June 11, 2012 // Stephen Kuperberg
In early May, I wrote in this space about the hidden underbelly of Israel detractor campus activity, and how our community overlooks this activity at our peril. I mentioned at the time that Israel detractors had managed to slip anti-Israel resolutions virtually unnoticed through the student governments at a handful of schools this year, including a last-minute resolution in late April at Arizona State University at Tempe. Over a month later, the anti-Israel blog Mondoweiss reported the story, which drew the attention of my esteemed colleague and president of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, Professor Richard Cravatts.
I don’t disagree with what Professor Cravatts wrote about the flawed substance of the ASU resolution, and, indeed, I commend his analysis to anyone interested. I do wish to point out, however, that the students participating in the ASU student government that passed the resolution, and for that matter any other student government likely to consider such a resolution, are unlikely to see the professor’s analysis for the simple reason that such students are equally unlikely to be reading Mondoweiss or Israel news outlets. Recognizing that is both at the heart of the issue, and the first step toward the solution.
The reality is that the vast majority of the campus community outside of Israel doesn’t pay attention to Israel and its struggles; to the extent that they do, they don’t find those struggles relevant to their lives. Data regarding young adults in the United States and globally paint a stark picture; young adults think that they know enough about Israel in general, but don’t find what they know about Israel to be appealing enough to include in their lives. It’s not that these young people have chosen sides against Israel in its conflict with its neighbors — in the United States, at least, political support for Israel still remains at or near all-time highs, even among young adults when compared to the same age cohort over time. Rather, the issue appears to be that young people associate Israel with conflict — among brands with a similar profile, the National Rifle Association appears as one of the closest — and that brand has low appeal for many young adults.
Israel’s campus supporters face an apparent dilemma: Inform the campus community about Israel’s rectitude in conflicts, and risk reinforcing the negative branding of Israel as unappealing and conflict-ridden; say nothing about Israel and its conflicts, and risk leaving the playing field to the detractors.
It doesn’t have to be such a simple dichotomy. At many campuses, students, faculty and other campus Israel supporters have found the right balance by centering their activities around working one-on-one to develop authentic relationships with campus leaders. At the University of California, San Diego, for example, where detractors have repeatedly introduced a resolution similar to that passed at ASU-Tempe before the student government, the Tritons for Israel student group led an effort to send the resolution down to defeat for the third year in a row. Tritons for Israel’s success was no accident; the pro-Israel students had worked year over year to meet with their student government leaders, to build relationships of trust with them, and to provide them with information about Israel that met their personal interests and needs.
Likewise, after a tense battle to defeat a similar anti-Israel resolution in the student government at the University of California, Berkeley, two years ago, pro-Israel students focused on sustaining relationships with their student senators and changing the student government itself. The result: Berkeley students threw out the student government party endorsing divestment, and elected a pro-Israel student government by an absolute majority for the first time in a decade. Berkeley’s student government has not considered an anti-Israel resolution since.
Stories of success from such relationship-based engagement repeat across the campus landscape. Just by way of example, this year student leaders signed published statements in support of Israel or passed pro-Israel resolutions at over 30 universities in the US, including Cornell University, the University of Florida, Washington University in St. Louis, University of Pennsylvania, George Washington University, Union College, Emory University, University of Oklahoma, University of Colorado, Florida State University, University of South Florida, University of Central Florida, Louisiana State University, Tulane University, Brigham Young University, Boston University, MIT, University of Texas, University of North Texas, University of Wisconsin, University of Southern California, James Madison University, UCLA, Tufts University, University of Vermont, University of Kentucky, Northern Kentucky University, Eastern Kentucky University, Morehead State University, Murray State, Indiana University, and Rutgers University. At the campus administration level, I have written here recently about the game-changing effect that positive connections with Israel can bring when interested stakeholders work one-on-one to nurture and grow those connections.
Messages and facts are important, to be sure. As Professor Cravatts’s piece illustrates, the alternative is illogical and ill-considered. But the challenge is to convey those facts in a relationship of trust and support that can not only inoculate against bad results like that at ASU, but build for lasting, positive connections.
At ASU and elsewhere, campus Israel supporters now have the summer to plan and consider their approach. Armed with the facts, can they now build the relationships that enable those facts to be effective?