August 31, 2011 // Stephen Kuperberg
It’s back to school! For those new to the campus, it’s a whole new exciting world and adventure; for those returning, it’s another installment in a fascinating journey of education and exploration. With the change of the seasons, it always feels fresh and new.
But how new is it? I came across an article in a major U.S. newspaper regarding summer preparations for Israel on campus in the fall that struck a chord.
Consider these words:
[In] September, leaders of Jewish organizations are anticipating a surge in campus protests over Middle East politics….After a year of increased demonstrations, Arab-American groups plan a campaign this fall, modeled on the anti- apartheid movement of the 1980's, to urge universities to divest themselves of holdings in companies doing business with Israel.
Of course, readers of these pages are already well aware of the likelihood for increased activism for this fall, particularly this September, and are already well aware of attempts by campus Israel detractors to promote divestment as well. Fortunately, the campus Israel network has formed efforts like the Real Partners, Real Peace
initiative to be prepared and to frame the campus discussion… but the concern is real.
How about this description of the summer preparation courses for students:
Acknowledging that even students active in Jewish life often have weak connections to Israel, [summer training] also tried to impart facts, with a spin, about the history, the politics and the culture of the Middle East…. In one workshop, ‘The ABC's of Zionist Legitimacy: How to Feel More Secure About Discussing Israel on Campus,’ students pondered responses to scenarios imagined from the campus headlines of last year. What if Arab students erect checkpoints on the quad, pretending to be Israeli soldiers as they search backpacks? Or if the Muslim Students Association stages a mock war- crimes tribunal?
Still sound familiar? Of course; such discussions and simulations are commonplace at pro-Israel training courses. ICC hosted a 24-hour intensive simulation program
at Hillel Institute last summer (full disclosure: Israel Campus Beat editor-in-chief Carl Schrag was one of the principal designers of that program), and many of ICC’s partner organizations utilize such scenarios as part of their summer programs as well.
Let’s consider one more passage—one that might cut closer to home:
Jews far outnumber Arabs on most campuses, but are often less united in opinions on the Middle East. [A campus group devoted to Jewish life is] most concerned with Jewish identity broadly, not Zionism in particular; students may join for religious fellowship, bagel brunches or kosher-hot-dog-eating contests – or to get dates…. But as violence flares in the Middle East, [Jewish] leaders become de facto advocates, and they are frequently no match for Arab students whose relatives live in the occupied territories or the refugee camps….
[T]he challenge facing the [Jewish] leaders was clear. In small groups reviewing the sessions, many students complained that the seminars had been one-sided rather than a source of unbiased information. “I'm here to relax and learn things – I’m not here to become an activist,” said a young man in a football jersey, who escaped the workshops to pass much of the afternoon listening to Ozzy Osbourne. 'They're preaching how they want us to act; I don't want to be told how to act.'
Many, if not all of us involved in campus Israel advocacy are well aware of the dilemma of engaging Jewish—and for that matter, non-Jewish—students around the subject of Israel. When we think about how to engage the campus Israel network in a way that will inspire, enrich and lead to a more positive campus climate regarding Israel, surely each of us must be very concerned and aware that the alternative to working for a positive Israel climate for many students and other campus activists is simply not be engaged at all. The words of this article hit very close to home indeed.
If this article
seems to paint an accurate description of the challenges and opportunities that we face this fall, consider this: it was written on August 25, 2001—10 years ago.
The author, Jodi Wilgoren of The New York Times, was describing the campus environment on the first year anniversary of the “second intifada,” the bloody campaign of terror directed against Israeli civilians that cost thousands of lives. At that time, in August 2001, President George W. Bush had yet to pass the one-year anniversary of his controversial first election, a young man named Barack Obama was just a University of Chicago law professor who served part-time as an Illinois state senator, and 9/11 was just a number to call in case of emergencies. The world, at least for many Americans, had yet to be turned completely on its head.
Have we made any progress on the state of Israel on campus, then, in the past 10 years?
Discouraging as it may at first appear, there are reasons for optimism. We know that much of the work in promoting a positive environment for Israel on campus is continual, and that as new cohorts enter the campus environment, the work renews evergreen. We know too that many of the essential challenges that the campus Israel network faces—Israel detractors and critics among students and faculty, indecisive administrators, the challenge of demonstrating the importance and relevance of any issue beyond the campus walls—have remained for many years, even beyond the 10 years reflected in that article, and are slow to change.
Most importantly, there has been progress within the campus Israel network. More campus activists are involved in Israel advocacy than ever before; more programs, more conferences, more trips to Israel, and more opportunities to study and learn exist than ever before as well. The news is good; compared to 10 years ago, the campus Israel network is stronger and more vibrant, more resilient and includes many new allies. ICB readers know those facts well.
Nevertheless, the lesson of this message from the past shouldn’t be lost. As we begin this school year and confront what may be serious and significant challenges for the campus Israel community, we need to be sure to bring perspective and to learn from past experience—and there is a wealth of learning to be had. Only by reflecting on and learning from past successes and challenges can we be prepared both to plan and move forward as a network in ways that are strategic and that will make a lasting difference.
It’s a season of new starts and new beginnings. We don’t have to repeat the lessons of the past. This year, it’s time to move up a grade and build upon what we’ve learned before to become even smarter as a campus Israel network.