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Five Years into the Intifada, Groups Are Refining Their Tactics on Campus

June 28, 2005
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Nearly five years after the intifada exploded, American college campuses no longer see the frequent flare-ups that roiled campuses at the peak of Israeli-Palestinian violence. But systemic issues that promote anti-Israel bias remain in place — namely, anti-Israel professors and Middle Eastern studies departments.

That was one finding of the Israel on Campus Coalition, which held its year-end review and planning conference earlier this month.

“I think there’s a recognition that the challenges on campus are in some respects deeper, broader and more institutional, but the allies and opportunities are greater than first suspected,” said Wayne Firestone, the group’s director.

The coalition — a group of 26 Jewish organizations sponsoring pro-Israel campus activities — is responding with a plan to deepen ties between U.S. university communities and their Israeli counterparts. Efforts will include joint research programs between Israeli and U.S. universities, academic collaboration and student exchanges.

The ICC also will rely on programs designed by students, who have shown the ability to craft appropriate responses for their particular campuses.

“You have to have multiple approaches to all of these issues and you have to have a variety of constituents involved,” from trustees to students, said Rachel Fish, New York regional director of the David Project, a pro-Israel group that produced a controversial documentary alleging intimidation of Jewish students by pro-Palestinian professors at Columbia University.

Fish said the Jewish community has yet to devise long-term strategies to combat systemic threats from allegedly biased scholarship in Middle East studies departments, and to help Jewish students attain a sense of Jewish belonging and leadership skills.

Shocked by the extent of pro-Palestinian activity on campus when the intifada began, Jewish groups scurried to assemble Israel-education and advocacy programs to aid confused and apathetic Jewish students and win over students detached from either side of the conflict.

As they refine their tactics, pro-Israel advocates have made some key achievements over the past year.

One of the most striking was student activism that helped loosen barriers to study in Israel. Dozens of universities provided waivers for students to attend programs in Israel, despite the U.S. State Department’s travel warning for the region.

The activity followed an ICC initiative — “Let Our Students Go!” — launched at the start of the academic year, urging activists to undo barriers to study in Israel.

In addition, the move to force universities to divest their holdings in companies that do business with Israel continued to founder.

Divestment petitions have been dwarfed in the past few years by counterpetitions, and the ICC now is developing a plan to deepen ties between Israeli and U.S. universities by investing in joint academic programs.

An effort to solicit support from pro-Israel professors, who largely have remained quiet amid the pro-Palestinian activism, is seeing some success.

Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, a pro-Israel network of college professors, now has more than 600 members on 200 campuses around the world.

Meanwhile, the pro-Israel movement is attempting to broaden its appeal with the formation of a new left-wing organization and alliances with non-Jewish campus groups.

The Union of Progressive Zionists, representing Hashomer Hatzair, Habonim Dror, Ameinu and Meretz USA, held its inaugural conference last fall to provide what they call a nuanced voice in the campus conflict.

In a debate allegedly framed by fundamentalists on each side, the union is a “third way,” according to Jamie Levin, executive director of Ameinu, formerly known as the Labor Zionist Alliance.

Groups like Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life aim to offer a range of views on Israel. Levin, though, says he’s drawing on his own experience and that of his friends.

As a graduate student at the London School of Economics, he witnessed a divisive election for student union chair in which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict became the central theme, trumping concerns over local issues such as threats of a tuition hike and whether to build a new student pub.

Promoting a pro-Israel, pro-peace agenda will capture the widest swath of students on campus, Levin said. Toward that end, the union coordinated a campus speaking tour last year by an Israeli and a Palestinian, each of whom has lost a brother to the conflict but who continue to strive for coexistence.

At a time when it’s trendy on campus to support the Palestinians because they’re perceived as the underdog, “no amount of hasbarah,” or pro-Israel public relations, can turn the tide, Levin said.

Showcasing people who support Israel while still acknowledging its failings can be more effective at building sympathy and understanding, Levin said.

That’s precisely what happened at Duke University this past school year.

Despite the uproar over Duke’s decision to host the annual conference of the Palestine Solidarity Movement last fall, it was a Jewish student who seemed to make the biggest impact on the issue.

College was the first time that Maital Guttman, who was born in Israel and educated in Jewish day schools, was exposed to anti-Israel sentiment.

Guttman wanted to show her peers the life of an 18-year-old Israeli who, like a cousin who inspired Guttman to make the film, sees no contradiction between army duty and a desire for peace.

Guttman attended Mechina, an Israeli army deferment program of study and volunteerism offered by the Reform movement, and filmed a documentary about the Israelis she encountered.

More than 500 Duke students flocked to a standing-room-only screening of her film this spring, said Guttman, who is taking the film on tour to colleges and Jewish communities around the country.

“I think it shows that people are really thirsty for a new way of understanding the Middle East,” she said, noting the reaction of a Jewish student who, after viewing the film, told Guttman that for the first time he felt proud to be Jewish and pro-Israel on campus.

“It really stirred people, I think, to really challenge themselves and question what images they saw of Israel,” she said, since it showed Israelis who were both patriotic and peace-seeking.

Other students also spawned “high-impact” initiatives, according to a list of notable student programming issued by the ICC.

Among them is Ari Stern, who founded Jump Start Peace.

Stern, who graduated from Cornell University this spring, created a program that seeks support for joint educational programs between Israel and Arab countries with which it has full diplomatic relations.

Stern was inspired by the Bridging the Rift Center, a Jordanian-Israeli environmental research center that straddles the countries’ shared border and is sponsored in part by Cornell.

Stern’s group received letters of endorsement from the Cornell Arab Association and the Cornell Muslim Education and Cultural Affairs Group.

“The programs that work best are those that you can work with other groups on, namely finding a way in which to make being a pro-Israel advocate also be an advocate for something else,” said Stern, who plans to incorporate the group into a nonprofit organization.

Jewish groups have tried to appeal to those sensibilities by portraying the Jewish state in Western terms — for example, as a beacon of democracy, women’s rights and gay rights.

The tactic offer a “way for people to connect,” said Mara Suskauer, director of the college activities department of the Jewish National Fund, a co-sponsor of a pro-Israel campus program called Caravan for Democracy.

Caravan for Democracy hopes to increase its influence through targeted meetings with Middle East studies professors or study-abroad offices.

Officials say that human relationships are more important than sharp messages in building support for Israel.

Take the example of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. In the past few years, the group has found non-Jewish champions for Israel by reaching out to historically black colleges and Christian colleges, and has a full-time staffer devoted to cultivating such ties.

AIPAC drew more than 200 non-Jewish student activists to its annual policy conference in May, when the opening address was delivered by the student government president of Morehouse College, a traditionally black college.

In addition, AIPAC’s summer internship program this year will be its most politically and ethnically diverse ever, drawn from the greatest number of non-Jewish applicants the group has ever received.

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