Are American college campuses incubators for anti-Zionism or nurturing environments where Jews feel more accepted than ever?
Both, concludes the David Project, a 10-year-old nonprofit that seeks to “positively shape campus opinion on Israel” in a just-released “white paper” on “Rethinking Israel Advocacy at America’s Universities and College.”
While extreme incidents like “Apartheid Weeks” and attempts to silence Israeli speakers on campus or intimidate pro-Israel students in Middle Eastern studies classes grab headlines, the real problem that Israel’s advocates face on campus is more subtle: a pervasive, but often not deeply rooted “negativity toward Israel” that, if it continues “is likely to erode long-term bipartisan support for the Jewish state.”
The paper urges Israel activists to avoid the usual shouting matches, sound bites and large “one-off” events and instead to focus on outreach to and partnerships with influential students and campus groups that are open to learning about Israel. It also emphasizes that activists need not embrace all of Israel’s policies, but rather promote acceptance for the following ideas: that “Jews are a people with a right to self-determination in their historic, ancestral homeland” and “Israel is a legitimate member of the international community and, while not perfect, is a free and peace-loving country that has and will in the long run be willing to make hard sacrifices for peace.”
David Project Executive Director David Bernstein spoke with The Jewish Week about the group’s recommendations and strategy.
Q: Your paper came out just days after the national Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions conference at University of Pennsylvania. Was that intentional?
A: That was a coincidence. … But the conference goes to show why a proactive, positive approach is much more effective than responding to what Israel’s detractors say. I thought the Hillel [at Penn] did a very good job, but the larger pro-Israel community, including some individuals no one had control over [some major Penn donors threatened to withhold contributions if the university allowed the conference to take place], contributed to a publicity windfall for the conference.
Given the constant population turnover on campus, is it actually possible for student activists to implement long-range strategies?
We find that once students are trained in strategic thinking, they are receptive and do act quite strategically. It’s a challenge: one student likened it to starting a business over every four years. That’s why groups like the David Project need to be working with the student leaders as they come through.
Do you think there is a similar “white paper” for the other side, and if so, what do you think it says?
I don’t know if there’s a specific paper, but we certainly see a strategy in place. Their strategy is to bring delegitimization of Israel into the American campus and into the larger American society. If they can succeed on campus, they feel they’ll be able to spread anti-Israelism in other circles as well.
What do you think about the growing visibility of Jewish Voice for Peace, and to what extent does that group, which the Anti-Defamation League last year included on its list of top 10 anti-Israel groups, pose a challenge on campus?
I don’t see them as being a major factor. … The vast majority of Jewish students that we encounter — and polls reflect this — are supportive of Israel. That doesn’t mean they don’t have any doubts or concerns, but on the whole they are supportive of Israel.
American Jews tend to be clustered in a minority of elite four-year universities. Is it possible to promote Israel on campuses that don’t have large Jewish populations?
It may be that some of the places with the fewest Jewish students are the places we need to spend the most resources to sway opinion … Our goal is not to bolster Jewish students; it’s to shape campus discourse, whether Jewish students are on campus or not.
What campuses do you see as priorities?
We’re going to be very active at a number of small liberal arts schools in the coming months and years, such as the cluster of colleges (University of Massachusetts, Mount Holyoke, Smith, Amherst, Hampshire) in western Massachusetts and the Claremont Colleges in Southern California. We’re also working very closely with Rutgers, University of Pittsburgh and Boston University. Our new approach is to develop very in-depth ties to a set of schools where we can make the maximum difference. We will be in 12 by this fall and 25 by the following year.
What did you find most surprising about the research David Project conducted [including interviews with a variety of students and faculty members] before formulating this paper?
When I came into this job [a year and a half ago], I thought many more campuses were hostile to Israel than actually was the case. But I learned that many elite schools were trending negative. What that told me was that the right response was not to protect Jewish students from anti-Semitism on campus, but to adopt a positive approach to developing relationships and promoting a complex, but positive view of Israel among a diverse student body.