wrote about,” she said. “We want people who are in the middle of the conflict, but people who are insightful and critical.”
Retention is strong, the Hillel directors said.
“Conversations on campus change, many of the students who went on the trip keep coming for Shabbat dinners,” Bronstein said. “One of the students is vice president of the student government. If a BDS resolution came up today, she would not be rushing in to vote for it.”
Stewart said the effect of the Maccabee Task Force’s programs on progressive students would be shallow, lacking in the long-term specialized alliances J Street U aims for.
“Progressive students care about Israel’s future as a democratic state, anti-democratic trends in Israel and the United States, two states and two peoples,” she said. “If you try to pretend you care about those things and create a narrative out of nothing, you won’t get anywhere.”