Many people are deeply concerned about the portrayal of Israel on campus and want to be certain that Israel’s campus supporters can portray the truth about Israel and its quest for peace and security. Many are also concerned about the degree of support Israel is afforded in the campus community and want to ensure that today’s campus leaders—those who will represent the country’s future leadership—understand, appreciate and support strong ties between the United States and Israel. Many want to engage members of the campus community—particularly students, and Jewish students in particular,—in creating strong personal ties with Israel and Israelis.
And many people, interested in these outcomes, ask the same question: What’s the answer? They want to know what program will meet these needs, solve the community’s problems, and change the course of events on campus.
It’s not a bad question, but it's the wrong one to ask. In part, the problem lies with our community and its structure.
This week, and every week of the academic year and beyond, Israel Campus Beat has told stories of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of campus programs, events and initiatives. The programs run the gamut from Taglit: Birthright Israel’s generation-changing initiative to bring young Jewish adults on what, for many, is their first Israel experience, to long-term relationship-building initiatives by AIPAC-trained campus activists to develop relationships with their elected representatives in Congress and to inform them of the importance of the US-Israel alliance. They include outreach programs to members of the campus community beyond the traditional base of pro-Israel support, and educational programs that inform and inspire the base of Israel activists. They include organizations that take Israel advocacy as their primary mission, organizations that consider their missions as strictly educational, cultural, or some combination. They include community-wide campaigns, like the Real Partners. Real Peace initiative that involved many organizations, over 100 campuses and tens of thousands of activists acting in common purpose; and they include the activity of individuals acting alone, one campus at a time, communicating with only one other person.
And from all of these activities, a person would seek to pick just one and proclaim it “the answer?”
Part of the problem lies in the fact that the organizations that work to promote Israel on campus—and there are many—need to be able to raise funds to support their efforts, and therefore each must be able to explain, convincingly, to potential supporters why providing funds for these efforts is worthwhile. That requires telling the story of the need on campus and how the organization’s efforts meet those needs.
Here are clear needs to support the campus Israel network, there are many who want to be able to provide that support, and that message needs to be communicated. But the issue arises that an individual who wants to support the campus Israel network may be exposed to more than one such explanation of the campus need from more than one organization working to meet that need. For someone seeking simply to support a worthy cause, it is easy to see that hearing many such messages could become bewildering, and even a little frustrating. One natural response would be to try to identify that “silver bullet”—that one program worthy of support.
I hear—quite often, in fact—from people who have heard from many different organizations and want to know which one is effective, and which one program should they support.
That’s looking at the issue all wrong, for two reasons.
First, there are many approaches addressing many different aspects of efforts to support Israel in its time of need. The same is true of any issue meriting social change. The Sierra Club and the World Resources Institute are just two among many organizations focused on improving the environment, but they and others all work toward that similar end in different ways that do not necessarily exclude the others. In the campus Israel environment, many organizations seek to bolster support for Israel, but in many cases they take different approaches and are interested in somewhat different outcomes. For the most part—with a few exceptions at the extremes in any direction—those different outcomes complement one another.
Second, modern network theory tells us that seeking a single “silver bullet” is not only pointless, but also counterproductive. Communities, like the campus Israel network, weave together through many kinds of interaction. The most effective and resilient networks rely upon multiple levels of interaction through many sources. Consider one of your one favorite strong and vibrant communities—whether it be a social network of friends, a close-knit set of neighbors, a sports or hobby group, a church or synagogue group or any other: chances are good that there are many different interactions among different members of the group. There may be a single common unifying feature—a religious function, a shared interest or a desire for mutual friendship—but the complexity of multiple, interlocking interactions and relationships make the community stronger, more robust and more effective.
Campus Israel advocacy is no different; effective Israel advocates build strong communities around multiple interactions and multiple interests with a variety of different entry points. One of the things that makes Israel so attractive to people in the campus environment is the various things it has to offer. No one aspect of any product will appeal to everyone; why would we reduce Israel to one facet alone?
I understand and sympathize with those who seek to simplify the function of the campus Israel network. Networks can indeed sometimes be less efficient and focused than hierarchies; top-down, lock-step, programming- or messaging-in-a-box can simplify and deliver known quantities. Indeed, the network's diversity can result in a lack of strategy, and clearly our community can use more strategic, outcome-focused thinking. But sometimes, the “big idea” isn’t one idea at all—it’s many ideas, many approaches, many initiatives and many individuals operating in multiple directions all at once. It’s messy, it’s chaotic, it’s beautiful, and it can be a good thing.