When Natan Sharansky, the ex-Soviet refusenik turned hard-line Israeli cabinet minister, visited several local universities here last month, he brought a pointed message: Yasir Arafat, he told students at Columbia University and New York University, is an unrepentant ìdictatorî who is an ominous presence dooming peace and must be removed.
But the Web site of the Israel on Campus Coalition ó a well-financed network of national Jewish organizations trying to counter the anti-Israel activism many see flourishing on campus, and one of the sponsors of Sharanskyís speaking tour ó has links to the sites of groups not only critical of the Israeli government but eager for conciliation with the Palestinians, including the Shimon Peres Center for Peace and Seeds of Peace.
And there also is a link to Israel on Campus Coalition partner Americans For Peace Now, whose message is that Israelís treatment of Arafat is ill conceived, expelling him would be ìperilousî and killing him would be ìheinous.î
As the intifada moves into its fourth year, American colleges are a ìbattlefield,î says Sharansky. And Jewish students, Israeli Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said, are ìsoldiers.î
But in what direction should the students be marching? An eager student could get dizzy from dramatically different opinions, reflecting Israelís own vast wingspan on how to proceed on the Palestinian issue. Some of the messages about Israel broadcast by Jewish campus outreach workers today may outrage Sharansky and Netanyahu. But many campus specialists say they are the only way to reach uncommitted Jewish students.
The idea, says Wayne Firestone, director of the Israel On Campus Coalition, is not to force-feed students with any single political stance but to nurture students away from apathy and Zionist illiteracy into a position of preparedness for intelligent discussion.
Yet Firestone says despite the diversity within his coalition, ìWe have a strategic plan, within which thereís a pretty clear consensus: To be supportive of Israelís right to exist and flourish as a Jewish state with secure and recognized boundaries.
ìWhat we should be trying to get across to students,î he says, ìis that there is a richness and diversity of Jewish ideas and opinion, and that we can all come together in community.î
The stakes in the battle to win the hearts and minds of Jewish college students are high. Just about every major Jewish organization, and an untold number of private activists, has made a hefty financial investment to influence the students.
The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation, along with Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, budgeting $360,000 annually, were the impetus behind the Israel On Campus Coalition (www.israeloncampuscoalition.org), 27 national organizations ranging from the Zionist Organization of America on the right to Peace Now on the left.
The coalition, together with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, produces a weekly on-line magazine, Israel Campus Beat. Launched in April and e-mailed free to thousands of university students on 150 campuses across North America, the magazine contains links and summaries to the American and Israeli press, articles from college papers and a weekly debate over issues that Israeli society itself hasnít resolved.
The path of the security fence through the West Bank is one such issue, as presented by Thomas Friedman on the left and Linda Chavez on the right. Another is whether Israel should negotiate with terrorists, as presented by author Yossi Klein Halevi (no) and former Prime Minister Shimon Peres (yes).
In the Sept. 29 issue, students reading Campus Beat were introduced to Israel Harelís position that it is offensive for anyplace to be ìJudenrein,î while alongside that is a column by former President Jimmy Carter explaining that Jewish settlements are ìa violation of international law and a primary incitement to violence among Palestinians.î
Yet nowhere in Campus Beat is it indicated that Carterís position is inconsistent with the mainstream coalitionís self-defined mission of promoting ìa shift to pro-active advocacy Ö to better support Israel on campus.î
A student, particularly one new to the Israel issue, might have a hard time sorting through the diversity. While Peace Now balks at removing Arafat, Alan Dershowitz, whose writings are distributed to Hillel campus leaders, offers his legal opinion that assassinating the Palestinian leader is perfectly within Israelís right.
Sharansky may reject the Oslo Accords, as he emphasizes at every campus, but the Peace Now link explains why conciliation ìis necessary for Israeli security as well as Americaís vital interests.î
Speaking at NYUís Hillel, Sharansky spoke of bomb threats against him in Boston and fielded hostile questions about Israelís security fence, as well as about Rachel Corrie, who was crushed under an Israeli bulldozer while defying an Israeli army operation.
ìIím sorry there wasnít more resistance [to my lectures],î said Sharansky. ìNot only would I be able to speak to them, but where there is resistance it brings out counter-resistance.î (He had a cream pie thrown at him at Rutgers, and that campusí Hillel was vandalized a day after his appearance on Sept. 18.)
