Cornell University is not typically considered a hotbed of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel activity. Part of the credit for that is the result of an active and involved Jewish community, as well as the Student Assembly’s rejection last spring of a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions resolution.
This should be celebrated by all who want to be a part of a welcoming campus community and engage in constructive dialogue about the Israeli-Arab conflict. But in a talk he gave to Cornellians for Israel, pro-Israel activist Rudy Rochman reminded students to look beneath this veneer of triumph and confront the underlying structural issues the pro-Israel community faces on college campuses nationwide. (Rochman, who served as president of Students Supporting Israel at Columbia University, was selected in 2018 as one of The Jewish Week’s 36 Under 36 young leaders for his pro-Israel activism.)
While Jewish students and their supporters can and should celebrate successes like the rejection of a BDS resolution or the support from a university president, according to Rochman, “we lost the minute BDS became a conversation.” He argues that for far too long pro-Israel students have allowed anti-Israel activists to steer the conversation about the Middle East conflict. While most Zionist advocacy used to be based on a proactive mission to ensure peace and security for the Jewish state, on campus it has basically dwindled to a mere “counter to the counter movement.”
Perhaps Israel supporters have become too complacent with the status quo. Despite the troubles it constantly endures, Israel remains a thriving democracy and an economic powerhouse. A side effect of this reality, however, is that Israel advocacy relies far too heavily on discussing what Rochman labels “surface-level connections,” such as “cherry tomatoes, camels and hummus.” This focus creates “advocates,” or just basic “supporters of our cause.”
However, if Jews want to foster broader, more active and meaningful support, we need to rethink our strategy in terms of how we talk about Israel on campus and beyond.
Without a return to the foundational reason why support for Israel is absolutely crucial, the pro-Israel community is actively preventing others from understanding and making “deep-level connections” with the issue, Rochman says. This means helping people understand Jews’ timeless historical connection to the land, as well as the story of exile, dispersal and persecution that existed solely because of our lack of self-determination. It means talking about Israel not just in terms of its current existence as the only Middle Eastern democracy, but also the fact that it would not exist as such if it were not the first successful indigenous liberation movement in human history.
None of this is to negate the essential work countless people and organizations are doing by sharing Israeli culture, lobbying Congress and exposing anti-Israel media bias, among other things. Without their efforts, international support would surely be a lot weaker. It is also undeniable that the Israeli people, and Jews writ large, benefit immeasurably from this work. However, the pro-Israel community should first and foremost be empowering people to “connect to their identity as people” by making arguments rooted in history and legitimacy. Doing so is what allows fans of Israel to become more than mere advocates. Instead, it creates more “activists”: people who “control the conversation” and “write the next chapter of history,” as Rochman puts it.
This does not mean Jewish students can no longer talk about how magical a place Israel is to visit. It also does not mean we can’t applaud its accomplishments as an internationally renowned tech hub. All of these realities are what make the Jewish state worth fighting for. But most importantly, it is the historical homeland of a people who for thousands of years suffered from exile, and we should take the advice of Rochman by having more conversations about this precise fact.
Danielle Mimeles is a freshman at Cornell University. She is a 2019 Write On For Israel graduate.
This piece is part of “The View From Campus” column written by students on campus. If you would like to contribute to it, email firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.