The recent controversies over the American Studies Association’s decision to boycott Israeli universities, and Swarthmore Hillel’s rejection of Hillel International’s Israel guidelines, are but two recent examples of how small groups can steal the limelight and divert attention from the most important Jewish issue on our campus and communal agenda: Jewish identity-building.
Let’s start with the ASA. As most credible sources have pointed out since the ASA adopted its resolution, Israeli academe is widely recognized to be one of the most open, productive, creative, and disputatious bodies of scholars in the world. By focusing attention on the Israeli universities, ASA actually may have enhanced Israel’s reputation and, as the number of U.S. institutions condemning the resolution continues to grow, ASA has diminished its own.
And now for Swarthmore Hillel. From time immemorial, young people have asserted their independence by defying their elders, particularly on the safe and cerebral confines of the college campus. The fact that seven students — with six executive committee members absent — voted to reject international Hillel’s well-considered Israel guidelines will not bring about an apocalypse.
Neither of these groups alleges that criticizing Israel is forbidden on their campuses. Indeed, a multitude of forums exists across the academic world — both within the classroom and through extra-curricular activities — in which Israeli policy can be taken to task. The ASA and Swarthmore Hillel sought to gain attention and they succeeded: The outcry burst forth from personal Facebook posts to The Washington Post.
But for most Jewish students on campus, this debate is largely irrelevant.
As the recent Pew study pointed out, Jewish students are largely disengaged from Israel. They are more likely to be able to distinguish between different fraternities and sororities than between the parties in the Knesset, or the panoply of Jewish communal organizations. When ideological groups take strident positions on campus, the majority of Jewish students respond with a deafening “Huh?” Campus professionals will confide that students consider extremism in pursuit of anything a vice; a turn-off, not a turn-on.
The Jewish community is doing remarkable work on campus. Jewish groups of the left, right and center are investing tremendous resources to bring a diversity of opinion and Israel education to campus. If students are still unengaged, uneducated and uncommitted Jewishly, it’s only because the college years are too late to start. The Jewish community should exhibit the same level of indignation over the lack of serious Jewish education before young people get to college as it exercises over the public relations tactics of a few outliers.
The young people who are the Jewish leaders on campus did not emerge overnight. They come from homes that value formal and informal Jewish education. They share a common language and common experiences that strengthen their sense of belonging to a global community and a historical people. Young people need to have immersion in meaningful, joyful Jewish life as early as possible. And yet, as a community we erect tremendous barriers to involvement. We begin by pushing away those who do not look like us or who have a different background. We may espouse openness but we invest most of our time with our core constituents. From top professionals to youth group members, we do not go outside our comfort zones and take the extra steps necessary to truly understand, empathize with, and engage the uninvolved. When we do invite others to partake of our best schools, camps, and youth group activities, many potential participants find them to be too costly. It’s an open secret that “Jewish life is expensive,” but what are we doing to make it affordable?
The recent decision of the Union for Reform Judaism to use $1 million of the proceeds of the sale of half its Manhattan headquarters for youth engagement is exactly the right thing to do. So, too, are The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation’s investment in the revival of BBYO and the Harold Grinspoon Foundation’s involvement in Jewish camping. We need more marquee names making the same kind of extraordinary, revolutionary investments in Jewish education at the K-12 level that we have seen with Taglit-Birthright Israel for 18- to 26-year- olds.
Let’s get upset over our self-imposed roadblocks to Jewish education among our youngest and most receptive. When Jewish students come to campus with a deep, passionate and informed commitment to the Jewish people and Israel, we won’t have to worry about publicity stunts.
Jeff Rubin, a former campus professional, works for a Washington, D.C., research institution.