But Sharanskyís jaunty tales of defying his gulag jail keepers wasnít particularly applicable to Columbia, said several students. After hearing Sharansky urge them to be courageous, several Jewish students taking classes in Middle Eastern studies refused to speak for the record to The Jewish Week for fear of retribution within that Columbia department.
As one Columbia freshman, a political science major both supportive of and well versed about Israel, said, ìI feel more comfortable talking about Israel in the company of other Jewish students. I get the sense that it would be a bad idea to talk about Israel outside my circle. I might be intimidated.î
Steven Bayme, the American Jewish Committeeís director of Jewish Communal Affairs, told The Jewish Week, ìI wouldnít say weíve lost the campus.î He cited independent surveys which found that among college students, Jewish and non-Jewish, who have formed an opinion about Israel, ìpro-Israel opinion continues to prevail by a 4-to-1 percentage. But that is only among those who have an opinion, and most people on campus donít.î
Recognizing the intimidation of the Columbia student, Bayme ó whose AJCommittee is a member of the Israel Campus Coalition ó says the problem can be more with faculty than students.
ìA relatively small group of dedicated, hard-line, left-wing faculty has demonized Israel,î he said. ìYou have the phenomenon of intellectual radicals getting tenure for whom campaigning against Israel has become a holy cause. Nevertheless, a few terrible incidents have been taken as normative. Weíve seen a few high-profile incidents, but that hasnít been the case at 300 other campuses.î
The Anti-Defamation League estimates that serious anti-Israel pressure exists on 50 to 100 campuses, even though polls indicate that even on problematic campuses the cumulative student population is not anti-Semitic.
Tikkun Campus Network, a project of Tikkun magazine and not a member of the coalition, has a sophisticated campus operation which advises Jewish students that it is OK to be pro-Palestinian as well as pro-Israel.
Sharansky tells students that Israel has a great record on human rights. But the Tikkun Campus Network tells students, ìWe oppose Israelís violations of Palestinian human rights.î Israeli policy ìis oppressive, murderous and oblivious to the legitimate needs of the Palestinian people.î
StandWithUs.com, in bright graphics, explains on its Web site that ìIsrael gave back the Sinai desert to the Egyptians in return for a peace treaty,î but Arab nations have long wanted to destroy Israel despite Israeliís flexibility for a peace deal.
CAMERA, a member of the Israel Campus Coalition, advises students to spot media bias. But Tikkunís campus group offers a sample letter to an editor that says, ìIf we would only read The New York Times, we would not know that the Israeli soldiers also have committed atrocities against Palestinian civilians in the Occupied Territories.î
The campus efforts are not all from traditional organizations. One private activist, Joseph Low, a Westchester businessman, has personally created and financed dozens of Israeli students, from across the political spectrum, to tour campuses in the United States and Europe.
Some activist groups on campus have never been active before. Jonathan Loew, 32, one of the founders of Fuel For Truth (fuelfortruth.org), said his group was founded last year by people mostly in their 20s who have been radicalized by three years of war. In the spring, at Syracuse University, his presentation on how to help Israel attracted 140 students, ìincluding those from fraternities, sororities and the athletic department, secular Jews like us.î
Loewís Fuel For Truth has a ìtop 10 fact list,î with each fact linked to more detailed explanations. One offers that Israel gained control of the ìdisputed territoriesî in 1967 after Arab countries ìsurrounded Israel with troops, launched repeated terrorist attacks, and threatened to ëput an end to Israel.í î
Although the group could be thought of as right wing, Loew asserts that he is only interested in presenting facts and not in advocating particular policies.
Loew figures, ìIf you donít know the history of the West Bank but want to discuss settlements, itís like being a lawyer and skipping over all the evidence and getting right to your closing statement.î
For Firestone of the Israel on Campus Coalition, the effort to influence students turns on the college experience as much as anything else.
ìWe send students to college to question, to think critically,î he said. ìTo offer one message to them is counterproductive. Theyíd be suspicious of it.
ìOur approach creates a wider tent, and it adds to our credibility among students. We try to engage them in real discussion. What weíre proclaiming ó not in confrontation with the pro-Palestinian groups, not with street theater ó is that Israel is a democratic government, that it weighs issues, that it has a Supreme Court. Ö We want students to become immersed in Israel, to have Israel as part of their identity.î n
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- Jonathan Loew
- Linda Chavez
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- Israel Campus Beat
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- Israeli army
- Anti-Defamation League
- Yossi Klein Halevi
- Shimon Peres
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