Against the backdrop of a summer war in Gaza, hundreds of thousands of college students will return to school this month, largely unprepared for the wave of anti-Israel activity that’s about to hit North American campuses.
As witnessed during the explosive years of the second intifada, and in the aftermath of Operations Defensive Shield and Cast Lead, powerful images of smashed Gazan neighborhoods and innocent Palestinian dead can create a surge of hostility on campus, energizing Israel’s detractors. Although one might expect, in the halls of academia, some context and honesty about the purpose of Hamas’ latest war, their role as the Palestinians’ real tormentor will likely be ignored.
Even in relatively quiet years, campuses have been roiled by angry debate, with pro-Palestinian activists disingenuously comparing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to the worst abuses of apartheid South Africa. Pro-Israel students have fought back countless initiatives urging boards of trustees to divest from companies doing business in Israel. On some campuses, students have been harassed by pro-Palestinian activists posing as Israeli soldiers, stopping them at mock Israeli “checkpoints” as they make their way to class. The BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement scored its biggest victory last year when the previously little-known American Studies Association (ASA) voted to boycott Israeli academics.
With angry demonstrations in Europe unleashing a wave of anti-Semitism and vitriolic criticism of Israel over the war in Gaza, the stage is set for a banner year of anti-Israel activity on college campus.
Many of the Jewish community’s most committed, trained and educated students will lead the charge in support of Israel and the moral imperative of a nation under fire to defend itself. They will stand up with confidence and purpose, identify Hamas as the perpetrator, challenge professors in the classroom and ignore the noisy theatrics on the college green. Instead, they will reach out to the influencers on campus in student government and media, create alliances with college Democrats and Republicans, Hispanics and African Americans, to build support for Israel in the important corridors of college life.
While we can take justifiable pride in the activism of our most skilled and committed young leaders, let us not forget that they are small in number. No doubt many of our best and brightest Jewish college students come away from the current Gaza conflict with deep internal conflicts about Israel, as already seen from their comments on Facebook and Twitter. Although 53 percent of Americans over the age of 50 believe that Israel’s response to Hamas rocket fire is justified, according to the latest Gallup poll, the number drops to just 25 percent for young adults between 18-29. A significant percentage of those young people are ours. Woefully ignorant of even recent Mideast history and highly reactive to the tragic pictures from inside Gaza, many will react with deep distress and shame. Some will distance themselves from the Jewish state, and as we discovered during the second intifada, some will become advocates for the Palestinian cause.
The Write On For Israel program, which was founded 12 years ago by The Jewish Week with funding from the Avi Chai Foundation, was created on the premise that most Jewish young people, including those who attend Jewish day schools, are sadly lacking when it comes to a solid foundation in Israel history, particularly post-1967. To be able to understand and interpret current events or advance Israel’s position during difficult times requires knowledge and confidence, something that takes time, effort and discipline to acquire.
Write On’s two-year program, which starts in students’ junior year of high school, has trained more than 500 graduates, many of whom have become leaders of the pro-Israel movements on campuses across the nation. AIPAC, the Schusterman Foundation, StandWithUs and others have made similar investments in high school students, understanding the need, in an increasingly complex Middle East, to educate our youth before they get to college.
Like Israelis themselves, these American Jewish students come from different political and denominational backgrounds. Not all will be champions of Israeli government policy on issues of settlements and peacemaking; some will be deeply critical. But when it comes to supporting Israel in a war against a terror organization committed to Israel’s destruction, they will stand up with clarity, confidence and a deep information bank. They will serve as leaders of the Jewish people at the one place in this country that has been a toxic environment for Israel supporters: the American college campus.
Now more than ever, we need to bring more of these students into the tent of Israel education and engagement. If for nothing else, to make them aware of what they will encounter when they get to college, and at best, to instill in them a sense of pride and duty in standing up for the Jewish state.
Linda Scherzer, a former correspondent in Israel for CNN and Israeli television, is founding program director of Write On For Israel, a project of The Jewish Week. Applications for the program are open for students going into 11th grade this fall. For further information: www.thejewishweek.com/writeonforisrael