More and more Jewish leaders are becoming aware of the dangers posed by a festering anti-Israel sentiment on U.S. college campuses. A recent poll showed that when students were asked whether they were more "sympathetic" to Israel or the Palestinians, 28 percent answered Israel and 22 percent said the Palestinians.
Some may not be too alarmed by those figures. After all, Israel is still in the lead. But given that the general U.S. population sides with Israel by more than 3-1 (49 percent to 14 percent) and that this poll comes at a time when Israel is defending itself against the most unprecedented campaign of terror in history, these numbers must concern all of us.
Israel cannot afford to lose the battle for the hearts and minds of the next generation of American leaders.
When I assumed the office of minister of Diaspora Affairs, I planned to make the deteriorating situation on the campuses a central part of my agenda. But I, myself, did not understand the magnitude of the problem until I went on a tour of colleges in September.
The article I wrote following that visit, in which I argued that the passion, sophistication and intimidation tactics of the forces of anti-Zionism were winning the day against a largely silent and unprepared Jewish student community, spurred much discussion and debate.
This subject is high on the agenda of many organizations that have been warning for years about the growing hostility toward Israel on campuses. And whether it be Hillel dispatching Israeli advocacy interns across the country, AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) mounting a voter drive to register pro-Israel voters or the Caravan for Democracy bringing prominent Israeli politicians to colleges across America, these organizations are clearly fighting back.
Equally important, the work of the Israel on Campus Coalition, a partnership between Hillel and the Shusterman family that includes nearly 30 national organizations, shows that efforts to coordinate the work of a number of heretofore separate bodies can be effective.
Individuals have shown that they, too, can make a difference. For example, Joey Low of New York is sponsoring college tours for young, articulate Israelis who show their American peers a different side of Israel than the one they see on CNN. And Rachel Fish almost single-handedly compelled Harvard's Divinity School to consider rejecting a donation of millions of dollars from an Arab sheik who supports anti-Semitic and terrorist organizations.
But there is one body that for the last few years has been conspicuously absent from this struggle: the State of Israel. During the 1990s, Israel stopped all of its programming on college campuses, as well as many of its auxiliary public relations efforts, because it was convinced that good policies (i.e. the peace process) needed no explaining.
At the same time, our enemies were vastly increasing their efforts to turn America's future leadership against Israel. By the time the Palestinians launched their war of terror, our enemies on campus faced little coherent opposition in their attempt to delegitimize the Jewish State.
Our government must re-enter the fray and stand shoulder to shoulder with those organizations that have worked so hard on campuses to defend Israel against this unprecedented onslaught. Today, Israel is beginning to do just that. Last month, one part of a Cabinet meeting was devoted to this subject, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called on my fellow ministers to get more involved, asking them, among other things, to include college campuses on their itineraries when they travel abroad.
Next week in Jerusalem, the capital of the Jewish state and the spiritual center of the Jewish people, 1,000 Jewish students from around the world will gather to address the critical issues facing them and to chart a course of action. I am proud to be hosting this first-ever "summit," which was made possible by the coordinated efforts of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, the Jewish Agency, Hillel, the Israel on Campus Coalition and the World Union of Jewish Students, as well as a number of other student organizations.
Israel is also coordinating a project aimed at providing information and training to the approximately 2,500 students who are studying there on long-term programs. And the government is working with leading educators and organizations to strengthen Israel studies in Jewish high schools in order to prepare young students to meet the challenges they will confront on campus.
With every initiative, the Ministry for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs will encourage existing organizations to pool their resources, energies and talents, and we will work to ensure that Israel's government gives its full support to these efforts.
For my part, I plan to continue emphasizing the issue of human rights. In recent years, the principles of human rights have been twisted beyond recognition and are used as a bludgeon against Israel. Ideas that once were used in the struggle to protect basic individual freedoms are now used to defend regimes that deny freedom to their own subjects and attack states such as Israel that uphold them.
On college campuses, these warped arguments have been packaged to evoke a special resonance, and their false premises must be continuously exposed. Those who would defend Israel must not shy away from the human rights debate. On the contrary, it is precisely in the context of human rights that Israel's record, as a democracy defending itself against terrorism, is most impressive.
The battle ahead surely will not be an easy one. For too long, too many Israelis felt that the problems in the Diaspora were not their concern.
Likewise, too many in the Diaspora thought Israel's public relations image was not their problem. Now, we all once again recognize a central truth that we must never forget: We are in this together.
By working hand in hand, we can turn the anti-Israel tide and again make the Jewish State a source of pride for Jewish university students across the world.
Natan Sharansky will speak on Monday, April 19 at UC Irvine. For tickets, call (800) 969-5584, ext. 247.
This article originally appeared in The Jewish Week.